How much money does it take to live comfortably in 2018? That likely depends on where you live, how many mouths you have to feed, and the kind of lifestyle to which you're accustomed. In a 2017 study by CareerBuilder, 78% of Americans said that they live paycheck to paycheck. Even for people making $100K or more, 1 in 10 still say they live paycheck to much higher paycheck. As Kayne West said, “Having money’s not everything, not having it is.”
So, what do you do if you want the “I’ve made it” looks and feel without the $2,000-per-month wallet smackdown? Buy smarter by spending the same money—or less—than you’d spend on a brand-new economy car on a used luxury vehicle. We acknowledge that this isn’t the right approach for everybody; the maintenance and repair costs for most of the cars on this list will definitely be higher than those for a new car and, in some cases, maybe prohibitively so. If you need a new 5-liter V8 for your S550, and for whatever reason, you elect to get it from your local Mercedes-Benz dealership, expect the bill to be $25,000 with installation. Ouch. That said, with some careful purchasing, a good pre-purchase inspection, and an understanding of your make and model's specific repair risks, most people will enjoy much more bang for the buck buying used luxury than new economy.
With luxury cars in particular, there are some compelling reasons to buy used over new. Luxury cars experience significantly greater depreciation than other types of cars, which makes them cheaper to buy used—as a percentage of their original purchase price—than economy cars or mid-priced family cars. Their high initial-purchase prices also mean that they’re often bought by older, wealthier adults, so they’re likely to be better maintained, often using premium or OEM parts, and have less mileage than a car whose primary duty is shuttling rugrats to ballet class and swimming. Here then, are 20 Cars that you can afford and will make you look rich. All of the cars on this list are available for less than $18,500 USD—the MSRP for a base 2018 Toyota Corolla. Welcome to the Good Life!
With a 382 hp 5-liter V8 up front, heated, cooled, and massaging seats, radar-assisted cruise control, and tons of room for a family, the S550 is a crazy good car. It also offers stellar safety ratings, a great road presence, and that giant three-pointed badge of wealth up front, so when you open the soft-closing front door, it'll make you feel like you’re the one in the corner office who never gets invited out for drinks at O’Grady’s. There are some caveats, though; like most of the German luxury brands, the engineers incorporated a diabolical failure node into the motor. In this case, it's the timing chain and tensioner, which upon failure, grenade the engine. Replacement of the chain and tensioner is a $2,000 affair if done preventatively, while a used motor with installation could set you back $7,500 or more. Still, the executive-class interior, big-money looks, stellar ride, and isolation-chamber-level road noise make this a very compelling car to own. Get a PPI (pre-purchase inspection) and don’t ever ignore a dashboard warning light, and you should continue to love your S550 and the way you look in it for many years.
If you want most of the performance and road presence of the S550 with much better driving engagement and an easier and less-expensive-to-service power plant, the BMW 740i may be for you.
This full-sized German road missile is powered by BMW’s ubiquitous N54 twin-turbo inline six; a generally-reliable engine that has a high-pressure fuel pump, and a creamy-smooth 322 hp motor that also served in the more plebeian 3 and 5 series cars from 2006 to 2016.
This means plenty of thrust, an amazing degree of tenability, and surprisingly decent gas mileage at 25 mpg Hwy—not bad for a nearly two-and-a-half-ton luxury barge that can still carve a corner. Where BMWs have always excelled, relative to their German, American, and Japanese competition is in the areas of ride, handling, driving position, and vehicle dynamics. A 740i is an engaging car to drive with its great brakes, strong acceleration, good ultimate grip and transitional responses, comfortable but supportive seats, and luxurious and well-appointed interior. This was a car that, depending on options, could cost upwards of $100K, but is now available to you for the same price as a Toyota transport appliance. As with the S550, budget a higher-than-average monthly amount for maintenance, and enjoy the ultimate driving machine.
