- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

Everyone wants to drive the best car but too often we settle on something less based on what we can afford. We shouldn’t let our dreams get put aside just because our bank accounts are limited. Today’s car market is filled with great cars with luxury features, and you’d be surprised at what you can afford.

In the past few years a new category has emerged, often called near-luxury. High-end car manufacturers are offering less expensive models, trying to reach more buyers, and mainstream brands are adding more luxury features, trying to expand their image. Now that auto financing interest rates are at the lowest level ever, bargains abound.

The majority of sedans sold fall in the midsize category; big enough for four and occasionally five occupants, but still thrifty to operate. Most brands have a near-luxury car the same size that normally would cost up to $10,000 more, but with a lot of buyers taking advantage of low financing rates and buying new cars, there is a glut of excellent, nearly new luxury models available from lease programs.

These cars have usually been carefully maintained, and more than likely have a manufacturer warranty period remaining. In addition, most manufacturers have a factory-authorized program to certify these used cars, and good financing rates are available.

Why drive a plain-brown-wrapper car when you can have a set of classy wheels for the same price?

These cars will likely come with automatic transmissions, air conditioning, high-end sound systems, power controls, styled wheels, sunroofs, and extra safety equipment as standard. In addition, you are likely to find leather, wood trim, alarm systems, heated seats and even navigation systems installed. All but a few will come with powerful V-6 engines.

Rather than settling for a Camry or Accord like everyone else, you can get a plusher Toyota Avalon (some of which have six seats); or an upscale Lexus ES 300, the car that started the whole movement; or the excellent Acura TL, which has set new standards for well-equipped affordability.

While the Altima is a fine machine, you should be able to get an off-lease Nissan Maxima or sporty Infiniti G35 for about the same money, and get lots more attention from your friends in the bargain.

Because they are not as well-known, bargains abound for Mazda’s Millenia and Mitsubishi’s Diamante. And the Koreans have truly arrived. Hyundai’s XG350 is often mistaken for a small Lincoln, and the Kia Optima shares many of its parts and the remarkable 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty; a good gauge of its quality and reliability. These companies are sure that their products will last and put their reputation behind the cars.

The Germans are often given credit for popularizing small luxury cars, and Mercedes-Benz offers the C-Class in lots of plush and sporty versions. It may be a little soon to find Volkswagen’s Passat W8 (yes, W, not V) sedan, but there are many V-6 versions to choose from. Its Audi division has lots of sporty and all-wheel-drive A4s and A6s on dealer lots, while the rarer “S” brand versions are for real enthusiasts. And who can overlook BMW, which has many flavors of the 3-Series sedan to choose from, including convertibles and wagons.

American models provide a full range of choices; with Lincoln offering the LS with six and eight cylinders and the small Cadillac CTS still offers all the style the company is known for. Other brands have raised the bar with refined midsize products such as Buick’s LeSabre and the high-performance Regal, plus Pontiac’s completely new Grand Prix.

Although the company is almost gone, Oldsmobile’s Intrigue and Aurora still have an excellent reputation, and General Motors will stand behind them for service as long as you own them. Chrysler has received high praise for styling on the 300M, with a distinctive retro European appeal.

Speaking of Europeans, even the vaunted English company Jaguar has classically styled cars in this market: the S-type that looks like it came from a 1950s movie, and the smaller X-type that can come with all-wheel drive. All-wheel drive is also an option on many Volvo S60, V70 and S80 sedans and wagons, which are considered the gold standard for safe cars.

Suffice it to say, the choices are wide, and the products are glittering. With a little bit of shopping, you should be able to get a set of wheels that will impress your friends for around $20,000… or maybe even less.

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