We look at the cars that blur the line into premium vehicles.
When shopping for a new car, there's a price point where a choice needs to be made. At the $40,000 mark, you could either pick up a base model car in the premium segment or shop for something a little glamorous in its top trim level. For example, a base model BMW 3 Series comes in at $40,750 and a Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class SUV starts at $42,500. Alternatively, there's a wealth of cars and SUVs out there that can be specced similarly or better for under $40,000. Making that idea more attractive is that the line between economy car and the budget car is being blurred. Many automakers known more for building economy cars have dramatically improved everything from styling to build-quality and materials in recent years.
Before we get into our list, let's set our baseline. The BMW 3 Series Sedan starts at $40,750, and the base model comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine making 255 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. Out of the box, it comes with 18-inch wheels, LED headlights, 14-way power front seats (but no lumbar adjustment), standard cruise control, keyless ignition, and a power sunroof. It also comes with blind-spot monitoring and forward collision warning with pedestrian alert, which are often upgrades in the models we'll be recommending people might cross-shop. BMW also has a subscription model for Android Auto and Apple Carplay, something none of the following models need if they offer both.
The Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class also packs a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine rated at 255 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. The base model costs $44,500, and the level of standard features is a little disappointing for the money, although build quality and comfort are excellent. Standard, you'll find heated power-adjustable front seats with four-way power-adjustable lumbar support, but no panoramic sunroof or keyless entry. Crosswind assist, brake assist, driver attention assist and blind-spot monitoring are standard as is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto but for SiriusXM, navigation, and luxury tech like the 12.3-inch digital cluster you'll have to start looking at additional packages.
Note: BMW and Mercedes testers and press images are never base models, so the following images are of higher trim levels.
With all of that in mind, here are our top picks for top trim level cars under $40,000.
Honda's current generation of Accord is its finest yet, and tops out at $36,250. In Touring trim, the standard 1.5-liter engine gives way to a 2.0-liter powerplant derived from the Civic Type R, delivering 252 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels of an entertaining to drive chassis. Inside, the cabin is subdued, spacious, and full of quality and attention to detail. In Touring trim, the Accord comes with Honda's Sensing Technologies package plus blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic assist, front and rear parking sensors, and adaptive dampers. Touring also includes rear heated rear seats and ventilated front seats, a head-up display, a 450-Watt premium audio system with ten speakers, a satellite navigation system with voice recognition, Wi-Fi hotspot capability, and wireless phone charging.
Mazda has been punching above its weight for some time now and making premium brands nervous with its sense of style, use of materials, attention to detail, and build quality. The CX-5 is a midsize crossover that brings excellent driving dynamics, an upscale cabin, and handsome looks to the table. And, that's before stepping into a Signature trim model for $37,155, which is $20,000 less expensive than a base model BMW X5. A souped-up version of the CX-5's 2.5-liter turbo engine brings a new level of pep with 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque making its way to the wheels. The interior gets Nappa leather-trimmed seats, a premium Bose ten-speaker system, a larger infotainment screen accessing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, and a glass moonroof. The driver also gets a head-up display, and surround-view camera and parking sensors are added to an already extensive suite of safety features.
It feels like the Toyota Camry has been competing with Honda's Accord for the midsize affordable sedan market since the wheel was first invented. Like the Accord, the Camry recently had a complete redesign, and it's no longer your grandparent's Camry. It has come out the other side of its redesign with a new aggressive look and a whole suite of safety and communication tech available. Unlike the Accord, in top trims, you can still get a naturally aspirated V6 under the hood, and in top XSE V6 spec, it generates an athletic 301 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque. It also comes with all the trimmings, including dynamic radar cruise control, a color head-up display, ambient lighting, a nine-speaker JBL audio system, wireless charging, Apple Carplay, Android Auto, and Toyota's flavor of Amazon's Alexa. For $35,130, that's quite a deal.