If you like the idea of a big BMW sedan but don’t quite want to jump into 7-series territory, the 535i is a reasonable 7/8-scale facsimile, but with marginally better handling and acceleration thanks to a lower curb weight and a sportier chassis tuning. The F10-chassis 5 series, as it’s known to BMW aficionados, represents one of the best executions of the classic BMW styling cues; the kidney grills, the Hofmeister kink, the accent crease below the beltline, and the long-hood, short-deck profile make it quite simply the best-looking BMW sedan since the ground-breaking E34 5 series of the late '80s. Automotive writers will criticize its somewhat number electric power steering, but it’s hard to find a hydraulic rack these days, and the tradeoff is better gas mileage. On top of this, the 535i was available with one very rare option in the luxury category: a manual transmission. For someone who wants to look successful while enjoying a modicum of driving enjoyment in a good-looking and reliable sports luxury sedan, a 2011 535i is tough to beat.
There are few vehicle categories more practical than the 3-row, 7-passenger SUV. Most of these trucklets have traded any semblance of off-road ability for superior on-road handling and storage-toting ability. To call vehicles like the Q7 minivan surrogates for mums and dads who just can’t make the transition to that box-like shape and a sliding back door wouldn’t be too far off the mark. The Q7 is commodious enough to accept a 4x8 sheet of plywood with the seats folded or a family of 7 people, each of whom has actual legs. As a used car purchase, the Q7 benefits from with the fallout from VW’s Dieselgate scandal. Many of these excellent, gas-powered trucks have been swept up in the depreciation vortex created by VW’s recall and the buyback of the diesel version of this truck. This means that buyers of used gas versions can take advantage of generally lower resale values on the Q7 without having to worry about the recalls or emissions compliance issues that affected the smoke-and-soot versions. This is Audi prestige, great safety and performance, and enough room for a small apartment combined into one.
If you ask a 5-year-old to draw a car, it'll likely resemble a family sedan—a three-box shape with a hood longer than the trunk and wheels at the bottom, probably too close to the middle. If you ask a 5-year-old to draw a coupe or a 4-door coupe, however, the kid will likely look at you blankly and ask for a snack. Nevertheless, the short-deck, long wheelbase, and flowing-roof silhouette that’s currently in vogue on every sedan from Honda’s Civic to the current CLS, all started with this car. Today, 10 years later, it still looks great. While both the 5.5L and 6.2L V8s are plagued by the same diabolical failures of the timing chain and gears, as long as you don’t mind expensive and proactive maintenance, these are very good-looking, fast, and great-driving cars, whose looks harken back to the classic pre-war Mercedes roadsters. To call the shape timeless would be an understatement. Go out for dinner in a sleek, leather-lined Mercedes, and you'll feel like you’ve made the right choices in life. The valet will assume so as well.
There are some car shapes that are so quintessentially ‘correct’ that they endure long after a styling trend abates. The long-hood, short-deck look of sports coupes is one of them.
Add in muscular fenders, and a quarter-window shape and character line that recall the famed Audi Coupe Quattro rally cars of the 1980s, and you have one great-looking car!
The A5’s 2.0T motor, sold in some variant in most of VW-Audis automobiles, has proven to be generally reliable, and when paired with Audi’s legendary Quattro all-wheel-drive system, it offers a great drive on any road surface or weather condition. On top of the great mechanical hardware, the A5's interior, rendered in high-quality wood, metal, leather, and plastic, looks the business—luxurious but sporty, with a nicely shaped dash, great seats, good two-tone interior color combinations, and precise switchgear. It’s an expensive-feeling car that will have you smiling every time you get into it.
Incredibly, this nearly 6000-lb diesel-powered luxury behemoth with seating for 7 can be had for roughly the same cost as a new Corolla. While the gas-powered variants of the GL get abysmal mileage in both city and highway driving, the GL350’s BlueTec diesel manages a respectable 19 mpg combined. When it was new, Car and Driver’s Michael Austin said, “The GL’s impeccable road manners remain intact. It never tries to be a sports car, but the steering is slop-free and accurate, and the GL350 wafts over bumps in a way that seems to say, 'You’re in a giant Mercedes. I know you don’t want to be disturbed.'” The reasons for driving and buying a giant Mercedes SUV are plentiful: room for all of your stuff, a great ride, seating for you and 6 family members in relative comfort, and off-road prowess informed at least to a small degree by the legendary Geländewagen military vehicle. Last, but certainly not least, the GL350 offers the three-pointed star and road presence that never lets anyone forget you’re driving a Mercedes-Benz
The Audi A6 has been playing second fiddle to the BMW 5-series and the Mercedes E-class for over 20 years, but the current generation has some distinct advantages over its Teutonic rivals. Firstly, the car’s 3.0L supercharged V6, the same motor shared with the last-generation Audi S4, is an absolute gem—smooth and quiet at idle, barking and sonorous under full bore, and torquey and responsive throughout. While the car’s styling is somewhat sedate compared to its A7 platform-mate, the clean, restrained look of the A6 should age very gracefully.
