5 Smart Swaps for Premium Picks

2010 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor

“The thing about money is… you can always make more.”

Or so a good friend once told us, while detailing his extensive traveling. And although it’s a lovely, freeing sentiment, most of us are more comfortable living within our finances and the limitations they impose. Of course, with tax day creeping around the corner, many of us are anticipating a nice refund, and feeling a little flush. If there was ever a time of year when we’re inclined to peruse the new car listings on CarGurus, searching for our dream ride, it’s now. Whether you’re enticed by a drop-top sports car, a luxurious full-size sedan, or a tough-as-nails off-roader, you’ll find yourself well taken care of by today’s auto market.

Of course, a top-of-the-line car might not take very good care of your bank account. So, unless you’re the type to throw caution to the wind — “I can always make more money” — you’ll need to look for a more reasonably priced alternative. Luckily, the auto industry is an incredibly competitive business, and consumer options abound. We’ll take a look at some of our most-desired new cars, and then propose a strong bang-for-your-buck alternative to each.

Who doesn’t want to own “the Ultimate Driving Machine”? The BMW 3 Series has built a reputation over its 40+ years of existence as one of the most desirable midsize sedans available. Of course, that desirability is not unearned. The 3 Series has continuously offered some of the best features you can find in a performance-luxury car. Its versatility extends from everyday commuting to the track. But all of that comes at an equally renowned premium, as even the most basic 2016 3 Series available, the 320i, starts upward of $30,000. Needless to say, that can be pretty steep.

Meanwhile, the Kia Optima has emerged as the standard-bearer for the segment, offering some of the best of the midsize world for a much more reasonable price. We’re talking around $10,000 less than 3 Series. Even the top-end SXL Turbo’s price hangs around the $35,000 mark. That price difference does mean a bit of a performance drop, but the Optima’s turbocharged 2.0-liter engine will still produce as much power as you could want out of a midsize sedan. The Optima also arguably offers as much style and comfort as the 3 Series, but we suppose someone may find the latter’s three-letter badge more stylish than that of the former.

For folks who enjoy the outdoors, the choice of 4- and all-wheel-drive (4WD and AWD) vehicles is wider these days than it has ever been. But some of the newest choices in this segment have, or will, come from Jaguar, Bentley, and Lamborghini, so the average price for this sort of vehicle is also as high as it has ever been. At last year’s New York International Auto Show, Land Rover proudly announced that the SV Autobiography LWB version of its Range Rover looks, and is, expensive, and it was right, as that uber-luxurious off-roader has an MSRP of just under $200,000.

But Americans have never liked paying exorbitant costs for goods from the UK, and while Land Rover has new management, $200K seems like an awful lot to pay for an off-roading vehicle, no? The most expensive version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee has an MSRP of less than $66,000. Sure, you can’t get powered tabletops for back-seat passengers in a Grand Cherokee, but would you pay more than double the Grand Cherokee’s price just to get an off-roader you can work in?

American car buyers have been finding alternatives to full-size sedans for decades. But a full-size sedan, especially one that offers occupants the ability to connect to the Internet and work in the back seat, does meet the needs of many drivers. Mercedes-Benz has been making cars for folks who can afford to have someone else do the driving for decades, and it has refined the art to a degree that leaves it comfortable asking just under $225,000 for the most opulent version of its S-Class. Sorry, but when we can round up almost a quarter-million dollars for a car with a 621-hp V12, we’ll do the driving ourselves.

Until then, we’ll happily settle for spending no more than $42K on a Toyota Avalon. It will take at least a little longer to get to 60 mph in an Avalon, but the Avalon Hybrid costs less than 20% of what the S65 AMG does while delivering well over 200% of that car’s mileage. But that’s at the top end of the spectrum – even the least expensive S-Class, the S550, costs almost three times the Avalon XLE’s under-$33K price while delivering about 20% less mileage and requiring much higher maintenance costs.

The poster car of a mid-life crisis, nothing says “impulse buy” quite like a convertible sports car. Thanks to its reliability and performance, folks with money to burn have been going crazy for the convertible BMW 3 series ever since the first ones started rolling off the line in 1987. In 2014, BMW split the 3 Series line; the 4-door 3 Series sedan remained, joined now by the 2-door 4 Series coupe. Today, the BMW M4 — the hardest and fastest version of the 4 Series — draws the attention of anyone looking to carve back roads with the breeze blowing through their hair.

The downside, of course, is price. A 2016 BMW M4 convertible starts at an eye-watering $74,200, and knowing the Bavarian Motor Works, that number will rise quickly with every added option. If you don’t have more than a year’s tuition at a first-class private college lying dormant in your bank account, you’ll need to find an alternative to the M4. Allow us to suggest the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata. We realize that “Miata is always the answer” is a tired joke at this point, but hear us out. Yes, you’ll make sacrifices when choosing the Miata over the M4 convertible. You’ll be forfeiting 270 horsepower, which is more than the Miata offers in the first place. You’ll also be losing two rear seats, which add a surprising amount of functionality. What’s important, however, is what you’ll be saving: up to $44,870. Add that kind of value to the Miata’s well-deserved reputation for style, handling, and delightful driving, and this one is a no-brainer.

The new 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor has definitely been making some waves since it was announced well over a year ago. Touted as the best off-road truck ever, the SVT Raptor has a lighter boxed-steel frame, a 145-inch wheelbase, and 411 hp that is, surprisingly, produced by a 3.5-liter EcoBoost turbocharged V6. But with the Raptors release right on the horizon, other pickup manufacturers have been quick to offer their alternatives to Ford’s iconic beast of a pickup. Just a couple weeks ago at the Chicago Auto Show, Toyota and Ram announced their own riffs on the high-powered, off-road truck market with the coming 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro and 2017 Ram Power Wagon, respectively.

Needless to say, the TRD Pro, Power Wagon, and Raptor aren’t exactly sitting cheap at their (likely) mid-to-high $40,000 starting point. But if you want to buy a tremendously capable off-road pickup without the extra dollars (and, well, the extra horsepower), try starting with a less powerful, but certainly capable Tacoma. The Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road offers plenty of off-roading performance for about two-thirds of the Raptor’s price. Yes, it’s a little smaller, and produces horsepower numbers proportional to its price tag. But $15,000 in savings is nothing to overlook, especially with a truck that you’re more than likely going to rough up quite a bit.

If you can’t quite afford your dream car, what would you buy instead?

-John Harrington, Matt Smith, and Steve Halloran

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New BMW 3 Series
New Kia Optima
New Land Rover Range Rover
New Jeep Grand Cherokee
New BMW M4
New Mazda MX-5 Miata
New Mercedes-Benz S-Class
New Toyota Avalon
New Ford F-150
New Toyota Tacoma

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