Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.

Buying & Leasing a Car

Cost-Conscious Comfort

Ready for a luxe ride without the eye-popping price tag? Three new models now in dealer showrooms offer luxury and a cushy ride for less than $34,000.

What kind of car do you buy when you have enough money to splurge a little, but you don't want your payments to rival your mortgage? Most people browse the entry-luxury category, loosely defined as cars that cost between $30,000 and $40,000. But many of the entry-luxury cars that spring to mind -- including the BMW 3-series, Audi A4 and Infiniti G35 -- are not everyone's cup of tea. They offer good performance and luxury extras, but they sacrifice trunk space, rear legroom and a comfy ride. And you may feel as if you're piloting a toy for newly minted attorneys and MBAs.

Three new models now in dealer showrooms offer entry-level luxury and a cushy ride for less than $34,000. These roomy sedans are more conducive to sedate driving than to ardent acceleration and quick cornering, and they have all the amenities you'd expect in an upscale car.

RELATED STORIES

Slide show: 7 Luxury Cars for Less

Kiplinger's Car Finder

A Supersized SUV That's Hard to Hate

How Green is My Hybrid?

One, the redesigned 2007 Lexus ES 350, is the benchmark for other carmakers with entries in this category. The other two -- the Buick Lucerne and the Hyundai Azera -- are new models for 2006 that come in trim levels starting at about $25,000, so technically they're priced too low to be classified as "premium" sedans. But fully equipped, they have features -- and prices -- that put them in the entry-level luxury class.

Lexus ES 350

The 2007 ES 350 ($33,865) raises the bar on bling. It shares a platform and six-speed automatic transmission with the new Toyota Camry, but that's about where the similarities end. To start, the suspension tuning delivers a smoother ride, and extra sound-deadening materials are added to keep the cabin quiet. Push-button start (while the key fob is in your pocket) is standard.

Advertisement

The front-wheel-drive ES 350 packs a 3.5-liter V6 with 272 horsepower (up from the old model's 225 hp) and zips from zero to 60 miles per hour in 6.8 seconds. But fuel economy is a respectable 21 miles per gallon city and 30 mpg highway, and the car is expected to earn a clean-burning ULEV (ultra-low-emission vehicle) II certification.

The car has room and style. It's about the same size as the previous generation ES, and trunk capacity is about the same, too, at a little less than 15 cubic feet. Inside, the look is typical Lexus luxe, with high-gloss wood accents. Leather isn't standard -- you'll have to order the $1,280 premium package, which also includes front-seat memory for the driver, steering-wheel memory and a Bluetooth hands-free phone connection. However, standard equipment includes a moonroof, a power-tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and an MP3/iPod input plug. Navigation comes in a $2,650 package that includes a premium audio system.

The car's safety features are state-of-the-art, with eight airbags (including a knee airbag for the driver and front-seat passenger), electronic stability control (to avoid skids) and a tire-pressure monitoring system. A theft-deterrent system that includes an engine immobilizer is also standard.

Buick Lucerne

The replacement for the LeSabre and Park Avenue is Buick to the max. The back seat is roomy and the trunk is large. The ride is quiet and absorbs the bumps nicely. The standard leather seats are first-class-cabin comfortable. Rain-sensing windshield wipers are standard, as are six airbags. (The model I tested was the mid-level, $29,990 CXL equipped with a 4.6-liter, 275-hp V8 and an additional $5,000 in options.)

Advertisement

And yet I just can't love this car. The exterior design is okay, but the hood looks awkwardly extended. About a foot longer than the ES 350, the Lucerne seems too big. You have to buy the top-trim-level CXS to get the same suspension technology that graces the Corvette and some Cadillacs; this model's suspension feels squishy around curves. The steering wheel doesn't telescope. The interior -- with its shades of gray leather and imitation-wood-grain center console -- lacks elegance.

Amenities that are standard on many $30,000 cars cost extra or are only available as packages: The six-disc CD changer costs $300; a moonroof costs $900; stability control is $495 -- but to get it, you also have to order the $595 "driver confidence package," with rear parking assist and remote starter. The heated windshield-washer-fluid system is a nice touch, but it costs $100 and requires that you order $2,000 in additional options. Navigation is available as part of an $1,800 sound-system upgrade.

The engine (17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway) has two more cylinders than the ES 350 but generates about the same number of horses. A V6-model CXL, available for $2,000 less, comes closer to matching the ES 350's fuel economy (19 city, 28 highway). But it musters only 197 hp.

Hyundai Azera

Hyundai's TV ads claim that the Sonata competes with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. So you'd expect that Hyundai's top-of-the-line Azera would go head-to-head with the Lexus ES 350 and other entry-luxury models. Hyundai, however, doesn't call the Azera an entry-luxury car.

Advertisement

We'll nominate it to the category. The $27,500 Limited model's heated leather seats, dual climate controls, power rear sunshade and 17-inch wheels come standard. With the $2,500 Ultimate package, you get a moonroof, a ten-speaker Infinity audio system, a six-CD changer, power-adjustable foot pedals, power-tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and rain-sensing windshield wipers. Navigation isn't available.

The Azera's 3.8-liter V6 engine delivers 263 hp, enough to accelerate quickly (zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds) and pass without hesitation. Its fuel economy (19 city, 28 highway) is not quite as impressive as that of the ES 350, but the Azera does have a clean-engine ULEV certification. Engine-speed-sensing rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel independent suspension and a unibody with enhanced stiffness make for a package that handles the road with aplomb. Its safety features are first-class, too. Electronic stability control is standard, as are eight airbags that provide head and side-impact protection for both front- and rear-seat passengers.

The Azera's trunk capacity beats the ES 350's by 2 cubic feet, and rear legroom is 2 inches more generous. The interior, though, is less refined than that of the Lexus. The faux-aluminum center console is no match for the Lexus's elegant wood-grain console and accents. Also, the seats should slide back another couple of inches to accommodate 6-footers.

The Azera Limited is the value play. Fully equipped with the Ultimate package, it's still $4,000 less than the ES 350 without any options. You also get Hyundai's five-year, 60,000-mile warranty (versus four years/50,000 miles for the Lexus and Buick).