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Luxury cars

Luxury car buying guide

Last updated: August 2015
Getting started

Getting started

Luxury vehicles are available as in sedan, coupe, convertible, and SUV body styles, and in a wide variety of sizes and shapes within those categories.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

Types - Sedans

At the bottom of the luxury-vehicle range come models such as the Audi A3, BMW 2,3,, and 4 Series;; Cadillac ATS; and Mercedes-Benz CLA. These are smaller cars that bridge the gap between mainstream cars and true luxury vehicles.

Their larger counterparts, such as the Audi A6 and A8; BMW 5 and 7 Series; Cadillac CTS and XTS; Hyundai Equus and Genesis; Infiniti Q70; Lexus ES and LS; and Mercedes-Benz E- and S-Class, bring greater levels of interior room, ride comfort, quietness, performance, and refinement. In other words, true luxury.

Types - SUVs

Luxury SUVs also run the gamut from small to jumbo. The compact and small players include the Acura RDX, Audi Q3, BMW X1, Buick Encore, Infiniti QX50, Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, Lexus NX, Lincoln MKC, Mercedes-Benz GLA and GLC, Porsche Macan, and Volvo XC60. These are comfortable for two occupants, snug for four, and downright tight if a fifth adult comes along for the ride.

Moving up to the midsized category brings models such as the Acura MDX, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Cadillac SRX, Infiniti QX70, Land Rover Range Rover Sport and LR4, Lexus RX, Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class, Porsche Cayenne, and Volkswagen Touareg.Full-size Luxury SUV models include the Audi Q7, Buick Enclave, Cadillac Escalade, Infiniti QX80, Land Rover Range Rover, Lexus LX, Mercedes-Benz GLS, and the Toyota Land Cruiser.

What makes a luxury vehicle

Luxury vehicles typically represent the leading edge of comfort, performance, safety, and technology, and a good luxury car has an innate quality that goes beyond leather upholstery and wood trim. Materials should be of a higher grade than those in mainstream vehicles, with plush carpets, rich fabric, and quiet cabins. Basic power amenities, automatic climate control systems, and uplevel audio systems with Bluetooth connectivity are expected. Many luxury models also offer all-wheel-drive and can be had in sedan, coupe, SUV and convertible body styles.

What you will pay

Prices can run the gamut. For example, the Acura ILX, Audi A3, and Mercedes-Benz CLA are priced in the low $30,000s. From there, true luxury models can reach up to $200,000 and more. The most expensive car Consumer Reports has bought is the Tesla Model S P85D ($127,820), and the most expensive SUV we've tested is the Land Rover Range Rover ($88,000).

Key things to consider

Luxury cars can be so comfortable and enjoyable that once you've experienced the luxe life, going back to a mainstream car feels like a major downgrade. But this exclusive driving experience comes at a price, literally, in the form of the initial purchase and ownership costs, both of which typically far exceed those of more humble vehicles. Before committing to a luxury model, realize that nearly all of today's mainstream models are better equipped than luxury cars from just a few years ago. Many offer uplevel comfort and safety features that were once the exclusive domain of prestige-brand models. These well-equipped mainstreamers cost thousands less than luxury-branded models, but often lack the thoroughness of design, special atmosphere, and prestige of a proper luxury car. Ultimately, it's an individual choice as to how your money is best spent. Luxury cars tend to do very well in our tests due to their performance and comfort”but so do some well-appointed models from non-luxury brands.

When buying a luxury car, one must look carefully at the standard equipment list, especially on European cars, which sometimes offer little more than brand cachet in their lower-spec models. Features you might expect to come standard, such as metallic paint, backup camera, and genuine leather upholstery, may be offered as extra-cost options, and high-end, high-tech features are often bundled in expensive option packages. Most of these optional extras are priced far higher than similar features in mainstream cars, and we've seen several models which offer enough high-priced options to nearly double the price of the car. If you want to avoid option confusion, consider American and Japanese brands. For instance, Acura is notable for offering many luxury must-haves as standard equipment, with a minimal number of optional choices.

