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Best budget prestige buys by segment

Getting a top-end badge doesn't have to come with a top-end price tag.

Australian car buyers are increasingly drawn to a badge on the bonnet that flaunts their success.

The top-end marques respond by pushing hard into what was mainstream brand territory only a few years ago.

That's why the "big three" — Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz — posted better than 10 per cent growth last year in a market that dipped by 2 per cent.

It's still a case of you get what you pay for, so CarsGuide has looked at the cheapest (as distinct from best value) entries in the major car segments.

Light hatch

Alfa Romeo MiTo - $22,500

This is the cheapest way to buy membership to the prestige club, but it's a basic package. First impressions are good, with the distinctive shield grille helping the supermini stand out. Inside though, only the Alfa badge on the steering wheel hub gives any clue this is a product from a premium brand.

Still, Alfas are all about the driving and for the money, there's a spirited 900cc turbo engine matched to suspension that's much improved from the previous series.

It is a long way off the perfect prestige car but it is the best buyers can expect at this price point.

Small hatch


Alfa Romeo Giulietta - $29,000

A Giulietta is a lot closer to what we expect from Alfa than the MiTo, even if it's not the car Alfisti want. The Giulietta adds rear doors and a lot more flair in cabin styling and performance. If buyers can find the extra $6500, this is the Alfa to own... at least until the Giulia heralds the return of rear-wheel-drive Alfas when it launches later this year.

The Giulietta's suspension is generally well sorted and the turbo 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine gives this five-door enough fizz to be a fun drive.

For CarsGuide, this is the prestige entry point.

Small sedan

Audi A3 - $39,800

Now we're cooking. The A3's interior finish looks as though it was assembled using a jeweller's loupe and the materials are a step up from that found in the VW Golf. The design inside and out is minimalist but classy.

A turbo four-cylinder engine is paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch auto and has the neat party trick of dropping two cylinders under light load to help achieve a claimed fuel use of 4.7L/100km.

The handling compromise is spot-on: breezing over city bumps while still hanging tough through the twisty stuff.

Medium sedan

BMW 316i - $52,800

The entry level 3 Series is basically a price spoiler for CarsGuide's Car of the Year, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Potential owners could save $8000 (the difference between the 316i and the Benz C200) but will miss out on luxury items.

Performance won't set the world on fire but the eight-speed auto makes the most of the available urge. It handles well through the corners and around town. A six-speed manual is available for the same price.

The faux leather seats look the goods even if they're manually adjustable rather than electric. Standard gear includes dual-zone aircon, 6.5-inch display with satnav and rear parking sensors.

Large sedan

Jaguar XF - $68,075

The Leaping Cat pounced on the large car segment with the XF, which now trails only the Benz E-Class and BMW 5 Series in sales. There's good reason for that — the 2.0-litre turbo engine is a willing performer, if a touch thirsty, and is backed by a smooth eight-speed auto.

Slide into the leather and suede front seats and first-time occupants will be impressed by the party tricks. The rotary transmission control rises out of the centre console and the air vents swivel open.

Rear space isn't superb, but the Jag exudes old-world style supplemented by modern technology.

Sports coupe

Lexus RC350 - $66,000

Not so long ago you'd have been a fool to consider a Lexus sports car. Now you'd be a fool not to. The RC350 has striking looks — though some won't appreciate the massive spindle grille — and the poise and performance to back it up. A 3.5-litre V6 powers the rear wheels and the 100km/h sprint time is 6.1 seconds despite its hefty 1740kg.

A four-year warranty and resale value of 56 per cent after three years are worth noting too.

Standard kit includes LED headlamps, satnav, 10-speaker audio and heated/ventilated seats.


Mini Cabrio - $40,350

The poor man's prestige drop-top embodies fun, from the wind-in-the-hair sensation to a sensational handling package. The 1.6-litre engine is no rocket — there's a turbocharged Cooper S for more oomph — but it is a willing performer in partnership with a six-speed manual gearbox (auto adds $2350).

Practicality isn't part of the package with minuscule boot space and rear seats that shouldn't be occupied by much more than shopping bags. There's also wind noise and tyre roar with the top up or down.

Live with that and the Mini is relatively cheap and extraordinarily cheerful.

Small SUV

Mini Countryman - $34,150

No, it's not all-wheel drive, but neither are many of its rivals. The 149mm ride height gives the Countryman enough clearance to negotiate rutted roads without challenging the 170mm clearance of an Audi Q3. Neither will be used for off-road duties, so the elevated drive position is the selling point here, along with a big (by Mini standards) 350L boot.

It shares its 1.6-litre engine with the Mini Cabrio and rides almost as well, with just a touch more body roll through the turns.

The most compelling aspect is the price, which is $8000 less than an Audi Q3 and $14,000 below a BMW X1.

Medium SUV

Range Rover Evoque - $49,995

The five-door model doesn't quite have the drop-dead looks of its three-door sibling but is a more functional car to live with — and it is $2500 cheaper. The diesels have the lowest prices in the range, as the petrol variant is positioned as the performance model.

The 2.2-litre turbo diesel is matched to a six-speed manual, making this front-wheel drive a frugal vehicle to operate. Claimed fuel use is 5.0L/100km There's plenty to admire inside, from the partial leather seats to the soft-touch dash and elegant switch layout. The base model — dubbed eD4 — has a five-inch TFT multimedia screen and rear parking sensors but can't be had with a reversing camera or air vents for the back seat.

There are still ways to get a touch of luxury, if not outright prestige, in the major segments.

Large SUV

Volvo XC70 - $59,990

The big all-wheel-drive wagon sits 210mm clear of the road, giving it more than enough room to clamber over kerbs and ride roughshod over piles of snow at the local ski field.

Backed by a 575L boot, it is a hugely capable getaway machine.

The Volvo is all about cruising in comfort, so the intentionally cosseting ride comes at the expense of cornering ability.

The base diesel engine has more than enough go but some expected gear — like a powered tailgate and satnav — require a dip into the extensive options list.

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