Like most German cars, there's a heft to the doors, seats, and control surfaces that make the car seem not only safe and well-built but also expensive.
The fact that this generation is due for replacement this year means that, for a short time, you can drive around in your 6-year-old $18,500 Audi with most passersby unaware that your car is that old. Keep it clean, put a good coat of wax on it, and people may just mistake you for someone with a brand-new $70K Audi—you know, a rich guy...
If you prefer the reliability and supple ride of a Lexus over the diabolical engineering and race-tuned ride of the German competition, the ES350 might be for you. With a less aggressive version of Lexus’s now-ubiquitous spindle grill, the ES350 is otherwise indistinguishable from the current 2018 model and, if we’re honest, isn’t a bad-looking car for a three-box front-drive sedan. Based on the Toyota Camry platform, the ES350 shares that car’s 3.5L V6, floor pan, and most major components, so it’s as reliable as the day is long and gets very respectable gas mileage (especially in the hybrid ‘H’ model). Plus, maintenance and repairs are likely less expensive than on the bespoke German competition as well.
While the ES350 isn't an ultra-luxury car in and of itself, the car tends to be purchased by frugal-minded individuals of considerable wealth.
It’s a car that suggests, “Yes, of course I drive a Lexus. I like fine things and can afford them” while also saying, “Spend $100K on a car? Are you crazy? I could put that into my 401K and make twice that back in 5 years.” Sometimes, looking rich means looking like you know how to handle money and not just spend it.
Jaguar automobiles had roughly the same look from the early 1960s Series 2 saloons until about 2008, when Jaguar replaced the traditionally styled, Lincoln LS-based S-Type with this much more modern-looking XF. Although the S-Type’s LS-based architecture carried over into the new XF, the suspension, the motors, the roofline, the interior, and every body panel were all new, ushering in a totally new and more modern direction for Jaguar. Perhaps more important than the underpinnings, for people trying to look the business on a budget, this 2013 still looks like a new car. The first-generation XF, which ran from 2008-2015, is virtually indistinguishable from the current model, despite the two cars sharing almost no components. Some of the high-end highlights of this car include the pop-up gear selector and the exquisite two-tone leather with contrast stitching. Even 10 years after its release, the car still cuts a dashing silhouette.
Autoblog nicknamed their long-term IS250 AWD “Jennifer Slowpez.” The fact that this car still scampers to 60 mph in under 7.5s is a testament not to the car’s lack of cojones but rather to just how fast the average car has become. There are no shortage of sub-7-second minivans out there, and “fast” cars now get to 60 mph in under 3 seconds. Rapidity notwithstanding, the Lexus IS is a lovely albeit somewhat cramped small near-luxury car. Like some others on this list, the 2014 IS250 is the current-generation model. Only a keen gearhead or a true 'Lexus-o-phile' will notice that you aren’t driving a brand-new car. As with the ES350, driving a Lexus suggests to onlookers that you're of the moneyed class. Maybe you could have bought a more expensive car, but why would you? The IS is a great-looking, exceptionally engineered car made with fine-quality materials. Unlike the ES350, it also happens to be based on a proprietary RWD platform with longitudinal engine mounting, just like the cars from BMW, Mercedes, and Audi (most of them, at least).
As the successor to the very popular G35/37, the Infiniti Q50 had some big shoes to fill. The G35 was the first car available in North America that could give Germany’s Big Three a run for their money in the compact luxury class, and you didn’t have to drive too far to realize it was a massive sales success.