Note, though, that some high-end features add more complication than real functionality. That said, the rapid advances in active safety systems are well worth your attention, as many systems are helpful (blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert) and some a proven lifesavers (collision-mitigation systems). Once the lone purview of the luxury class, these systems are becoming widely available. It is best to try any unfamiliar features before putting much weight on them in your purchase decision. Your salesperson should be able to explain and demonstrate any features.

Luxury comes in different shapes and sizes

Midsized luxury cars and car-based SUV models, priced from $40,000 to $60,000, are generally a sweet spot in the market, offering driving enjoyment and interior refinement without the fussiness or large footprint of a large vehicle or the complexity of cutting-edge features.

Large and heavy V8-powered luxury models tend to also cost you at the pump. Hybrid, turbocharged, and diesel powertrains are offered in a growing number of luxury sedans and SUVs to improve fuel economy, although the hybrids and diesels often come at a significant price premium. Generally, this isn't a category to explore if saving money is a primary goal.

Traditionally, most large luxury sedans employ rear-wheel drive. It is the preferred set up for ideal weight distribution, handling agility, ride comfort, and noise isolation. But rear-wheel-drive is not the ideal setup for foul-weather driving, and many rear-drive luxury vehicles offer all-wheel drive as an option.

If you want a luxury car, deciding whether to choose a sedan, SUV, or sporty model depends on your needs and wants. You can turn to our buying advice for those types of cars to help you narrow it down. Each category has several good vehicles to choose from, but there are several models that don't deliver on their luxury promise. Our Ratings will help you see the difference.

What you'll spend

Entry-level compact luxury models are priced from the low $30,000s up to about $60,000 for a heavily optioned model. Midsized luxury models cover the range between $40,000 and $80,000, while the large luxury cars start around the mid-$70,000 and run well into three figures, not counting the offerings from exotic brands.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

Types

Luxury sedans


Luxury sedans come in a range of sizes and flavors, ranging from the compact sedans to long-wheelbase, limo-like offerings, with every conceivable variation in between. Some luxury sedans are available with hybrid or diesel powertrains, while the all-electric Tesla Model S is a pure electric vehicle. Smaller, entry-level luxury models, such as the Acura ILX, Audi A4, Cadillac ATS, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS, and Volkswagen CC, often have two roomy front seats, but at the expense of the rear seats. Larger models provide more room, but handling is often less sporty. At the largest end of the scale, several luxury sedans like the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, Infiniti Q70, and Lexus LS offer stretched wheelbase models over and above their standard lengths, which bring expansive legroom and boost prices by at least $5,000.

Luxury SUVs


Luxury SUVs range from small models such as the BMW X1, Buick Encore, and Mercedes-Benz GLA and GLK to very large truck-based models such as the Cadillac Escalade, Infiniti QX80, and the Lexus LX. Many of the smaller models are agile and luxurious, yet return fuel economy in the low-to-mid 20 mpg range. The largest models are typically ponderous to drive and struggle to achieve 16 mpg.

In between are the most popular models, midsized, car-based SUVs such as the Acura MDX,Audi Q5, BMW X3, Infiniti QX60, Land Rover LR4, Lincoln MKX, Lexus RX, and Volvo XC90. Some of these models, as well as all the large luxury SUVs, have three rows of seats to accommodate up to eight people. Some are also available with hybrid or diesel engines that can provide fuel economy in the range of some family sedans.

Sporty luxury cars


Sporty luxury cars also span a wide range, including a four-cylinder Audi A5 and diesel-powered Audi A7 on up to a supercharged Jaguar F-Type coupe or convertible. Sporty luxury cars tend to favor a rear-wheel-drive configuration to aid dynamics, but many are available in all-wheel drive. At the lower end of the spectrum, there are some front-wheel-drive models as well. You can expect sporty luxury cars to have nicely finished leather and wood interiors, the latest electronic features, and powerful engines that deliver strong acceleration. Some may trade off ride comfort or interior room for better cornering ability, faster performance, or stylish exteriors.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

Features


Clearly luxury cars come in a wide variety, and some are more luxurious than others. We detail all cars' strengths and weaknesses in our road tests to help you identify what type of luxury car will work best for you. Below we highlight important features for you to consider when purchasing a sedan.

