Top 10 Luxury Vehicles Under $45,000 for 2004

Are we biased toward German cars? Yes, but only when they prove to be the most desirable. Case in point: the BMW 3 Series sedan, coupe and convertible. Settle into the supportive driver seat of any of these cars and a world-class suspension, steering and brakes will provide hours of entertainment on twisty two-lane highways. Beyond simply feeling rock-solid when hustled around turns, this car communicates with the driver in a manner that is alien to most cars. And you don't have to give up a comfortable ride to get this kind of athleticism. Need more straight-line performance? Well, there's always the 333-horsepower M3 and its telepathic reflexes.

With a choice of front- or all-wheel drive; four-, six- or eight-cylinder power; and manual, automatic or continuously variable transmissions, the A4 offers a little bit of everything for the discerning sport sedan or wagon buyer. Whether you're considering the relatively inexpensive base model or you're looking to go all out with the ultrahigh-performance, V8-powered S4 model, all A4s feature exquisite interiors, sharp handling and a clean exterior style with few faults. In years past, buying an Audi signaled that you were willing to make a few sacrifices to get something out of the mainstream, but rest assured that the latest A4 provides all the charm without any of the drawbacks.

All new inside and out, the 5 Series is better in nearly every respect — not bad when you consider there wasn't much wrong with the previous model. A unique new steering system and a few hand-me-down parts from the top-line 7 Series further hone the 5's exemplary ride and handling while the continued use of BMW's world-renown straight sixes, along with an even more powerful V8, assures more than adequate straight performance. Even the addition of the cumbersome iDrive system hasn't dampened our enthusiasm for this top-notch sport sedan as it's not only easier to use, it allowed the designers to clean up the interior a bit. Its looks may be controversial, but its status as our favorite midsize sport sedan remains unchanged.

A nearly flawless interior, amicable handling and a wide array of drivetrain options make it hard to find fault with the 2004 A6 sedan and wagon. It offers performance on par with many of its peers, a distinctive style inside and out and all the features you would expect from a sedan of its caliber. From the base front-wheel-drive six-cylinder all the way up to the all-wheel-drive V8 model, the A6 lineup is packed to the brim with enticing options. Often overlooked in favor of its more mainstream competitors, the A6 combines comfort, refinement and performance. And with over 36 cubic feet of luggage space behind its rear seats, the wagon version makes a practical family vehicle. If you like the style and the size, you won't be disappointed with the rest of this refined package from Audi.

Often overshadowed by its prominent Z-car cousin, the G35 is a fast, stylish coupe with more than enough personality to stand on its own. Its overachieving V6 engine not only assures lightning-quick acceleration, it purrs with a distinctive exhaust note that turns heads almost as much as the sleek sheet metal. All the latest technology is available in the cabin, but unlike the 350Z the G35 looks the part of an upscale coupe — and it has small, yet functional rear seats to boot. Thrilling behind the wheel and impressive just sitting in the driveway, the G35 is an outstanding coupe that satisfies in more ways than one.

With its swanky body style and numerous luxury and safety features, the recently revamped CLK makes for a cost-effective alternative to Mercedes' luscious CL500 coupe. At roughly half the price of the bigger Benz, the CLK offers a lot more than 50 percent of the senior coupe's goodness. That means plenty of performance (there's a smooth-running V6 in the CLK320 and a potent 302-horsepower V8 in the CLK500), blended with luxury that includes front seatbelts that are "handed" to you upon entry. Combining the elegance of its flagship coupe with a more manageable size and sticker price, the CLK makes for a nigh perfect grand tourer.

  • BMW Z4

    7. BMW Z4

  • For those who seek both luxury and everyday usability, BMW's Z4 satisfies like few other roadsters can. Granted, we're not enamored with its bizarre styling, noisy highway ride or higher pricing, but in every other respect, this is a truly inspired driving machine. Handling is razor-sharp, and the Z4's communicative suspension, steering and brakes make it a delight on curvy roads. Meanwhile, a sophisticated stability control system makes it easy to balance fun with safety. Either of the two available inline six-cylinder engines offers ample thrust, and the stylish cockpit offers most of the amenities one could want.

    Though the sedan version of the 9-5 gets knocked in comparison to its competition, it works very well as a wagon. Available in Aero, Arc and Linear versions, it packs a smooth turbo punch with a 2.3-liter, inline four-cylinder engine. Carrying on the legacy of Swedish safety, Saab equips the wagon with orthopedic front seats, dynamic head restraints, stability control, a menu of airbags and an IIHS nomination of "Best Pick" for its performance in frontal offset crash testing. Unlike its Swedish automotive brethren, this wagon has sleek, even sexy styling. With a long list of standard features and a plush highway ride, the 9-5 wagon should be on your test-drive list if you're shopping for upscale family transportation.

    We can't get over the versatility Volkswagen has packed into its first modern-day utility vehicle. Comfortable interior with high-quality furnishings? Check. Smooth, stable ride quality? Check. Easy to maneuver around town? Check. Low-range gearing, two locking differentials and a level of off-road ability befitting a Jeep? Check. What's the catch? Well, the backseat's average in size, and neither the V6 nor the V8 gets a gold star for fuel economy. But with an efficient and powerful turbodiesel V10 available midway through the 2004 model year, the Touareg is a credit to the breed.

    While the FX45 can't claim the same off-roading prowess as the Touareg, it does offer plenty of style and an in-your-face attitude. Looking for a vehicle that really puts the "sport" in sport-utility vehicle? The FX is it. With sedanlike handling and a sweet-sounding V8, the FX45 offers a near perfect blend of luxury SUV presence and sports car performance. Infiniti's new crossover won't take you too far off-road, or tow your cabin cruiser over a mountain, but if you want to pester people in sport sedans while still enjoying a commanding view of the road from one of the trendiest cockpits on the market, the FX45 can oblige.