Like the G-series that came before it, the Q50 is a front-engine, rear- or all-wheel-drive, luxury sports sedan, powered by Nissan’s ubiquitous VQ-series engine.
The VQ37 in the 2015 Q50 puts out a robust 328 hp, good for a 0-60 sprint of just 5.2 seconds. Unlike most of Nissan’s offerings that use a version of this engine, the Q50 was also paired with a conventional 7-spd automatic transmission, instead of Nissan’s CVT tranny. Sadly, the 6-speed manual previously offered in the G-series was no longer an option, but that seems to be the case with just about every car these days. What the Q50 does offer is a sporty character, a powerful motor, elegant styling, and a roomy interior, all for the price of a Corolla.
Janis Joplin once sang, “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.” Based on sales numbers alone, she was probably singing about an E-class. The Mercedes E-class has defined the mid-sized luxury-car genre since the first E-class was launched as the 300E in 1984. Purists and internet trolls will note that “E” wasn’t a model range until the Mercedes W124 was renamed in 1994. Semantics. The mid-sized Mercedes sedan has been an aspirational car since its inception, and if you shop carefully, you can purchase a 2013 E350 for regular-car money. What you get is vault-like solidity, a firm but very comfortable ride, and the sense of Teutonic precision you get in a mid-size Mercedes-Benz.
Powered by the 3.5L V6 Mercedes uses in all of its cars—and like their corporate photocopier—the E350 is a reliable, comfortable, decently quick luxury car with good trunk space and classic looks.
The E-Class has always been a safe car, and this W212-generation car was packed with semi-autonomous features like Pre-Safe Braking, Distronic Plus cruise control, Steering Assist, and other doohickeys designed to help you avoid testing out the car’s excellent crash protection. Yes, it’s an old person’s car—but an old person that’s made it!
Depending on where you live, a BMW 3-series may not be a status symbol. In some neighborhoods, a 3-series BMW is just about as ubiquitous as the Toyota Corolla against which this comparison list is based. Nevertheless, BMW’s compact sport sedan set the benchmark for driving dynamics and relatively affordable luxury when it debuted in 1982. In spite of robust sales since then that have put a BMW 3-series on just about every city block in North America, the car still remains an aspirational offering. Introduced in 2012, the current F30-generation 3-series is powered exclusively by turbocharged engines. In the case of the 2013 328i, this means a 240 hp 2L turbo four putting power to the rear wheels through ZF’s excellent 8-speed automatic transmission. With taut body styling in tidy proportions, the 328i is a good-looking and well-finished car. A 50/50 weight distribution and the legendary 3-series ride and handling mix make this a great car to driver, marred only by the numb-feeling electric power steering. This car’s relative newness, and its entry-level price point within the BMW family also mean that maintenance and repair costs are actually pretty reasonable.
Need a sport utility vehicle for the family but also want a Mercedes? Don’t want the massive size and parking difficulty of a GL350? Well then, the GLK350 might be for you. Based on the compact C-class architecture but with the increased ground clearance and butch styling demanded of the pseudo-off-road class, the GLK is a good-looking, efficiently packaged compact sport utility.
The 3.5L naturally-aspirated DOHC V6 makes a respectable 268 hp with 258 lb-ft of torque and is paired with a 7-speed automatic sending power to either the rear wheels or all four in the 4MATIC versions.
There’s plenty of grunt to get up to speed or pass dawdling semi-trucks on the highway, though the trucklet’s relatively high curb weight (around 4,200 lbs, depending on options) and high center of gravity don’t encourage any high-speed antics. The firm suspension and electronic stability program will undoubtedly do a good job of keeping the shiny side up for most drivers, but this is still an SUV that prefers leisurely trips to barnstorming.
Before the Germans created the sports activity vehicle, they perfected the luxury SUV with the X5. Base X5s are powered by the ubiquitous turbocharged 3L inline 6. Although 300 hp might not seem like a lot for a 5,000 lb truck, the engine’s strong low-end torque, smooth power delivery, and efficient 8-speed automatic transmission still haul the Bavarian Behemoth to 60 mph in a respectable 6.1 seconds—very respectable performance for a truck of this size and weight. V8 versions of the X5, the xDrive50i, are faster but also thirstier, less reliable, and more expensive to fix. The ‘base’ model 35i seems to lie right in the sweet spot. Although the styling will immediately betray the truck’s vintage to anyone who knows BMWs, it’s far from a dated-looking rig. The combination of the SUV’s stately proportions and spinning propeller badge still says ‘money.’