Engines and fuel economy

Most luxury cars aren't about saving fuel. But if you want to have your cake and eat it too, some luxury cars and SUVs are available with hybrid or diesel powertrains.

Our top-rated car, the Tesla Model S, happens to be both a luxury sedan and an all-electric model that returns 84 MPGe (miles-per-gallon equivalent). Among luxury hybrids, the Lexus CT 200h returned 40 mpg overall in our testing, while the midsized Lexus ES 300h got 36 mpg overall and the Lincoln MKZ hybrid netted 34 mpg. Diesels are making inroads in this category, with the Mercedes-Benz E250 returning 30 mpg overall. At the other end of the spectrum, the thirstiest luxury SUV we've tested, the Toyota Land Cruiser, got 14 mpg. Diesel champs include the Volkswagen Touareg Diesel (24 mpg overall), and the Mercedes-Benz GL350 (20 mpg overall). The Lexus RX 450h hybrid got 26 mpg overall in our tests. Sporty luxury cars range from 19-mpg in the pulse-quickening Maserati Ghibli S Q4 to the 28-mpg overall from the swoopy, diesel-powered Audi A7 TDI.

Many luxury cars require premium gasoline, so shop carefully if that extra cost is a concern. (Hint: Open the fuel filler door and look for a label that says premium fuel is recommended or required.) Diesel vehicles offer significant fuel-economy advantages, but diesel fuel is more expensive than gasoline in many areas of the country. Diesel vehicles won't run on gasoline, and putting gasoline in a diesel car's tank will cause extensive (and expensive) damage.

Technologies such as cylinder deactivation, where the engine shuts off some of its cylinders under low power demands, can squeeze out slightly better mileage in highway driving. An increasingly common feature is engine shut-off when the vehicle is stopped, like at a traffic light. The engine will shut off, rather than idle, to save fuel. It will restart as soon as the driver lifts off the brake pedal.

Most luxury cars come exclusively with automatic transmissions, usually offering between six and nine speeds. More speeds (gears) in a transmission can help a car get better fuel economy without sacrificing performance. Many luxury-car transmissions allow manual shifting, typically through paddles mounted on the steering wheel paddles, giving the cars a more performance-oriented feel when desired. Manual transmissions are few and far between and generally limited to smaller and sportier models.

Some hybrids use continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) to maximize fuel economy and performance. Certain sporty models offer a dual-clutch transmission, which promises the fuel economy and performance advantages of a manual with the convenience of an automatic. These transmissions provide lightning-quick shifts in either manual or automatic mode, which makes them a good choice for performance-oriented models, but some of them lack smoothness at very low speeds, particularly when parking.

Whatever improvements are made to the engine, gearing, tires, and aerodynamics, the bottom line is what happens on the road. That's where performance measures such as our on-road fuel-economy figures can help. (Check our fuel-economy Ratings.)

Drive wheels

While most mainstream cars use front-wheel drive, luxury cars are typically available with rear- or all-wheel drive, though brands such as Acura, Audi, Lexus, and Lincoln offer front-wheel-drive models.

Front-wheel drive typically provides better traction than rear-wheel drive in slippery conditions. Conversely, rear-wheel drive usually enables better handling and steering on dry roads. All-wheel drive offers significantly better traction during inclement weather and better dry-pavement handling and cornering than front-wheel drive. But AWD does not shorten stopping distances; it adds cost and weight; and it often comes with a small fuel-economy penalty.

Towing

Most luxury SUVs can have tow ratings of 3,000 pounds for small car-based crossovers up to more than 8,000 pounds for traditional pickup truck-based vehicles.

