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Big Deal Luxury Wheels

For practically minded CEOs, $40,000 to $50,000 luxury sedans are the sweet spot of the automotive market these days. Part …

For practically minded CEOs, $40,000 to $50,000 luxury sedans are the sweet spot of the automotive market these days. Part of the reason is that other contenders are fading. Behemoth SUVs, for example, scream “gas hog,” well appointed though they might be. Six-figure cruisers bespeak excess in an environment today where the CEO wants to be seen as anything but self-indulgent. And fast little sports cars are for, well, retirement.

If you want to drive in the lap of luxury sedans, there are lots to choose from-cars that are fun and good-looking as well as comfortable, reasonably fuel-efficient and just sensible overall. Automakers put their best foot forward in exactly this part of the market, where healthy sticker prices and high margins give them the chance to integrate their most robust power trains with their best transmissions, highest-quality materials and niftiest technology features, and other amenities.

  Lincoln MKZ is Ford’s spanking-new attempt to retain its once-solid standing in the luxury segment. At prices starting around $29,000, the renamed Zephyr is the best value in this group. It offers a quintessentially American take on luxury, with conservative styling, an exclusive new 263-hp. engine for 2008, roomy and comfortable interior and a square and useful trunk. Competitive touches include standard driver and passenger lumbar supports. But it’s difficult to hide the fact that the MKZ shares a mechanical platform with smaller cars, meaning that it simply lacks the overall responsiveness, handling dynamics, interior-design quality and refinement of the European entries in this segment.

 Of the Japanese luxury makes, Toyota‘s Lexus and Nissan’s Infiniti brand get more attention. But Honda’s own upscale division has fielded a notable vehicle in this segment in its flagship Acura RL. Starting at prices around $46,000, it’s an intelligent choice if you’re looking for an all-wheel-drive luxury sedan that sports all the latest gadgetry. This technophile’s fantasy includes a “Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive” system that intelligently distributes power to each wheel; paddles on the steering wheel that let the driver shift manually if the road ahead calls for it; a multizone climate system that blows filtered air; and a rearview camera that’s among the most useful in the segment.


In Germany, the Mercedes-Benz E350 is the standard-issue company car for corporate executives, and you can understand why: It’s a great balance of performance and luxury for prices that start at around $50,000. Beginning with the 2007 model year, Mercedes-Benz substantially upgraded the E350’s standard equipment, which now includes Harmon-Kardon stereo and Bluetooth phone integration. You must look up to appreciate some of the deftest touches in the E350. They include first- and second-row sunroofs that are eclipsed by a motorized screen. And in the dark, subtle rings of mellow nightlights illuminate each row just enough. For an extra $4,320, add a premium package including Xenon headlamps that adjust as you corner to give you a better peek around curves.



Brand new from the GM shop, the 2008-model Cadillac STS represents the worthiest American competitor in this segment. At 302 hp., its new 6-cyl. engine has more raw output than the other two cars, nimble handling for a longish body and a reassuring road feel-though it’s simply not as quick, responsive or solid as the BMW 535i or Mercedes E350. For prices starting at about $43,000, GM has loaded the STS with new technology, including a lane-departure warning system to help drowsy drivers: It flashes an indicator on the fuel gauge, and chimes three times, so you can right the ship. But STS displays at least one puzzling drawback: The opening of the capacious trunk is curiously small, making it difficult to fit in, say, a hefty bag of golf clubs.


 The BMW 535i might comprise the pinnacle of this segment: Its prices start at about $50,000. The 535i is  powered flawlessly by BMW’s new twin-turbo 6-cyl. engine, which can zap you from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds while you maintain total control. But the 535i is also big on comfort for all occupants, thanks to a ride that is unfailingly solid and seating that is easy on your frame. In fact, the driver’s seat bolsters fill in with support around your body right after you sit down. There’s more leather than you might expect. Unfortunately, the interior’s new bamboo anthracite wood trim is a ghastly gray mess. Keep your eyes on the road and you’ll be all right


Now, if you’ve got a big 2007 bonus coming and want to raise your automotive sights, you might also consider a statement sedan like the Jaguar XJ Super V8. For a mere $92,000, this British-built beauty will propel you down the highway behind its 400-hp., supercharged V8 engine, cosset you with wonders such as 20-way power-seat controls, and do it all with such quiet aplomb that you can truly enjoy the 320- watt, 12 speaker Alpine sound system. And unlike less-expensive Jags, there’s no mistaking the styling heritage of this car. The few drawbacks include doors that don’t close easily and seat bolsters that are tough to slide over. But if you really want to “rough it,” choose one of the other five sedans instead.

About Dale Buss

Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.