The best luxury cars costing $50,000 or less

Image:  Volvo XC70
At a base price of $36,755, the Volvo  XC70 made the list in the best midsize wagon category.AP
/ Source: Forbes

Those that believe you have to spend big for a luxury car may turn up their noses at the autos on this list.

That's their loss.

Pay $37,175 for the BMW Z4 Roadster, and you can cruise around town in a two-seater that allows you to automatically control the drop top while listening to your favorite tunes through a 10-speaker audio system.

The $35,605 Lincoln MKX crossover utility vehicle is loaded with standard features like heated, dual power mirrors with memory, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with genuine wood accents, and four-wheel disc brakes with an anti-lock braking system. Options include 20-inch chrome-clad wheels, a panoramic roof and a voice-activated DVD-based navigation system. The Volvo XC70, a $36,755 midsize wagon, is loaded with advanced safety features like hill descent control and full-length side curtain airbags.

To find others like them, we used data from Strategic Vision's 2007 Total Value Awards. The market research firm measures classes of cars (including reliability, warranty, strong anticipated resale value, durability, innovation, and dealership and ownership experience. Only cars that got a score of 700 out of a possible 1,000 were counted.

Vincentric, an automotive research firm, provided maintenance costs calculated over a five-year period. Vehicles with the lowest costs, which include oil changes, wheel alignments and replacement wiper blades, made the list. Finally, we capped our list at cars costing $50,000; this allowed us to measure a wide range of vehicles, from coupes to large cars.

The under-$50,000 segment is diverse. You can find an Audi A3 wagon with a starting price of $25,930 and a Saab 9-3 convertible beginning at $26,000. At the top end is the Land Rover SUV starting at $44,933 and the Mercedes SLK roadster with a base price of $46,000. Add in a few select options, and you can easily meet the $50,000 threshold.

There's good reason the list is long. When Nissan  (through Infiniti), Honda (through Acura) and Toyota (through Lexus) in the mid-'90s introduced models for the entry-level luxury buyer, they forced other carmakers to compete. Mercedes, Benz and BMW followed suit with the C Class and 3 Series, respectively. Audi, Saab, Cadillac and Lincoln also increased their offerings.

Their targets? Young professionals with high-paying jobs, those in high-income households, and empty nesters who are transitioning into a luxury vehicle. They found that these buyers were making their first or second luxury vehicle purchase. Upgrading to a luxury auto means sliding into leather or plush seats, or enjoying enhanced power features like a push-button engine start, memory seating for two drivers and rolling along on larger wheels.

"You are treating yourself with these vehicles," says Stephanie Brinley, senior manager of product analysis at AutoPacific, a market research firm covering the auto industry. "It is reaching a level of maturity. You've reached a stage in your life where you want a little more luxury, and you can afford to purchase a vehicle with more amenities."

Still, there's a big difference between a $45,000 luxury car and an ultra-luxury car twice its price. Take the $86,000 Cadillac XLR convertible roadster. Its standard features include 15-spoke wheels, a V8 engine, a heated steering wheel, a high-tech navigation system and a retractable hard top. Many of these are options in the under-$50,000 group.

Instead, these cars' treats include standard features like electronic stability control or anti-lock brakes; stellar sound systems with multiple speakers; leather seats or high-quality upholstery; and a wider choice of options, like premium paint colors and electronic connections, like iPod and MP3 connectivity.

The Infiniti M35 unique African rosewood on key touch points and ultra-soft leather seats wraps you in luxury, and the Lexus IS 250 surround sound system with 14 speakers placed strategically throughout the cabin create a premium sound system that will blow you away.

But let the buyer beware. Once you cross over into the luxury segment, you may never want to drive anything else.