Access

Ducking, bending, and squatting aren't luxury experiences. Most luxury sedans and SUVs are designed to be provide easy ingress and egress, often employing an exit mode that automatically powers the driver's seat back and retracts the steering wheel. Some models will even cinch the doors closed, requiring only the barest of human effort.

Rear seat access is more variable. Being lower, sleeker, and with thicker seat bolsters, sporty cars are almost always more difficult to enter. Try entering and exiting through all doors, front and rear, when comparing cars. A well-designed sedan should provide wide doors and enough headroom so that front and rear passengers can access the cabin without bumping their heads. Some sedans are styled with low, sloping rear rooflines. Such coupe-like designs can degrade rear-seat accessibility, headroom, and the driver's view aft.

A common feature among luxury cars (and, increasingly, among mainstream cars) is the proximity key. The œkey" is actually a small transmitter that can stay in your pocket or purse. As long as the key is on your person, the doors can be locked and unlocked by pressing a button on the door handle (or sometimes by simply touching the handle itself). Some cars will illuminate puddle lamps under the side mirrors when a person with the key approaches. Most cars with this feature also have keyless push-button ignition. This feature makes it nearly impossible to lock your keys in the car, as the doors won't lock if the key is detected inside. But once the engine is started, it is possible to drive off without the key.

Cargo

If you expect to carry long or bulky cargo, look for a fold-down rear seat with a tall, wide opening to the trunk behind. Even a small pass-through port can be handy for long, slender items such as skis. Batteries in hybrid models can restrict trunk space, and both hybrids and high-end models with reclining rear seats may not have a fold-down seatback or a pass-through. Unlike mainstream sedans, fold-down seatbacks are sometimes an option on small and midsized luxury cars, and not available at all on the largest ones.

If you plan to carry a lot of passengers in your luxury SUV, make sure to check out how much cargo room is left in back with all the seats raised. Most seven-passenger SUVs leave little space behind the upright third row--think grocery bags, not luggage. Only the largest SUVs offer decent cargo space with all seats occupied.

Advanced safety features

The newest and most advanced safety features tend to be offered in luxury cars first. Almost all premium-branded models include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an airbag deploys. Some offer head-up displays that project a digital speedometer and next-turn directions into the windshield. Most offer lane-departure prevention (which can gently nudge the car back to the center should it start to drive out of its lane), blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control with the ability to bring the car to a full stop, and collision warning (often with autonomous braking). These anti-collision systems apply the brakes if you're approaching the car ahead too fast and ignore an audible warning that alerts you to the situation. Some cars offer night-vision cameras that can detect pedestrians, although these systems generally display on the dashboard, which is not where your eyes should be when you are driving.

Not all models afford the same protection, so it's important to check the safety ratings. Consumer Reports' safety Ratings includes assessments of crash-avoidance capabilities and crash-test results, based on tests performed by the federal government and insurance industry. Further, our road tests detail issues regarding child-seat installation and the adequacy of front and rear head restraints.

Entertainment and convenience

The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with Bluetooth connectivity and navigation guidance. Stereos are a selling point on many luxury cars, and most come standard with systems that would be considered premium-level in mainstream cars. Some vehicles offer high-end branded stereos from suppliers like Bang & Olufsen, Bose, Burmester, and Krell. These systems can cost thousands of dollars, with differences in sound quality that only a true audiophile can appreciate.

Luxury vehicles usually offer rear-seat entertainment systems that can play DVD or Bluetooth movies and have inputs for gaming systems and wireless headsets. There is a wide range of information and entertainment features available from the factory, additional ones that the dealer can install, and even more available through the aftermarket.

