Test Fest 2014: Luxury cars under $50,000

Lesley Wimbush's pick: Mercedes-Benz CLA 250

  • Test Fest 2014

While the adrenalin-junkies waited in line to drive the hot performance coupes, I serenely cruised through these luxury four-door sedans. It’s a mixed group this year, each with its own set of characteristics, but together they prove one thing: that you don’t have to shell out big bucks to enjoy a premium-car experience.

Mercedes-Benz CLA 250

$40,245 as tested

Mercedes-Benz’s new compact brings German engineering to an attainable level. Borrowing design cues from the upmarket CLS, the CLA 250 features crisp character lines and the sloping profile of a four-door coupe — at half the price.

Up front is the bold signature grille launched with the SLS gullwing supercar, and all Canadian models receive the AMG-inspired side skirts, wheels and lowered sports suspension.

Inside, the cabin features premium soft-touch materials and the same level of craftsmanship that Mercedes lavishes on its more upscale models — there’s nothing to mark this as an entry-level vehicle.

Powered by a smooth, 208-hp turbo-charged four-cylinder engine, the front-wheel-drive CLA will be available next spring with the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, which should prove very attractive to Canadian buyers.

Lexus IS 350 AWD

$48,950 as tested

The IS 350’s polarizing looks aren’t for everyone. But the knife-edge creases and gnashing spindle grille dispel the car’s former nondescript image.

The brand’s smallest rear-wheel-drive sedan features a well-crafted cabin, now boasting extra legroom in the formerly tight rear quarters. The deeply sculpted front bucket seats provide excellent support and they’re finished with top-quality leather.

There’s a long list of technical wizardry onboard — although the mouse interface is fiddly and distracting to use while driving.

Powered by a smooth and refined 306-hp V6, the 350 is a tight, engaging performer — especially with Sport mode employed. The eight-speed, paddle-shifted auto transmission is sharp and responsive, and the stiffer structure displays little body roll.

Kia Cadenza

$44,995 as tested

If you forget the ill-fated Amanti, this is Kia’s first legitimate foray into the near-luxury segment. And it’s a fairly decent debut.

The Cadenza features handsome, linear design penned by Peter Schreyer, formerly of Audi.

The cabin’s a bit sombre, but well-crafted using premium materials. Plump leather seats are broad and deeply cushioned. Doors close with a solid “thunk” and overall there’s a feeling of well-finished refinement.

While no sports car, the Cadenza boasts a solid, comfortable ride and the well-insulated cabin is superbly quiet. It’s more comfortable cruising sedately than being flung around the twists, where hard cornering leaves it a bit unsettled.

Underhood, a 293-hp V6 delivers surprising power, but it arrives in smooth, linear increments.

For those who equate vault-like levels of quiet and solid comfort with a premium experience, the Cadenza is an attractive alternative to the pricey European luxury brands.

Buick Regal AWD

$44,930 as tested

In an bid to attract a younger demographic, the Buick lineup has evolved from frumpy to fresh, with crisper sheetmetal and a touch more driver engagement than it was known for.

Although the 2014 Regal appears relatively unchanged outwardly, aside from subtle changes to front and rear fascias, there are some important revisions under the skin.

The 2.0-L turbo-charged 4-cylinder engine has a power increase to 259 hp. It’s an extremely smooth, yet responsive, powerplant that delivers an improved fuel economy rating of 9.3 L/100 km.

A retuned suspension provides more composed handling, and a revised electric steering system delivers better road feedback. Canadian drivers will appreciate the new Haldex all-wheel-drive system, featuring an electronic limited slip rear differential.

Inside, the cabin is comfortably plush and well-insulated from any noise or vibration.

Lincoln MKZ Hybrid

$48,850 as tested

Like Cadillac, Lincoln is on a quest to reinvent itself, and the MKZ represents an important step in that process.

As such, it delivers in a couple of all-important areas, while falling short in others.

While some manufacturers tack a premium on hybrid sticker prices, the MKZ Hybrid is exactly the same price as its gas-powered siblings.

The comfortable cabin features some plasticky bits that seem sub-par for this segment, and the interface are lifted right out of the much cheaper Ford Fusion Hybrid.

The MKZ is happy to cruise sedately, its noise cancellation software doing an admirable job of keeping the cabin quiet and serene, but step on the gas and the harsh engine note makes a jarring intrusion.

Even worse is the moaning and groaning of the CVT transmission, which is hard-pressed to keep up during highway lane changes.

Still, it’s a handsome sedan that delivers an excellent fuel economy rating of 4.2 L/100 km combined driving, which, for some folks, more than compensates for lacklustre performance.

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