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Luxury cars

Luxury car buying guide

Last updated: April 2014
Getting started

Getting started

At the bottom of the luxury-vehicle range come models such as the Audi A3 and A4, BMW 2 and 3 Series, Cadillac ATS, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS, and Mercedes-Benz CLA. These are smaller cars that bridge the gap between mainstream cars and true luxury vehicles. Moving up to their larger counterparts”such as the Audi A6 and A8, BMW 5 and 7 Series, Cadillac CTS and XTS, Infiniti Q70, Lexus ES and LS, and Mercedes-Benz E- and S-Class”brings greater levels of interior room, ride comfort, quietness, performance, and refinement. In other words, true luxury.

Luxury vehicles tend to feature the latest in available technology and a plush interior. Typically they represent the leading-edge of comfort, performance, safety, and other technologies. Generally, luxury cars have an innate quality that goes beyond leather upholstery and wood trim. Materials are 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, including Bluetooth connectivity are expected. Many luxury models also offer all-wheel drive, even in sedan, coupe, and convertible body styles.

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, luxury cars can reach all the way up to to $200,000 and more. The most expensive car Consumer Reports has tested is the Mercedes-Benz S550, which cost $114,000.

Key things to consider

Luxury cars can be so comfortable and enjoyable that it feels like a major downgrade when you go back to driving a mainstream model. By design, the exclusive driving experience comes at a price, both in the form of the initial purchase and ownership costs, which typically far exceed those of more humble vehicles. Before committing to a luxury model, realize that today's mainstream models are better equipped than similar cars from just a few years ago, providing more comfort, better fuel economy, and improved safety. Plus, they can offer many uplevel features that may put niceties within the reach of average car shoppers at thousands less than a luxury-branded model, but often without the thoroughness of design, special atmosphere, or prestige. Ultimately, it's an individual choice as to how your money is best spent.

One must note though that some features on high-end luxury cars tend to add more complication than real functionality. And some new safety systems found on most luxury cars, such as lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control, and cross traffic alert, are nice to have but not foolproof. Plus, they are often included in packages that add considerably to the price.

Midsized luxury cars and luxury car-based SUV models, priced from $40,000 to $50,000 are generally a sweet spot in the market, offering driving enjoyment and coddling, without the fussiness or large footprint of a large luxury sedan or SUV.

Large and heavy V8-powered luxury cars 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.

Many luxury cars offer all-wheel drive for improved winter and inclement-weather traction. Traditionally, most luxury sedans have been rear-wheel drive. It is the preferred set up for ideal weight distribution, handling agility, ride comfort, and noise isolation. But all-wheel drive is a growing part of the market, and a majority of models offer it on at least one trim level.

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.

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 type has several good vehicles to choose from. And most types also have 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.

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, 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 offer stretched wheelbase models over and above their standard lengths, which bring expansive legroom and boost prices by about $5,000.

Luxury SUVs


Luxury SUVs range from small models such as the BMW X1, Buick Encore, and Mercedes-Benz GLK to very large truck-based models such as the Cadillac Escalade and Infiniti QX80. 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, Infiniti QX60, and Lexus RX. 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 V8 Jaguar XK 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

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 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 Lincoln Navigator, got 13 mpg. Diesel models such as the Mercedes-Benz GL350 top out at 20 mpg overall, and the Lexus RX 450h hybrid got 26 mpg overall in our tests. Sporty luxury cars range from 19-mpg with the Jaguar XK convertible to the 28-mpg overall from the swoopy Audi A7 four-door hatchback.

Many luxury cars of all body types require premium fuel, so shop carefully if that extra cost is a concern.

Most luxury cars use traditional automatic transmissions, with six, seven, and even eight speeds. We have seen a rise in the number of transmission gears recently, because more gears can help a car get better fuel economy without sacrificing performance. Most lux-car transmissions facilitate manual shift overrides typically through steering wheel paddles giving the cars a more performance-oriented feel when desired.

Some hybrids may use continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) to maximize fuel economy and performance. An increasingly rare option is the traditional manual transmission, usually six-speeds. Automatics are most common, with seven- and eight-speed gearboxes quickly becoming the standard. Some models offer a dual-clutch automated manual, which promises the fuel economy advantages of traditional manuals with automatic shifts that are far quicker than those from traditional automatic transmissions. But these gearboxes tend to lack smoothness at very low speeds.

