Lifestyle

Luxury Cars for Less


The best-selling high-end autos are the entry-level models of the most exalted marques, and we've picked our favorites

The most technologically advanced cars of the coming year were presented to the public under luxury nameplates. A microprocessor-laden Lexus (TM) has the wherewithal to park itself. A futuristic yet familiar looking BMW runs on hydrogen. A monstrously powerful Audi even manages to make consumers drool over diesel fuel, of all things.

One model, the Bugatti Veyron, which some have criticized as a vanity project on behalf of Volkswagen executives, snagged titles of both fastest and most expensive, clocking in zero to 60 times of 2.5 seconds and carrying a window sticker of over $1 million.

Where the Sales Are

But most often, entry-level models that may have the same badge as more outlandish fare but come without the same bells and whistles are the most popular luxury models on the lot. While the fame and reputation of luxury nameplates may be built on the most extravagant models, the biggest sales volumes occur at the entry level.

Mercedes-Benz's two top sellers, for instance, are the C-Class and E-Class series sedans, both of which sold just shy of 45,000 units in the first 11 months of the year—far more than the company's many other model lines. Those vehicles' base prices range from around $30,000 to $50,000, unlike the company's more extravagant roadsters and sedans that can easily cost more than $100,000 before options.

Sometimes the sales volume of a manufacturer's most affordable models dramatically overshadows the rest of the lineup. BMW, for instance, has sold more than 100,000 3-Series so far this year. That's more than twice the number of larger 5-Series sold and more than six times the number of larger 7-Series sold. The story is largely the same at Toyota's Lexus division, which sells more of the ES line, starting at $33,170, than any other model.

The SUV Paradox

The rise in gas prices has created more pressure on consumers buying luxury SUVs, however. Smaller vehicles and crossovers intended to increase fuel economy while maintaining SUV-like practicality have popped up to buoy sales. For example, sales of Acura's new RDX have helped make up for the decline of the larger MDX models sold so far this year.

One notable exception is General Motors' (GM) Cadillac division. It has actually managed to increase sales of the biggest and most outlandish SUV it sells, the newly redesigned Escalade.

Sales of the regular-size Escalade are up about 20% for the year, and the biggest model available, the extended ESV version, is up as well, by 12.1%. The less thirsty SRX crossover, meanwhile, is down by just under 5%.

But if the least expensive luxury cars are the most popular with American consumers, which are the best? Businessweek.com came up with the best affordable luxury vehicles on the market right now.

Our Criteria

To generate the list, BusinessWeek.com took a look at luxury vehicles available in the U.S. that carry base prices between $35,000 and $45,000. These autos, from both foreign and domestic luxury brands from BMW to Cadillac, begin pricing where many midrange and premium vehicles end, fully optioned.

Each vehicle in the categories chosen was assigned points for the most common factors in deciding to purchase a luxury vehicle: cost, total cost of ownership including vehicle depreciation over five years, fuel economy, and engine power. Additionally awards given by automotive magazines from Consumer Reports to Car & Driver as well as BusinessWeek's own reviews were taken into consideration.

To take a look at the most affordable luxury cars, click here.

Matt Vella is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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