Known internally as the B8, the fourth generation of Audi’s small car was the first to be built on Audi’s new MLB platform. This new platform gave Audi the flexibility to push the front wheels out further towards the front of the car, finally giving the A4 a similar front/rear weight bias to its German rivals from BMW and Mercedes—close to 50/50. This new balance paid tremendous dividends in ride and handling, and combined with the torquey and efficient 2L turbo motors, finally made the fourth-gen A4s a real alternative to the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-Class.
The 2.0T turbocharged four found under the hood put out 225 hp—enough for a 6-second sprint to 60 mph while delivering a very respectable 30 mpg hwy when equipped with the ever-rarer 6-speed manual gearbox.
With a very stout body structure, good-quality leather, and real aluminum trim in the interior, the A4 has a very premium look and feel. Even if the 4-ringed Audi badge on the hood isn’t sufficient to demonstrate your wealth, the A4 2.0T’s overall excellence means that buying this car is money well spent.
You can only do something really well for so long before others will start to imitate and innovate. The ATS is Cadillac’s best rendering of the compact German sports luxury car archetype—a uniquely American take on a resolutely German category. Surprisingly, the ATS actually beats many of its German rivals in some key performance categories—chiefly steering feel and handling dynamics. With taut transitional responses and lively and communicative steering, the ATS excites where the current 3-series and C-class simply get the job done. The ATS is a looker, too, with a somewhat more subdued and aerodynamic take on Cadillac’s art-and-science styling that first made its appearance on the Evoq show car. The ATS is powered by a variety of engines, from a naturally-aspirated 2.5L inline four making a somewhat tepid 202 hp to the turbocharged 3.2L V6 pumping out a class-leading 464 hp. You don’t get an atomic-bomb power plant for Corolla money, but even the base ATS is still a great car to drive, and since the 2013 and the 2018 models look nearly identical, no one will know that you didn’t drop some serious coin on this American answer to the Germans.
As the second generation of Cadillac’s small sport-ute, the 2010-2016 SRX was Cadillac’s best-selling sport utility vehicle. It had a ton of room inside, great safety ratings, and a very quiet ride. It also has the premium features and finishes that made buyers feel like they were driving a mini Escalade. Baller, right? Unlike the first-generation SRX that was based on the enthusiast-favorite CTS platform, the second-generation ute was based loosely on GM’s Epsilon platform, a version of which underpinned the Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Malibu. As a result, the driving dynamics and performance weren’t as stimulating as other midsize luxury competitors like the Audi Q5, the BMW X3, or the Acura MDX. With no direct replacement for the SRX, there's no “new version” with which to compare your 2012, so only car enthusiasts well acquainted with Cadillac’s product matrix will know your mini ‘Sclade isn’t new. Buyers note: avoid the turbo V6 if you don’t want to risk an engine failure. The turbo motor was particularly intolerant of engine knock, which is easy to instigate if low-octane gas is mixed with aggressive driving.
Largely unchanged over its 8-year model run, the 2006-2014 Jaguar XK was a modern classic—long, low, and wide, with the classic long-hood, short-deck proportions of a ground touring coupe. Unlike the first-generation XK, which was based on the Antediluvian XJS platform, the second-generation car was built on an all-new and very modern aluminum-monocoque structure, which offered great handling, ride, and crash safety, with its light weight paying dividends in both straight-line performance and handling. Powered by a relatively unstressed 4.2L V8 making 300 hp, with a 0-60 time of around 5.5 seconds, the slinky driving position expected of a Jaguar coupe, and enough room in the trunk for two sets of golf clubs, the XK is the classic gentlemen’s touring car. What really makes this car a great value, however, is the body. The second gen XK is a stunning car. With no direct replacement for the XK, people might imagine that you bought it because it's a classic, not because you could pick it up for the price of a new Corolla.
Sources: Motortrend, Car and Driver, Top Gear