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How Much Should You Spend for Your Next Car?
(and what will you get for your money?)
By Charles Ofria
Updated 
7/17/2004

Looking for a new car?  There are hundreds of models to choose from, with prices starting below $10,000 and going beyond a quarter-million, with most falling somewhere in between. With such a wide range, you may wonder, "What value will I get for my money at each price level?"  Is a $30,000 4-door sedan built to last longer than one that costs $15,000?  Is a Mercedes S-Class worth 6 times as much as a Toyota Corolla?  If such questions keep you tossing at night as you contemplate buying a new car or if you are just plain curious, the following will give you insight into what automotive consumers can expect for their money.

We will compare 4-door sedans in the various price brackets, beginning at $10,000 and moving up in $5000 increments to $30,000, then taking larger steps as we reach for the automotive stratosphere.  There are many models in each price category with some competing by including features normally associated with more pricey offerings; but we will concentrate on the standards that you should expect in all cars in a particular class.  If you are interested in special body styles, like a racy convertible, a practical mini-van or a rugged SUV, you can still use this information as a guideline, but expect to pay a premium for some of those body types.  An SUV, for instance, typically goes for about $3,000 to $5,000 more than a comparably equipped sedan, while a 2-door coupe tends to be a bit less expensive.

When evaluating a vehicle, be aware that a new car dealer trying to impress you with a long feature list will often tout items that are mandated by federal law.  As a savvy consumer, you should realize that such safety features as dual front air bags, crumple zones and side guard door beams are required on every new car sold in America, regardless of price.

Other features that you can generally count on in a new car are dual outside mirrors, rear door child safety locks on 4-door models, heater and defroster, intermittent windshield wipers, windshield washers, steel-belted radial tires and, oh yes, cup holders.  While such conveniences are not legal requirements, the weight of consumer demand has made them standard.

You can even expect great engineering in all new cars.  An $80,000 Mercedes Benz will not necessarily get more design and engineering effort than a $15,000 Toyota Corolla.  They compare favorably in build quality, reliability and fit and finish.  In fact, innovative engineering does not always translate into higher price: it may even keep costs down.

In today's automotive market, "content" and "special touches" are what differentiate price levels.  Larger, more sophisticated engines and transmissions, more costly sound deadening materials, more refined steering and suspension systems, upscale features like leather upholstery, heated seats, power accessories and killer sound systems all serve to drive up the price.  Expensive cars require more complicated assembly processes and are often trimmed with more expensive materials, like real wood instead of imitation wood made of plastic or no trim at all.

The more expensive the car, the less volume a manufacturer will sell and the more profit per vehicle must be built in, making it more expensive still.  At $60,000 you can get a fabulous sedan that can be as luxurious and well-built as they come. When you get past $60,000 for a car, you reach a point of diminishing returns.  You get less added content, but more "exclusivity."  A $250,000 Bentley is an excellent motor car, but is it more than twice as good as a $90,000 BMW 760, from which it borrowed much of its running gear?  Is the $90,000 BMW or Benz that much better than that $60,000 Lexus or Infiniti?  Sure, you get hand-finished exotic wood paneling and matched, hand fitted Connolly Leather hides for the seats; but you are really paying for longing stares from bystanders and grudging admiration from peers as you claim the best parking spot at the local country club.

Thanks to the phenomenon of capitalistic competition which has raised the automotive bar while keeping prices reasonable, the modern American consumer, with few exceptions, can now count on the reliability of new vehicles.   Since manufacturers must invest hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to produce a new model for sale in the US, they cannot risk bringing a car to market without some degree of certainty that it will meet customers' expectations.  So, there are no longer any really bad cars sold in America.  You need to do your research to find a car that meets your specific needs, but just about any new car you buy will be reasonably reliable and will last for many years if you maintain it properly.

Even the cheapest car is likely to have a quality paint job, smooth, straight body panels that fit together precisely, durable upholstery and carpeting and a power train capable of reliable performance under all weather conditions.  These inexpensive vehicles will have dual front air bags, seat and shoulder belts for all outboard passengers, child seat anchors, a good warranty and acceptable gas mileage.  Their tires most likely will last at least 40,000 miles and their engines won't require tune-ups for at least 60,000 miles (most models should go to 100,000 miles before requiring this service).

