For most people, 50 grand is a lot to shell out for a car. We drop that kind of coin, we expect a lot: a lot of luxury, a lot of technology, a lot of performance, preferably, a lot of all that stuff. But as is usually the case with luxury items of any variety, the price premium is seldom matched by a commensurate level of bonus features, heightened performance, or other tangible benefits. To the contrary, when it comes to luxury goods, there's usually an inverse correlation between price and content, as value takes a back seat to more subjective rewards such as beauty, exclusivity, prestige, and, of course, brand name as prices climb higher.
Still, even among those who have $50,000, $75,000, or more to spend on their next car, few are keen on senselessly throwing that money away -- especially those who have worked hard to earn their money in the first place. Fortunately, there are several automobiles in the luxury segment that actually offer the spoils to match the expenditure.
In fact, in some cases, they offer more -- a lot more -- some with so much cool stuff that they not only compare favorably to other vehicles in their price bracket but also outrun, outperform, or outpamper far more expensive automobiles.
Here, then, is a group of five $50,000-to-$60,000 automobiles that we at Car and Driver find mighty impressive for the money. And they prove even more compelling when put side by side with some of their much more expensive -- but not much better -- competitors.
Mercedes-Benz E320 BlueTec vs. Lexus LS600hL
For much of its history, Mercedes-Benz has asked for -- and gotten -- big bucks for its automobiles, sometimes bigger bucks than the cars were actually worth. Then came 1989, when Toyota launched its Lexus brand with products that offered Mercedes-like amenities (and styling) at a tremendous discount, not to mention faultless reliability and top-notch service, at a time when quality-control woes plagued Mercedes. Lexus seduced wealthy wives nationwide who'd rather spend their allowances at the day spa than the car dealership, and Mercedes' three-pointed star tumbled to earth.
Now Mercedes-Benz and value are no longer oxymoronic, and among Mercedes' most compelling values is the likable, luxurious, and fuel-efficient E320 BlueTec. Its quiet and fabulously torquey 3.0-liter diesel V-6 shoves the $52,675 sedan forcefully forward with jetlike smoothness. More judicious driving can yield fuel economy numbers close to the EPA's ratings of 23 mpg city and 32 highway, the latter number shaming every other vehicle in the luxury-sedan segment, even the hybrids.
If we could change anything, we'd liven up the E320's styling. And perhaps make some options (like real leather upholstery) standard. Even so, everything needed to transform the E320 into a bona fide luxury chariot, such as a full-length sunroof, a power rear sunshade, and curve-following headlamps, can be added without pushing the price too far above $60,000.
That's a pittance in comparison with the $104,765 sticker of the Lexus LS600hL, which, in addition to a dizzying array of technology intended to lower the vehicle's carbon footprint, comes standard with the illusion that you're actually doing something good for the environment by driving this hedonistic beast. In reality, even with its supercomputers, electric motors, and sophisticated CVT, the portly, 5100-pound LS600hL musters only 20 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway -- no better than the 16/24 rating of the nonhybrid LS460. Sure, the LS600hL qualifies as a Super Ultra Low-Emission Vehicle, but it also qualifies as a gas pig next to the E320. All said, the Lexus offers more space and is 1.4 seconds quicker to 60 mph, but the E320 BlueTec, particularly when loaded with options, comes close to matching the LS600hL's cush factor while saving roughly 40 grand.
That ought to buy a lot of time at the spa.
Porsche Boxster S vs. Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet
Ever since Porsche brought us the timelessly attractive and attainably priced Boxster roadster in 1997, the company has been mindful to keep some distance between it and the brand's flagship sports car, the vaunted 911 Carrera. Meanwhile, the Boxster and the more powerful Boxster S have established positive reputations on their own merits, thanks to the innate handling neutrality of the mid-engine layout, distinct engine notes, and splendid proportions. To retain the 911 lineup's credibility, the Carrera has remained rear-engined, somewhat better equipped, and, of course, faster.
Well, it used to be faster. In 2007, the performance gap that had been so carefully maintained all but disappeared when the $56,560 Boxster S received a 3.4-liter flat-six engine with 295 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque -- nine percent less power than that produced by the 3.6-liter boxer with 325 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque residing aft of the rear axle in the $84,660 911 Carrera cabriolet. Uh-oh. In our testing, the Boxster S's 300-pound weight advantage kept it right on the heels of the Carrera cabriolet from a stoplight, with a 0-to-60 sprint of 4.9 seconds.
To be fair, the two cars still feel different from behind the wheel, but now the differences are less akin to those existing between older and younger siblings than between fraternal twins. Indeed, both cars offer cerebrally connected steering, sophisticated shifters, and astoundingly powerful brakes, especially when equipped with carbon ceramic brake rotors (an $8150 option on either).
Inside, the only real differences between the two involve a nominally higher level of standard equipment on the Carrera and the fact that the Boxster S's engine resides in the spot occupied by the Carrera's minuscule rear seat.
So what exactly, besides a higher level of street cred, does that extra $28,000 get you with the Carrera again? Unless you're going to shell out more to move up to the many more powerful and/or all-wheel-drive 911 derivations, not much, especially considering that when you drop the top, you're under the same sun. In our book, that makes the Boxster S a sterling bargain.