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Caddy wins, but BMW a real contender

  • Cars in a parking lot

AJAC organizers try to ensure there’s not too much price discrepancy between vehicles in any one category, but with something as subjective as “Luxury,” that can be difficult. In previous years, this category was split between “Under $50,000” and “Over $50,000,” but not this year. Mercedes pulled its GL-Class and BMW pulled its 6 Series Gran Coupé because they would have been just too expensive for contention.

Best Luxury Car:

Cadillac ATS

Price: (base/as tested) $35,195/$54,045

General Motors loaded up this Caddy so that it would compete more directly against its Lexus competition. Though it won its category, it feels a bit too dressed up compared to the Lexus’ confident understatement. Its 321 hp V6 has plenty of poke, and its magnetic ride control suspension is impressive on the track, but the brushed aluminum and muted chrome of the interior left me cold.

Acura ILX

Price (base/as tested): $29,990/$29,990

The all-new ILX calls itself “a gateway to the luxury car market,” since it costs less than $30,000. It feels it, too, with lots of soft-touch plastic. This trim level doesn’t even include navigation on its tiny screen. It’s based on the same platform as the Honda Civic and is pretty much as straightforward to drive, though the 2.0 L-engine is underwhelming. ILX buyers will also consider the Verano but not the much more expensive competition in this category. If the ILX does well here, it’s because of its huge price saving over the other cars that let their drivers feel more traditionally pampered.

BMW 3 Series

Price (base/as tested): $46,200/$49,700

BMW went to a lot of trouble to keep its 3 Series entry below $50,000, expecting there to be a separate category that topped off at that price. Instead, there’s just one category and it’s up against worthy competition from Lexus and Cadillac. But the 3 is still the best of the bunch, thanks mostly to its adjustable drive that can be set to Eco, Regular or Sport. Leave it on Regular and just drive normally, or flick it over to Sport and it literally surges forward as the engine remaps for more response; flick the switch to Eco and the display changes again and you feel the car settle down to save gas. It even turns off the engine when you’re stopped to save gas, whatever the setting. It’s like three cars in one, with all of them comfortable and spacious. It had my vote.

Buick Verano

Price (base/as tested): $22,895/$33,700

This is a spacious sedan up front — from the driver’s seat, it feels almost like a crossover. Drives a bit like one, too, with softer suspension than the sportier cars in this category. In the back seat, though, it’s a bit of a disappointment – headroom and legroom for rear passengers is more cramped than it needs to be.

Lexus GS 350

Price (base/as tested): $51,900/$58,950

It’s the most expensive of the group, but it feels it, too. At 1,685 kg, the GS is also the heaviest in its category, and with a soft touch on its throttle pedal it feels sluggish. When it needs to shift, though, it gets going in a hurry, all with a muted whoosh. Its pièce-de-résistance is the huge 12.3-inch display screen in the dashboard that splits between a map and other information, though the “sticky” mouse cursor control to operate it takes a bit of getting used to.

Lexus ES350

Price (base/as tested): $39,500/$51,750

A little smaller than its big GS brother, the ES is a whole lot sportier too, and entertaining to drive on a track. Its 268 hp six-cylinder engine is responsive and handling is quick, thanks to a tightened-up steering ratio. Front-wheel drive means there’s no tunnel for the driveshaft, so three people will be more comfortable in the back seat of the cheaper ES than the larger GS, as long as the driver doesn’t succumb to temptation and swing the car around too much.

  • Caddy wins, but BMW a real contender
  • Caddy wins, but BMW a real contender
  • Caddy wins, but BMW a real contender

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