At one time, only the wealthy could afford a car that merited a Cadillac crest or leaping jaguar on the hood. Not anymore. BMW's success with the small, entry-level 3 series has nearly every auto maker looking to woo young, brand-conscious buyers. Since last fall, the strivers have seven new models to choose from, and these four--the Cadillac CTS, Infiniti G35, Audi A4, and Jaguar X-type--compete with the 3 series.
The good news: These $35,000 neo-luxury cars are getting better all the time. Even General Motors (GM ) has discovered it can't just slap the Cadillac name on one of its boring European Opel cars and expect to compete. The new entries have heated seats, premium stereos, plush leather, and fast engines coupled with some real performance-driving hardware. The styling is getting more aggressive as carmakers try to shine in a crowded market.
Cadillac has made the biggest splash in the group. The first thing I noticed when I got the keys to the all-new Cadillac CTS was the sheer, edgy style, what GM calls its Art & Science design. With flat sides to the car and sharp edges and creases from every angle, the chiseled CTS stands out as no other car in the class. It's a love-it-or-hate-it look. Personally, it has grown on me, and I like that it doesn't resemble an Audi or a Mercedes, which most other luxury brands seem to be copying. The front grille is especially striking, as a Cadillac's should be.
At first glance, the CTS looked even cooler inside. The dashboard has the same modern, angular design of the exterior. The center console, which houses the knobs for the stereo and heat, is styled to look like a computer stack. Trouble is, who thinks their PC tower looks luxurious? The knobs and buttons feel cheap, and the speedometer and other gauges look as if they have been stamped on one sheet of plastic. Other than comfy seats, very little is rich about the cockpit. And while the CTS is the longest of the four I tested, the rear passenger room is just adequate.
The fun started when I fired up the ignition. I took the CTS on some winding hills in Orange County, Calif., and noticed quickly how the car could handle tight turns at speeds greater than 50 miles per hour without leaning hard to either side. The steering was precise, and the brakes could handle any short stops. The only drawback is the engine. While I found the 3.2-liter V-6 powerful enough for most situations, the CTS needs more power to compete with its brawnier rivals. Of the four cars I tested, it is the heaviest and has the least horsepower, just 220. That makes it a bit sluggish, especially compared with the X-type and G35. But it's still a great ride.
My personal favorite in the class is the Infiniti G35. Priced from $27,000 to $36,000--though very nicely equipped for $33,000--the G35 is a great deal. Built on the platform of the Nissan Skyline, a rear-wheel-drive sports car sold in Japan, the G35 has a sporty pedigree. With 260 horsepower under the hood, it can really move. The steering could be tighter, but the car handles superbly. I had great fun darting between lanes. Although one of the larger cars in its class, it kept its balance nicely, even when taking sharp turns fast.
The interior is quite impressive. My test car had soft, black leather everywhere. The seats were very comfortable, and the car has as much passenger space as the CTS and more than most competitors. Unlike the others, the G35 has plenty of room to store CD cases and the like. Infiniti used a little cheap plastic in the center console, but it's well-disguised with chrome-tone buttons and knobs. One criticism: The seat controls are wedged too closely to the door on one side and the console on the other. That makes it tough to adjust seating while driving.
Audi's all-new A4 was engineered with major improvements in ride and handling, but it still has all-wheel or front-wheel drive for winter driving. Audi's engineers took square aim at BMW's reputation for making the "Ultimate Driving Machine." They made the car stiffer, so it handles tight turns better but has a little rougher ride. Audi also sells a bigger six-cylinder engine, adding 14 horsepower for a total of 220. For a front-wheel drive car, the A4 handles as well as a BMW 3 series.
Styling is a big upgrade. Audi replaced the boring old rectangular shape with the rounded looks of the A6 sedan. The A4 is a little tight, though. It's the smallest of the cars I tested--with the least passenger space. If a tall driver is behind the wheel, a rear passenger will be cramped. By the end of my test run, I felt as if I'd still rather have the A6.
As carmakers chase the booming sales of the entry-luxury segment, they always run the risk of cheapening their good names. That's the big question for Jaguar, which launched a lower-priced car for the first time in its history. The X-type Jag starts at $30,000 and can cost $44,000. Its success will test parent Ford Motor's (F ) strategy of buying luxury carmakers such as Jaguar, Volvo, and Land Rover and trying to cash in on their snooty cachet by adding more cars to the lineup.
The X-type is built on the underpinnings of Ford's European Mondeo. Like the Mondeo, it's a great driver. I loved the car's nimble handling, and the 231-horsepower V-6 engine makes for plenty of grins. The all-wheel drive is a big selling point. And the car's leather seats seemed to wrap around me. Ford made it comfortable, especially considering that it's smaller than the G35 and CTS.
But when I think of Jaguars, I picture sleek, sexy cars with opulent luxury inside. Even the hood ornament--the very recognizable leaper--seemed out of place lunging off the front of the X-type's short hood. It's the equivalent of putting an elegant grandfather clock in a college dorm room. I really enjoyed the car--except for its unusually soft brakes--but Jaguar may have reached too low. The X-type would have made a nice Lincoln.
All of these entry-level luxury cars ask a big question: What's really in a name? The G35 is a better buy than the X-type, even though most people think more highly of Jaguar than Infiniti. Cadillac isn't as hip as many European marques such as Audi or BMW, but the CTS is a great driving car that dares to be different. That's why, when it comes to buying entry-level luxury cars, ignore the brand names and get the car with the best drive and most comfort.
By David Welch