When every car these days is packed with power windows, locks, seats, leather upholstery, standard dual-zone climate control and audio systems with satisfying fidelity, why bother going to a luxury model? It's a valid question, and when you start comparing the highest-trim commoners with their higher-zoot kin, it becomes clear that the line is pretty blurry until you get down to the bottom, where the final tally awaits. What does the pricing difference really buy you?
The most popular Lexus model is the Camry-based ES 350. Buyers love the comprehensive equipment and luxurious outfitting. The car's smooth, quiet demeanor is what put Lexus on the map. Now peek at the Camry XLE V6: It's all there. The Camry and ES 350 are so similar that reading the spec sheets side by side is like picking the more talented identical twin. Both cars coddle the occupants with leather seating, though the Lexus has more adjustments on its seats as well as power releases for the trunk and fuel filler.
The engine is the same, though Lexus claims five more horsepower from its 3.5-liter V6. Good luck finding any difference in seat-of-the-pants testing. But wardrobe counts, and to get the more attractive Lexus sheet metal will cost you $35,175 to start versus the Camry's $29,045. An extra year on the warranty and super nice dealers might be worth it, or you might like a couple new appliances in your home. Bottom line: Substituting a Camry XLE for an ES 350 isn't any kind of sacrifice.
Back when the original Taurus still roamed the earth, Ford took the hardware and created a Lincoln Continental, and it was masterful. What you got in exchange for the extra bucks back in 1990 was obvious. Press your face against the window of a Taurus Limited on your dealer's lot today, and you'll see that the rift between the Taurus and its Lincoln MKS cousin is slight. The pair share nearly everything but styling. There's more room in either model than there was in the long-serving Town Car, and both drive competently, if not sporty.
Experience the quiet, cockpit-style interior in the Taurus, and you'll wonder how MKS could do any better. The Ford goes cutting edge on the interior versus the Lincoln’s old-world design, with sumptuous Bridge of Weir leather, though the same ventilated, massaging seats are available in both models. Only a true sybarite would complain that the appointments in the Ford are lacking.
The Lincoln does turn the knob from 10 to 11, perhaps, but it will also run you $10,000 more than the $33,620 Ford's asking for the Taurus. It's an especially difficult sell when you can get the strong-like-bull Ecoboost in the Taurus SHO, as well as all-wheel-drive. The base MKS engine is 3.7 liters versus the 3.5-liter V6 in the Taurus, but the difference is a mere ten horsepower. A Taurus Limited owner has very little to complain about -- and a pocket full of folding money versus the MKS buyer.
It’s new to the marketplace, so the 2010 Buick LaCrosse is sure to stand out more than the more conservative, two-year-old Malibu, even when the Chevy is dressed up in top-of-the-line LTZ trim. But both cars are handsome, and it's not like the Malibu is long in the tooth. They share the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder base engine, which provides reasonable fuel economy. All-wheel-drive is available in the Buick, something Chevy buyers can’t have.
Moving up the trim lines, the LaCrosse offers two V6 engines, a 3.0-liter and a 3.6, while the Malibu’s single choice is the larger of the two. For $26,245 you can get into a LaCrosse CX, the lowest rung on Buick's ladder, but $710 more buys a full-boat Malibu LTZ, a lot of car for $26,955. Included in this Malibu is a long list of gear. Fog lamps and spiffy 18-inch wheels, plus extra chrome on the door handles and exhaust tips dress up the outside. The interior gets leather upholstery and an eight-speaker Bose audio system.
Adding the V6 to the Chevy pushes the price to $30,000, and for that money a LaCrosse CXL with a 3.0-L V6, leather, and 18-inch wheels can be had. The larger V6 is reserved for LaCrosse CXS models, which begin at $33,015, so while the prices overlap, the Malibu is clearly saving you cash. The LaCrosse’s trump card, however, is its interior. While the Malibu's dual-cowl dashboard is stylish, the sweeping forms inside the LaCrosse are a cut above. This is definitely a close match, but still, I think the Chevy delivers what the brand always has, and that's superior value.
On the surface, the Hyundai Genesis and Azera seem more similar than different. An Azera Limited loaded with nav carries a $29,570 MSRP, just below the Genesis 3.8's $33,000 base price. The Azera is already packed to the gills with equipment, while the well-equipped Genesis can be piled up with even more options like a leather-covered dashboard, Lexicon audio system, high-tech multimedia system, smart cruise control, and a V8 engine.
Fundamentally the Azera and Genesis are very different vehicles. Based on the front-wheel-drive Sonata, the Azera uses the same 3.8-liter V6 found in the rear-wheel-drive Genesis, but mounted transversely to power its front wheels. So if the Genesis is gunning more for luxury cars like the Lexus LS, the Azera is more like the Lexus ES. The Genesis is a longer car with a longer wheelbase and both looks and drives bigger. The Azera has no mission in life beyond providing a comfortable and unassuming driving experience.
Despite their fundamental differences in layout and mission, both the Azera and Genesis are as well equipped as many buyers can stand. The Genesis has the edge in available amenities, but these come at a price. Perhaps more importantly, the Hyundai flagship cuts a bolder line than the generic Azera. But this still stacks up well for buyers who could care less about which wheels drive the car, people who just want leather, power everything, and a nice quiet ride. The Azera, folks, is your car, with a sticker that tops out right where the Genesis starts.
Style is in plentiful supply with this pair. Volkswagen has made quite a splash with its keenly drawn Passat CC, a sexy four-door “coupe.” Audi's A4 has classic European sports sedan proportions, though it may look a little plain if parked next to the more highly-surfaced Volkswagen. There's plenty of overlap in specification though, with the top trim level of the Passat CC lining up closely with the A4’s highest, and both cars serving up optional all wheel drive.
At the VW store, $40,420 delivers sharp looks to your driveway, and the CC's nicely tailored bodywork is backed up by a sprinter's heart. A 280-hp V6 enables the CC to click off a 6.2-second 0-60 mph pass. The $43,000 A4 is two tenths of a second behind with power coming from its turbocharged, 211-hp, 2.0-liter four cylinder. Inside, Volkswagen has taken the Passat CC to Audi design school, and its interior is every bit as haute couture as those found in the company’s luxury brand. The CC also has more interior space, though both cars are classed as compacts according to the EPA.
In the CC, the theme is timeless, with French-stitched leather seats that look like they could have been lifted from some 1960s concept car. The A4's cabin is no slouch either, and Audi's MultiMedia Interface is available in the A4, which serves up tech trickery that puts a lot of power into a single knob-and-button interface that's easy to use. For flat out gorgeousness, the Volkswagen Passat CC wins the day, though nobody would look askance at you for choosing the A4.