So what exactly do you get for your money when you buy a new car?  Let's take a look  

Under $10,000
As of this writing, the Kia Rio holds the distinction as the least expensive 4-door sedan sold in America and despite that, provides their little car with a 5 year, 60,000 mile basic warranty and a 10 year.100,000 mile power train warranty!  Hyundai, which is the parent company of Kia also offers this warranty on the Accent.  In this bargain basement price class, power steering is often optional. Power windows are either not available or optional. Air conditioning is optional as is an automatic transmission. (and once you add these options, that $10,000 price point is history)  A basic AM/FM radio may or may not be standard.  Interior trimmings are sparse, but neat and well finished.  Expect few creature comforts beyond seats with adjustable backrests and small arm rests on hard plastic door panels.  These cars will be sub-compact in size with a small, buzzy 4-cylinder engine coupled to a 5-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive. 

There are a small handful of cars that have a base price at or under $10,000.  They include the Chevrolet Aveo, Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio.


$10,000 to $15,000
In this class, power steering and power brakes are becoming standard and power windows are available as options or may even be standard.  Seat adjustments are manual.  Small 4-cylinder engines coupled to 5-speed standard transmissions are the norm with 4-speed automatic transmissions available as an option.  On some cars, A/C is standard, but in some cases, it is still on the options list, although in most parts of the country finding a model in the dealer's lot without A/C will be like finding a real bargain at a going-out-of-business sale.  Antilock brakes are an option on certain models but can be hard to find because their cost makes dealers reluctant to stock them in this price conscious class.  In many cases AM/FM/CD radios with multiple speakers are standard.  Door panels and console are molded hard plastic for the most part with padded arm rests on the doors but not on the console.  These cars are usually classified as compact or sub-compact and are front-wheel drive

There are many models to choose from in this price range, including models from: Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Pontiac, Saturn, Suzuki and Toyota


$15,000 to $20,000
In this range, power windows become standard and power seats are available as options on some cars.  A/C is standard as is Cruise control and power door locks. Leather seats are a common option on the more deluxe models.  Upholstery and carpeting are of better quality.  Door panels are "Soft-touch" instead of hard plastic on many cars in this price range providing more of a quality feel.  The console is still made of hard plastic with a molded-in leather grain, but in most cases it looks pretty good.  A console arm rest with a storage compartment beneath it is prevalent.  Vanity mirrors are on both sun visors and in some cases are illuminated and tilt and slide glass sun roofs are a common option. There are compact front-wheel drive cars as well as mid-size 4-cylinder and in some cases, V6 front-drive sedans available here.  Some models will have automatic transmissions as standard equipment.

This class also has many models to choose from with products made by: Buick, Chevrolet, Chrysler,  Dodge, Ford, Honda, Infiniti, Kia, Mazda, Mercury, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn, Subaru, Toyota and Volkswagen


$20,000 to $25,000
As we move more upscale, we find more refinement throughout.  Leather is becoming more prevalent, but still optional.  Power seats are becoming standard.  4-cylinder engines are giving way to smoother, more powerful V6 engines.  4-speed automatic transmissions are standard on most models, but sportier models are providing 5-speed sticks as a choice for drivers who prefer them.  Antilock brakes are becoming standard along with 4-wheel disk brakes replacing the front disk, rear drum setup found on less expensive offerings.  Traction control is also becoming available.  Cars in this class are larger and more comfortable  Sound systems are better, but standard radios usually have either a CD player or a Cassette player.  If you want both, you pay extra.  CD changers and seat heaters (on cars with leather) are also options.  Satellite navigation systems are starting to appear as high-priced options 

Models are available from: Audi, Buick, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercury, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo


$25,000 to $30,000
At this point, Leather is becoming standard on more models and covers the seating surfaces and door panels, but not the sides or backs of the seats which is still vinyl.  Smooth, more refined V6 engines are the norm.  Automatic transmissions are also more refined and smoother, in some cases, more advanced 5-speed automatics are available.  Seat heaters are becoming more available and in some cases, memory seats that "remember" the seat and mirror positions of two or three drivers are available as well as thermostatically controlled automatic air conditioning.  Interior trim is becoming more luxurious with "soft-touch" material on the door panels, console and seat frames giving the interior a more expensive look and feel.  Navigation systems are becoming a more popular option 