The Impala is not quite dead, although it will soon be put out to pasture. The fact that many people reading this thought it was already gone makes the Impala a stealth deal in 2020 for $36,720 in top trim. While it's not as sporty as some want, the ride quality is luxury level, and Premier trim puts it on 19-inch wheels and adds LED running lights, and some dapper chrome touches on the outside. On the inside, the infotainment is contemporary and features Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, SiriusXM radio, voice control, 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot connectivity, onboard navigation, and an 11-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system. We would add the $935 Convenience Package Package and still come in under budget. That adds a heated steering wheel, a power tilt and telescoping column, ventilated front seats, auto-dimming mirrors, and ground illuminating side-view mirrors, along with premium carpeting upgrades.
The Escape enters a new generation for 2020 and comes standard with Ford's Co-Pilot 360 safety features as well as a digital instrument cluster and Apple Carplay /Android Auto inside a versatile cabin. At the top end is Titanium trim for $36,835, which brings a plethora of extra tech and convenience, including leather-trimmed bucket seats, active park assist, a 12.3-inch digital dash cluster, a ten-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system, and remote start. Titanium spec also gets an upgrade from the 1.5-liter turbo three-cylinder engine to a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine making 250 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque.
Hyundai has done an incredible job of going from selling questioningly built cars to building cars that sit in the top tiers of reliability and low maintenance costs. The latest generation Santa Fe takes things to the next level as a midsize near-luxury SUV, and just about creeps under our $40,000 limit at $39,425 in 2.0T Limited trim. The turbocharged four-cylinder engine generates a competent 235 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque in the highest trimmed model. There's a great line up of standard features for the base model, but at the top, you'll find ventilated front seats with four-way power lumbar and leg cushion extensions and heated rear seats.
Added to the safety suite to make it fully comprehensive are a surround-view camera, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, Safe Exit Assist, and a blind-spot camera. On the outside, you'll find 19-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and foglights, as well as a hands-free power-lift tailgate. Inside, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard from the bottom up, and the Limited trim also features a 12-speaker Infinity premium audio system, auto-dimming rearview mirror, wireless phone charging, and LED interior lights.
Not only is the Subaru Outback a rugged off-road family transport, but the interior hits some genuine high spots in top tier levels. Two levels below Touring XT, you'll see Java Brown Nappa and a large portrait-style 11.6-inch touchscreen, Wi-Fi connectivity, adaptive headlights, hands-free liftgate, a 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, and heated rear seats. When you reach the top-tier Touring XT model for $39,695, you find genuine luxury elements like sound-insulating front glass and all the safety and convenience tech Subaru can load into it. The top-level trims also get a turbocharged 2.4-liter horizontally-opposed Boxer engine making 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque.
When you realize that a Wi-Fi hotspot is standard issue in a car, you know the top trim is going to deliver. The Volkswagens Tiguan is a solid selling midsize SUV and packs a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder motor developing 184 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque. It's not a thriller of an SUV, but at any trim level, it's a well equipped and stylish family car backed with Volkswagen's solid engineering reputation. Go up to the top trim level, though, and things start getting into Audi territory in features and tech. For $38,795, the Tiguan SEL Premium R-Line comes with all-wheel-drive as standard along with 20-inch wheels, a power liftgate, adaptive cruise control, rain-sensing windshield wipers, adaptive headlights with automatic high beams, and lane-keep assist. On the inside, you'll find Volkswagen's Digital Cockpit, navigation, genuine leather seats, and a nine-speaker Fender sound system.
Mazda gets two entries as the Japanese company is blurring the line between affordability and premium throughout its entire lineup. The Mazda 6 in any guise is fun to drive, family-friendly, good looking, and well built. In Grand Touring Reserve trim, you'll find an array of features, including radar cruise control with stop-and-go and pedestrian detection added to the already long list of driver and safety aids. Signature trim includes steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, an 11-speaker Bose surround sound system, a color head-up display, traffic sign recognition, ventilated front seats and heated rear seats, keyless entry system, 19-inch alloy wheels, and a power-sliding moonroof. Higher up in the trim levels, Mazda bolts a turbocharger to the 2.5-liter engine and unlocks 250 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. All that, and it's marginally less expensive than the Accord or Camry at $35,400.