One imagines that the people behind WhatsApp, the messaging service bought by Facebook Inc. for $19 billion, are doing some new-car shopping. A payday like that promises major automotive upgrades. Throw out the Saturn and bring on the flashy Ferraris.
Those of us with no Silicon Valley deal in the works may have to set our sights lower. But don’t give up on your dream of Sunday drives on winding back roads just yet. With a little creative purchasing, you can still satisfy that itch for a car as fun as a Porsche or as posh as an Infiniti. Call them satisfying downgrades.
If you can’t afford this: $84,225 Range Rover.
Consider this: $36,040 Toyota Highlander XLE.
How they stack up: Buyers love the Range Rover because of its dashing looks and go-anywhere personality. Owners imagine themselves traveling through the Sahara, though most Range Rovers are used as suburban people movers. The new generation is built on an aluminum frame, seats five, and is agile and comfortable on asphalt. It’s also gob-smackingly expensive. The Toyota Highlander is the definition of a people mover, a milquetoast SUV with three rows of seating and as much personality as a hamster. Until now, anyhow. The all-new, third-generation machine has gone macho, with a brooding, masculine front end and overall swaggering attitude. The 2014 model is wider and longer, with a jazzed-up interior. It’s also available as an all-wheel-drive.
Drive comparison: The base Range Rover gets 340 horsepower out of its supercharged 3-liter V-6. That’s more powerful than the Toyota’s 3.5-liter V-6, which has 270 hp. Yet the Highlander handles itself admirably, charging up steep freeway hills and maintaining a balance of comfort and handling. My all-wheel-drive model, $38,700 as tested, even braved off-road duty on snow-covered gravel roads. Its biggest failure is the sluggish six-speed automatic, which can’t match the swiftness and intuitive nature of the Range’s eight-speed ZF automatic.
You’ll give up: The Range Rover’s phenomenal off-road ability. And while the Highlander gleams like never before, there’s no mistaking the Range Rover for anything but a luxury item.
Yet you’ll get: A very smartly styled interior. The Highlander is full of clever storage spaces and details that make life easier. There’s a long shelf that runs under the dash, designed for mobile phones and sunglasses. It even has a pass-through to accommodate chargers. The navigation system also bests the Range’s.
Bottom line: A Toyota that apes some of the Range Rover’s mannish swagger.
If you can’t afford this: $49,500 Infiniti Q70 3.7
Consider this: $35,100 Kia Cadenza
How they stack up: Comparing an Infiniti mid-size sedan to a full-size Kia may seem odd. Yet after driving these two models back to back, the similarities stand out more clearly than the differences. Both are meant to coddle you with the latest electronics and dandy interiors. The Infiniti Q70 (previously known as the M sedan) is fleeter and more sport-oriented, though the Kia has the better-looking design. Kia is on a luxury upswing, and its ability to target every convenience you’ll find in other luxury vehicles makes a company like Infiniti especially vulnerable. Infiniti’s vehicles just don’t stand out in the crowd like a BMW or even a new Lexus. Upgrade to the $42,400 Cadenza Limited, and you get an outrageously equipped vehicle, including panoramic sunroof, adaptive headlights, ventilated seats, rear window sunshades, heated steering wheel, smart cruise control and blind spot detection. Much of that stuff necessitates special packages on the Q70, adding some $11,000.
Drive comparison: Kia has finally figured out how to tune a suspension. The Cadenza moves over washboard surfaces smoothly, leaving passengers unruffled. Yet it will happily lean into a curve. What the front-wheel-drive won’t do is keep up with rear-wheel drive Q70 in a race. The Infiniti’s 3.7-liter V-6 outguns the Kia’s 3.3-liter V-6, 330 horses to 293 hp. The Q70 is also much stiffer, which will please performance-oriented drivers, if not their passengers.
You’ll give up: Nameplate recognition. Infiniti isn’t the most desirable luxury carmaker these days, but some people will make a face when they hear the name Kia.
Yet you’ll get: An exterior and interior that both feel remarkably fresh. That’s one good-looking sedan.
Bottom line: Kia has benchmarked sedans like the Infiniti within an inch of its life.
If you can’t afford this: $91,980 Porsche 911 Carrera 4
Consider this: $34,495 Subaru WRX STI
How they stack up: Porsche’s latest-generation 911 4 is a civilized beast; easy to drive around town and savage on curvy roads. Subaru, meanwhile, is releasing its latest generation of the WRX STI, the brand’s swing-for-the-fences sports car. Both the Porsche and Subaru have all-wheel-drive and use torque vectoring to help corner. Both are fast. And both are born to burn down back roads.
Drive comparison: The Porsche gets 350 horses out of the flat six. The STI has a turbocharged four-cylinder and makes do with only 305 hp. Yet in many ways the STI feels more alive on the road. The suspension is tuned to be race-car stiff, and you’ll feel every ripple or crack on the surface of the road. Ask ridiculous things of it -- turn right now, at this silly speed! -- and it complies. You feel like you’re part of the car. And the only transmission offered is a manual.
You’ll give up: The comfort and overall usability of the 911. The Porsche is sweet when it needs to be, and the interior is a glory. The Subaru has no interest in being sweet, ever, and the ride beats you up. The interior is sad-looking plastic.
Yet you’ll get: Street credibility from the type of kids who play “Gran Turismo” video games and guzzle Monster energy drinks.
Bottom line: Take the WRX STI to any narrow back road, and you’ll have at least as much fun as you would in the 911.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)