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Low Trim Luxury or High Trim Mass-Market?

Chris Kaiser

Where do you find the best car for your dollar, the Mass-Market VIP room or the Luxury bargain bin? We find out.

You just go your shiny new job in the shiny new building, and you want a shiny new car to park in your new parking spot right up next to that shiny new building. But, unless you just made it to mid-level management and absolutely need a Mercedes to lord over your newfound underlings, you might confront the following question: which should I buy, the low trim luxury vehicle or the high trim mass market equivalent?

And no, the answer isn’t as simple as, it’s a Mercedes dummy! Between the higher typical markup on tech and safety features and the higher cost of ownership for luxury vehicles it can often make sense to take those dollars and buy a fully loaded mass-market equivalent.

Mid-Size Sedans: Lexus ES 350 versus Honda Accord – $37,000

lexus.com | automobiles.honda.com
lexus.com | automobiles.honda.com

Unlike some of its luxury brethren, just get the Lexus dummy! might actually be apt here. The Lexus ES 350 offers a calm, composed ride, a luscious interior, and bevy of standard safety features. The reason this choice isn’t so simple is the excellence of the Honda Accord. Fully loaded the Accord offers an engaging driving experience, quality interior design and materials, and while not quite as cossetted as the ES, it offers a quiet and comfortable ride.

Other features on the ES you’d be upsold on include the 10.2-inch heads-up display (HUD) for $500, the $900 Mark Levinson 17-speaker audio system (one of the best premium stereos around), and the $1,820 navigation system complete with a 12.3-inch display and dynamic voice command. The ES does offer a lot of standard safety features, but one that doesn’t come standard is the blind-spot monitor system, which is a $500 upgrade.

The maxed-out Accord will have that HUD for you, navigation, and premium audio. However, you will still have to pay $600 extra for that cool Illumination Package which includes lighted door sills, puddle lights, and interior ambient lights.

While we liked the ES’s refinement and all those pricy add-ons, the Accord is the easy pick here. The Accord Touring is a lot of car for the money not least because of that peppy 2.0-liter turbo-4 under the hood makes it a full second swifter off the line than the ES’s V6. Fun and refinement can be had without compromise in an Accord.

WINNER: Honda Accord

2020 Honda Accord - automobiles.honda.com

2020 Honda Accord – automobiles.honda.com  |  Shop 2020 Honda Accord on Carsforsale.com

Compact Crossover: Acura RDX versus Mazda CX-5 – $37,500

acura.com | mazdausa.com
acura.com | mazdausa.com

Which do you prefer athletic and refined or sporty and elegant? Both the Acura RDX and Mazda CX-5 can be counted as all of the above. The CX-5 has won plaudits from car reviewers for its engaging drive and upscale interior, both of which can be had to find in mass-market crossovers. Indeed, once you start looking up toward the luxury end of things the competition gets tighter as Porsche, BMW, and Lexus all offer driving experiences that mimic their sport sedan equivalents. We chose to put pit the CX-5 against the Acura RDX because the latter is not only one of the better luxury compact crossovers, it’s also one of the most affordable.

The CX-5, for its part, does grant a metric ton of value for the price tag. That price, on the top-level Signature trim, does represent a ceiling for mass-market players in the segment. In addition to the great handling, the CX-5 has arguably the nicest interior of any comparably priced crossover. But the base RDX offers even greater refinement and more character for the same price. Plus, the Acura offers an expansive panoramic moonroof as a standard feature on all RDX trims.

So, what about powertrains and drivetrains? All-wheel drive on the RDX costs an additional $2,000. Whereas, the CX-5 Signature comes only with AWD paired with its a 2.5-liter turbo 4-cylinder engine making 250 (there’s also a non-turbo and a diesel option lower down the trim ladder). The RDX, on the other hand, comes with just one engine option regardless of trim, a 2.0-liter turbo-4 making 272hp.

The true differentiator comes once you’re looking at available and standard tech. The Acura, surprise, places a significant premium its tech packages. The Tech Package adds HD radio, a 12-speaker stereo, navigation, and blind-spot monitoring. At $3,200 extra, it’s a hefty, yet reasonable asking price. The RDX does have standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integrations to keep pace with the CX-5.

The CX-5 wins out on the thinnest of margins. The RDX, even at its base, is a wonderful vehicle. But between the up charge for AWD of $2,000 and those must-have tech features for $3,200 ends up not balancing out despite the marginally better interior and lovely panoramic moonroof.

WINNER: Mazda CX-5

2020 Mazda CX-5 - mazdausa.com

2020 Mazda CX-5 – mazdausa.com  |  Shop 2020 Mazda CX-5  on Carsforsale.com

Third-Row SUV: Chevrolet Traverse versus Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 – $53,000

mercedes-benz.com | chevrolet.com
mercedes-benz.com | chevrolet.com

Choosing between the Chevrolet Traverse High Country and the base Mercedes-Benz GLE comes down to your personal balance of practicality versus luxury. Other than the price, these two vehicles are vastly different in personality and functionality. The Traverse can lay claim to the practical part, AWD and a roomy cabin make a strong bid for the better family hauler. The GLE is lightyears ahead on luxury comfort and styling.