Technologies such as cylinder deactivation, where half the cylinders shut off when they're not needed, can squeeze out slightly better mileage in highway driving. Gasoline/electric hybrid technology can save significant amounts of fuel, although the higher initial cost of hybrid models can take years to recoup, depending on gasoline prices.

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 other cars today are front-wheel drive, luxury cars are typically available with rear- or all-wheel drive. Both Acura and Audi are dedicated to front-wheel drive. But nearly every model from these brands is available with all-wheel drive.

The space efficiency from a front-drive design allows a car to have a smaller engine compartment, leaving more room inside for passengers and cargo. It's also effective in slippery conditions because there's more weight on the front wheels and they pull rather than push the car along the road. Rear-wheel drive can handle more power and avoids some inherent handling compromises on high-performance cars and luxury sedans. The number of models available with all-wheel drive is increasing, providing heightened foul-weather traction and extreme, track-ready grip for a few enthusiast-targeted models. Our tests have shown that an all-wheel-drive car with all-season tires has better traction than a front- or rear-drive car with winter tires. But AWD does little or nothing to aid stopping, it adds cost and weight, and it 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 easy to get in and out of the front seats, often with an exit mode that automatically powers the seat back and sometimes even retract the steering wheel. Rear seat access is more variable. Being lower, sleeker, and with thicker seat bolsters, sporty cars are almost always more difficult to enter. So when comparing cars, try entering and exiting through all doors. A well-designed sedan should provide wide doors and enough head room so that front and rear passengers can enter and exit easily without bumping their heads. Some sedans are styled with low, sloping rear roof lines. Such coupe-like designs can degrade rear-seat accessibility, headroom, and the driver's view aft.

Cargo

If you expect to ever 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 eliminate the ability to fold rear seats or pass longer items through the rear armrest. Unlike mainstream sedans, fold-down seatbacks are sometimes and 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. Many seven-passenger SUVs leave room for little more than a row of grocery bags behind the upright third row. Only the largest SUVs have decent cargo bays behind that row.

Advanced safety features

The newest and most advanced safety features tend to reach luxury cars first. Almost all include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an air bag deploys. Most have lane-departure warning, blind-spot detection, active cruise control, and either autonomous braking or a warning of impeding collision with the vehicle being followed. 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.

Not all models afford the same protection, so it's important to check the safety ratings. Consumer Reports' safety Ratings include 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 cell-phone connectivity and navigation guidance. Luxury SUVs usually offer rear-seat entertainment systems that can play DVD movies and have inputs for gaming systems, multiple screens, wireless headsets, and remote control. There is a wide range of information and entertainment features available from the factory, and 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 multi-disc CD changers, USB and Bluetooth audio inputs, MP3 playback capability, satellite radio, HD radio, and sometimes even 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. Only stereos with a specific iPod connector or USB input, rather than a micro plug port, are be able to control and recharge an iPod.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-only satellite radio, Sirius/XM, offers broad channel selection, catering to a variety of musical and information interests, much like cable TV. Most luxury vehicles offer satellite radio readiness. HD Radio allows conventional (or 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 channels that can be broadcast alongside a station's main frequency, for delivering traffic or weather information, or diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

Built-in navigation systems can be a valued featured if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. Nav systems typically retail for about $750 to $1,500 when offered alone, but they are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system that can add another $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens that are in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and some use touch-screen displays that make it easy to put in 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 units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is commonplace on luxury models, enabling wireless devices such as a cell phone to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. This allows convenient, hands-free phone operation and increasingly, integration with apps that enable Internet music stream and information services. 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 summons emergency aid following an air-bag deployment, using GPS technology to give first-responders your car's location.

New vs. Used

A reliable used luxury car can make a great alternative to a new car, because years earlier, luxury models were fitted with many of the features just now trickling into new mainstream cars with similar asking prices. The first thing you need to weigh is the value of having more features for less money versus having a comprehensive factory warranty and the ability to really know what you're getting. 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 luxury car prices, the key drawback with buying a new 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.

Used cars that are just a couple years old have typically been the sweet spot, as the models are still contemporary but have already taken their biggest depreciation hit. However, the recession has impacted late-model used car availability, due to a drastic drop in new car sales and a period of decreased leasing, a primary source for nearly new luxury cars.

Modern cars, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 150,000 miles or longer. Rust, for example, isn't nearly the problem it was years ago. Solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for a lot of regular servicing that was necessary in the past.

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.

   

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