Baby, you can drive my very cool car

You want sensible wheels; your spouse covets a luxury ride. You both can get what you want.

By Dan Kadlec, Money Magazine contributing columnist

(Money Magazine) -- I've been winning the car wars in my house for years. My wife would love a Mercedes Benz or, yikes, an Aston Martin.

But instead we drive a Hyundai Elantra, Jeep Wrangler and Chevy Suburban - she's set aside her desire for fancier wheels, respecting my preoccupation with value.

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Dan Kadlec is co-author of "The Power Years", a guide for boomers. E-mail him at boom_years@moneymail.com.

Lately, though, she's been turning up the heat, and I can feel my resistance melting. It feels like it's her turn and after all those years of sensible car purchases, I'm ready to cut loose too - a bit - and have some fun.

This is no midlife crisis. We'd like to think of our potential luxury-car purchase as a reward for years of hard work, sacrifice and saving. Like many of our fellow boomers, we've reached a point in our lives when we can actually handle the cost of a snazzier car.

That is, as long as it's not too snazzy.

After all, we still have a mortgage to pay and the looming expense of college for three teenagers, not to mention our own retirement. And we want to make sure we don't financially torpedo our hope for an African safari before the kids move out either.

Given her long wait for luxury wheels, though, my wife is eager for more of a splurge than I am. To her, a nice car is like an Armani suit: expensive, sure, but well-made, stylish and loaded with intangible benefits that help justify the higher price.

I, on the other hand, just want the best deal. Our challenge is to reconcile her appetite for those intangible benefits with my focus on value. The following strategies are helping us; if you're tiptoeing into the luxury-car market, they may help you too.

Set Some Ground Rules

Understand this from the get-go: A luxury-car purchase is only partly about comfort and performance. You can get plenty of both in any number of new high-end mass- market sedans for around $28,000.

Technological advances, common emissions and safety standards and global competition have greatly compressed the quality range of autos, resulting in far fewer lemons and relatively small differences in durability, dependability and safety among similar-size cars. What you can't get for $28,000 is the BMW grille or Lexus badge, and the feeling those things give some drivers.

In other words, this is a highly emotional purchase, as well as a costly one - and especially fraught when you and your spouse have different agendas.

So try to agree on a few priorities before you step into the dealership. Make a list of the car features you each care about most (including price) in order of importance, then swap lists.

Focus on what you both agree on, as well as the top priority for each of you. If you can't agree, try meeting in the middle on price and bartering on features - if you agree to this, I'll agree to that.

This exercise led my wife and me to clear goals: We did indeed want a luxury brand, preferably a model with plenty of room for our family of five. And we definitely didn't want to pay more than $45,000.

Understand What You're Really Getting

In fact, virtually all of the big status brands in recent years have rolled out starter models you can buy for less than $40,000 - Lexus has the ES; BMW, the 3 Series; and Mercedes, its C Class.

These entry-level luxury cars are, in effect, a pure read on what you're willing to pay for a nameplate, says Erich Merkle, an analyst with IRN, an automotive consulting firm in Grand Rapids.

The cars are generally a lot smaller than less expensive high-end mass-market alternatives like the Chrysler 300C and Toyota Avalon, even though they're similar in overall quality, comfort, safety and performance.

What differences exist are mostly stylistic - the starter luxury models boast more genuine leather in the interior, for example, and offer features like heated front seats and in-dash CD changers as standard, not options.

What you're really paying extra for, however, when you choose a starter luxury model over a high-end mass-market car is the luxury ownership experience. Pure and simple, luxury-car makers spoil you at the dealership, Merkle says.

They serve you cappuccino and snacks while your car is being serviced; provide you a free loaner if you need one; send you offers for special trips, golf outings and other deals. "Basically, they make you feel special, part of an exclusive club," says Merkle. The big question: How much is membership worth to you?

Check Out the Pre-Owned Market

In our case, the answer turned out to be not so much. If I'm going to spend big money on a luxury car, I want to get more than pampering and cowhide. I don't want to feel cramped and neither does my wife.

In the mid to high end of the luxury market, with cars such as the BMW 7 Series and the Lexus LS, you get lots of interior room, a more powerful engine and real technological advancements, like adaptive cruise control that automatically maintains proper distance from the car in front of you and intelligent remote entry that unlocks the door when you pull the handle.

Of course, you also get pretty advanced prices: The BMW 750i starts at $75,800; the Lexus LS 460, $61,000. And the sticker price is just the start. Add insurance, financing, maintenance, depreciation and other expenses and you quickly drive up the total price of ownership. Owning a BMW 750i will cost you about $70,000 over three years, including depreciation, according to Edmunds.com. There goes our trip to Africa.

But there is a sweet spot in the luxury market for those of us who aren't rock stars or hedge fund managers: a certified pre-owned luxury car that's guaranteed by the manufacturer or dealer to be in great, almost-like-new shape.

You can find certified pre-owned versions of the big Lexus, BMW or Mercedes models for less than 50% of their original purchase price but with 70% of their life remaining, Edmunds.com calculates.

That's my kind of math. In other words, the price will be about the same as what you'd pay for a new entry-level model, only with way more room, cool stuff like massaging seats and a backseat refrigerator and - it's okay to admit it - a hearty wow factor.

In buying pre-owned you still won't match the value you can find in a more basic sedan. But through commonly offered pre-owned certified programs, you can get a great warranty (the balance of the original warranty plus an extra year or two) and approximate the new-car experience.

For the Kadlecs at least, that may be just the compromise that lets us jump into a very cool car - more or less guilt-free.  Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.