The Traverse High Country comes loaded to the gills (grilles?) with features, including adaptive cruise control, surround view parking, and an 8-inch touchscreen to name but a few. A more significant differentiator from the GLE is the voluminous cargo and passenger space in the Traverse. With the third row in use the two are pretty equally matched at 23 cu. ft. for the Traverse and 22 cu. ft. for the GLE. But fold all those seats down and the Traverse does a good impression of a minivan, yielding a staggering 98 cu. ft. to the GLE’s paltry 72 cu. ft.

The Traverses greatest weakness, a lack luster interior, is also the GLE’s strong suit. High quality materials, wood trim and brushed aluminum, abound, and the overall design is elegant, bordering on opulent. And this is without spending any extra. Indeed, while Mercedes does offer plenty of ways to balloon your final price, the GLE come standard with lots of choice goodies like heated front seats, keyless entry and keyless start, power liftgate, a gargantuan 12.3-inch touchscreen, and a power sunroof.

What Mercedes keeps behind that trim level paywall is still significant. Their safety package, including things like lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and blind-spot monitoring costs $2,250. You’ll be paying a similar amount of money if you want the 4Matic AWD version, which adds another $2,500. The high-end Burmester 3D surround sound stereo may induce nose bleeds, and not just from the thundering twin subwoofers, it also tacks on $5,400! Compromise on the “regular” Burmester that comes with the $1,800 Premium Package and Mercedes will toss in ambient lighting and wireless phone charging.

With or without all those add-ons, the refined ride and masterfully wrought interior allow the GLE to pull ahead of the Traverse. If you’re cautious about your add-ons, you can get in a GLE for nearly the same price as the top end Traverse High Country.

WINNER: Mercedes-Benz GLE 350

Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 - mbusa.com

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 – mbusa.com  |  Shop 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 on Carsforsale.com

Sports Cars: Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 Versus Porsche 718 Boxster – $65,000

ford.com | porsche.com
ford.com | porsche.com

We upped the budget just slightly for this comparison. It would be unlikely drive off the lot with completely stock Mustang or Boxster. And though both start around $60,000, they can easily clock in at significantly more than the $65,000 ceiling we’re instituting here. Plus, Porsche is notorious for nickel-and-diming on individual features. (Example, the 718 can come with your choice of 2-way manually adjustable seats for $0 or 14-way power adjustable sports seats, with memory settings, for $2,330.)

Let’s start with the raw numbers. The Mustang’s 5.2-liter V-8 produces a thundering 525hp and 429 lb. ft. of torque that allow the GT to leap from 0 to 60 in just 4.2 seconds. The base Boxster runs with a turbocharged 2.0-liter flat-four with 300hp and 280 lb. ft. zipping from 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds. Both come with standard 6-speed manuals, and while the Porsche PDK transmission is as refined an automatic as you’ll find, we’ll keep the cost down and row our own.

Those numbers mean the Mustang is appreciably faster off the line. But those numbers fail to communicate is the general “Porsche-ness” of the Boxster’s superior handling. The handling of Ford’s pony car has improved immensely over the years, and today’s Mustangs are a genuine joy to drive. But the Porsche’s razor-sharp steering and slingshot cornering place it a cut above the admittedly excellent Mustang.

However, the Mustang gets another win when we start looking at the features list. Even granting an extra $5,000 for both the Ford and Porsche, your US dollars won’t go equally far in Baden-Württemberg. The Mustang’s Tech Package comes with the Bang & Olufsen premium stereo, blind-spot detection, voice activated navigation, and 6-way adjustable front seats for an even $2,000. We added the leather trimmed sport seats at $495 for good measure. All-in-all our Mustang tallied up to $64,625.

Back in Stuttgart, every bell and whistle comes with a hefty price tag attached. The BOSE stereo clocked in at $990, a far cry from the $4,690 Burmester. Keyless entry added $800 to the bill. We splurged a heated Mahogany steering wheel to match our leather racing gloves, just $990. Apple CarPlay, which we’ll note comes standard on more and more vehicles every day, still costs $360 when you’re buying a Porsche, booo! Our compromise Boxster totaled $64,090.

Naturally, the Mustang ends up being the more “complete” car in this scenario, but the Porsche’s sublime drivability is a siren’s song just too seductive to ignore. Plus, it’s a Porsche for under $100,000 for gosh sake!

WINNER: Porsche 718 Boxster

Porsche 718 Boxster - porsche.com

2020 Porsche 718 Boxster – porsche.com  |  Shop Porsche 718 Boxter on Carsforsale.com

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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