Audio system

Most luxury cars come standard with powerful audio systems that allow you to play music loud with minimal distortion and more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. They can include USB and Bluetooth audio inputs, MP3 playback capability, satellite radio, HD radio, multi-disc CD changers, and optional music hard-drives and the ability to pause and play live radio. Optional systems add digital sound fields, noise canceling, surround sound, and DVD-Audio playback. Depending on the package, an audio upgrade can add many hundreds or even thousands of dollars to a luxury car's sticker price. Cars at every price level typically include a USB jack and a plug for an MP3 device to playback through the car's audio system. Some manufacturers use proprietary cables and inputs, rather than the industry-standard USB port, to connect a phone or MP3 player to the system. If you and your family own both iPhones and Android devices, or multiple generations of iPhones, you may need to purchase two or three of these connectors to keep every device charged and everyone happy.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-based satellite radio (SiriusXM) offers a broad selection of channels with catering to a variety of musical and information interests, with uninterrupted service from coast to coast. Subscription packages range from $6 to $20 per month, and you can add service for your smartphone, computer, and home satellite radio for an additional fee.

HD Radio allows conventional (aka terrestrial) AM and FM stations to broadcast their content over digital signals with higher fidelity. It also allows stations to add more programming over several additional sub-channels that can be broadcast alongside a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic updates, weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

In-car navigation is a great feature if you often drive in unfamiliar territory, and while it would seem to be an obvious feature to include in a luxury vehicle, many high-end cars offer it only as an extra-cost option”often at a price higher than mainstream cars, and sometimes bundled with other expensive equipment. Built-in systems have large, clear screens mounted in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and most systems use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and scroll through menus.

Most respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a subscription fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But small portable GPS units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. (See our Ratings to learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is now ubiquitous, enabling devices such as smartphones to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. This allows convenient hands-free phone operation, as well as playback of music stored on the phone. Many infotainment systems can stream Internet-sourced audio to the car using apps such as Aha and Pandora.

Telematics systems, popularized by GM's OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, such concierge services can provide directions and other travel aids. They also have an SOS feature that automatically calls to check on the car after an accident. If need be, these systems can summon emergency services, using the car's built-in GPS receiver to give first responders your car's location.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

Brands


New vs. Used

When it comes to luxury cars, one must consider additional factors when deciding whether to buy new or used. High-end models are often a brand's showcase for its latest and greatest technology, so while a used luxury car may have features that were on the cutting edge just a few years ago, those same features may be commonly available on brand-new mainstream cars (and at comparable prices). Older luxury cars can be more complex and expensive to repair, so be sure to check our reliability scores carefully.

That said, a reliable used luxury car is a great way to treat yourself, providing above-average comfort and cachet at a similar price to a brand-new mainstream car. The first thing you need to weigh is the value of having more prestige for less money versus having a comprehensive factory warranty and the ability to really know what you're getting. When buying new, you don't have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage with a new car. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and option level. And financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

Beyond the high prices, the key drawback to buying a new luxury car is rapid depreciation. A new car can shed half of its value in its first two or three years on the road, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars for some luxury cars. If you have financed the new car with a low down payment, you can easily find yourself owing more than the car is worth.

If you decide on a used car, you should have plenty of choice. The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market. And most luxury-brand automakers offer certification programs that provide some significant warranty protection.

One of the best strategies is to find a luxury car that's only two to three years old. Such a car has already taken its biggest depreciation hit and should have the majority of its useful life ahead of it. Many luxury cars are leased, which means there is a good supply of two- to three-year-old cars with relatively low mileage. Modern cars, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer. Rust isn't nearly as big a problem as it was years ago, and solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for frequent tune-ups.

The key to selecting a good used vehicle is to focus on reliability, even when a prospective automobile is still covered by its original factory warranty. Look for a car that has done well in our Reliability judgments.

CR's reliability scores are no guarantee, of course, but they do carry the weight of probability. If you shop for luxury cars with top-notch reliability scores, the odds are on your side. At the same time, every used car is unique. A careful pre-purchase inspection remains a vital part of the process. If you do your homework and take care in the car selection, a used luxury car can save you significant money in the long run.

Whether buying new or used, it is important to do research so you can choose a good model, and follow that up with effective negotiation.

Learn more in our new and used car buying guides.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

   

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