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Should You Buy a Fully-Loaded Non-Luxury Car or a Base-Trim Luxury Car?

Luxury doesn’t have to be expensive these days, which is a boon for those going car shopping. However, as luxury cars get cheaper, they start to butt up against the higher trim levels of more mainstream models. In some cases, for example, the Toyota Avalon and Lexus ES, the non-luxury car uses some of the more expensive vehicle’s technology. But which is the better choice: loading up a mainstream car, or going for a base-level luxury one?

How much more expensive is a base-trim luxury car vs. a fully-loaded mainstream car?

A white 2021 Rolls-Royce Ghost, the luxury brand's entry-level car
2021 Rolls-Royce Ghost | Rolls-Royce

There’s no established minimum price point separating luxury and non-luxury vehicles. After all, Rolls-Royce considers the Ghost to be its entry-level model, and it costs $330,000. But considering there are several excellent luxury cars available for about $40k, that seems like a good place to start.

One of those recommended inexpensive luxury cars is the Audi A4, which for 2021 starts at $39,100. Before it was refreshed and updated, Motor Trend compared it against the Honda Accord 2.0T Touring. For 2021, that trim starts at $36,700. The price difference here is just $1400—fairly small, all things considered. In fact, you can spend more than that on upgrading the Accord’s wheels. Though it’s worth pointing out that MT gave the win, barely, to the Honda.

It’s a similar story when we look at luxury crossovers/SUVs. MT also compared a Mazda CX-5 AWD Grand Touring to the Lexus NX 300. Today, the equivalent CX-5 costs $31,680; the NX 300 starts at $38,910. However, the range-topping CX-5 trim is the AWD Signature, which starts at $37,405.

Finally, let’s examine the Toyota Avalon and Lexus ES again. The two sedans ride on the same platform and share powertrains, Autotrader reports. “At their core,” Consumer Reports muses, “these are the same basic car.” The range-topping 2021 Avalon is the Limited Hybrid, which starts at $43,300. In comparison, the base ES 300h starts at $41,810. So, in this case, it’s actually the fully-loaded mainstream car that out-prices the luxury one.

That’s the case even with the non-hybrid models. The real base Lexus ES is the 250 AWD, which starts at $39,900. The non-hybrid range-topping Avalon is the Limited AWD, which starts at $42,175.

Are there significant differences between the highest trim of a non-luxury car and a base-trim premium car?

In short, there’s not a huge difference in price between a luxury car’s base trim and a more mainstream model’s highest-level trim. But is there a difference in terms of features or driving experience?

A white-leather 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class' luxury car interior
2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class front interior | Mercedes-Benz

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It used to be that luxury cars were differentiated solely by their build quality. Later, it became about features, such as leather upholstery, heated seats, and (before they were standardized) backup cameras. But, while some features, like massaging seats, are still limited to pricier vehicles, many more have spread to less expensive cars. Navigation, radar-based cruise control, and power-operated seats are now available on many non-premium cars’ higher trim levels.

Because of this, Kelley Blue Book’s research found 1/3rd of surveyed luxury customers would consider moving to a non-luxury car if it had “upscale features,” Automotive News reports. And often, a base-trim luxury car lacks certain things the fully-loaded mainstream model has.

So, if it’s not features, where does the base-trim luxury car win out over the non-luxury one? Broadly speaking, it’s a matter of overall material quality and driving impressions, MT and Autotrader report.

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For example, in MT’s Genesis G70 and Kia Stinger comparison, the more luxurious G70 claimed the win. It has the same chassis and powertrain, and again, costs roughly the same. However, it rode more quietly, and its interior materials felt more solid and premium.

The 2021 Audi A4's brown-leather front seats and black dashboard
2021 Audi A4 interior | Audi

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It’s worth pointing out that this is an overall statement, not a hard-and-fast rule. Look no further than MT’s own Audi A4 and Honda Accord comparison. There, the Accord beat the A4 because it rode better and had fewer cost-cutting measures in its interior.

Which one should you buy?

If you’re trying to decide between a base-trim luxury car and a fully-loaded mainstream car, there are ways to simplify the process, CR explains.

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First, figure out which features you really need and which ones you only want, Autotrader reports. Then, look at which trims offer them, either as standard or as options, and start comparing prices. It may be cheaper to get a base trim and add options, rather than going for a more expensive trim, Carvana reports.

Ultimately, though, choosing between a base-trim luxury car and a fully-loaded non-luxury car is a personal choice. And there’s really no substitute for taking test drives in them both.

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