Look for models from: Acura, Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, Hyundai, Infiniti, Jaguar, Lexus, Mazda, Mercury, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo


$30,000 to $40,000
Leather is now standard.  If you are a vegetarian and into animal rights, meaning you will not buy anything made from animals, you're stuck with lesser cars.  Automatic A/C is also standard.  Large, powerful V-6 engines and 5-speed automatic transmissions fill this bracket.  Rear-wheel drive cars and all-wheel drive cars are becoming available.  We are beginning to see Climate control systems with individual temperature adjustments for driver and front seat passenger and, in the rear, adjustments for fan speed.  There are separate heating and A/C ducts and registers for rear passengers as well.  These cars are mostly large, comfortable, solid and quiet cruisers that will coddle you and your passengers and make drives of any length a pleasure. Navigation systems are popular options and well integrated into the dash.

Here, we find models from: Acura, Audi, BMW, Buick, Chrysler, Jaguar, Lexus, Lincoln, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saab, Volkswagen and Volvo.


$40,000 to $60,000
Large powerful V8 engine cars dominate this range with models that are tailored to individual preferences.  Some are oriented toward performance with fierce, but silky-smooth acceleration while others lean toward soft-smooth ride and whisper-quiet cabins that make you feel like you are in your easy chair watching television.  Many features that were optional in the less expensive cars are standard here.  6-speed automatic transmissions are beginning to appear.  Options may include heated rear seats, heated and COOLED front seats,  Interior upgrades with exotic leather and wood trim, acoustic parking sensors that tell you when you're close to a parked car, radar cruise control that keeps pace with the car ahead.  Navigation systems are still optional since they are expensive and not everyone wants them.

As we reach this point, there is less to choose from.  Look for models from: Acura, Audi, Cadillac, Infiniti, Jaguar, Lexus, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo


$60,000 to $80,000
All cars in this class have large V8 engines and 6 and even 7-speed automatic transmissions.  They are either rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive and have stability control systems as standard equipment.  Leather covers the seats and door panels, but not the dash or headliner. Real wood is often applied to the dash, console and doors  Every interior surface is of high quality.  Some cars in this class have exotic suspension systems that are computer controlled for an even smoother ride without compromising the handling.   Navigation systems are standard for the most part.  Options include 4-zone climate control with individual controls for all outboard passengers, special multi-adjustable seats, front and rear, some with vibrating massagers.

Look for models from: Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz


$80,000 to $120,000
Usually purchased by captains of industry or movie stars, these exotics usually have V-12 engines with close to 500 horsepower for even greater power and smoothness.  Just about every feature is standard, but what you are really paying for is exclusivity.  Cars that are over $100,000 usually have leather covering the dashboard & package tray behind the rear seats.  The headliner might be real suede with neatly stitched seams since a single hide is not large enough to cover the entire headliner.  Exotic suspensions allow the driver to adjust the ride or raise the car with the flick of a switch.  Special option packages and designer interiors are available that can increase the price by tens of thousands of dollars.

BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz models fill this slot


Over $120,000

There seems to be no limit to how much you can pay for an exotic sedan.  The Rolls Royce Phantom pictured above goes for$320,000 before options!  You can bring samples of leather, fabric & wood andhave the interior custom tailored to your liking (for an additional fee of course.) Their option list includes such necessities as:Theater Configuration back seat  ($12,300),Individual Seats ($7,200), Crossbanded Burr Walnut Veneer($2,600), Crossbanded Figured Mahoghany Veneer ($1,500), You get the idea.

Standard production models from Bentley and Rolls Royce fill this slot, butthere are custom models aplenty here that beckon to the fat-of-pocketcrowd.  Other companies have just entered this fray, including Maybach by Mercedes Benz. The picture at the top of this pageis that of the Maybach's rear passenger compartment.

Lots of hand crafting goes into these cars, but they are still mass-producedon an assembly line.  Engineering is not much different than the cars inthe previous class.  In fact, the engine in a Rolls is is built by BMW, the new parent company of Rolls Royce.  For the most part, what you are payingfor is EXCLUSIVITY.  If you can afford this class of car, and you alreadydid your part to help feed the starving people of the world, then more power to you.

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