Top 10 Luxury Impersonators

Like offseason cruises and Costco pinot noir, there are cars that prove you don't have to fork over big bucks to live the good life. We picked 10 models that are surprisingly luxurious for their humble badges, all of which can be equipped to impress for less than $30,000. They won't get you the valet treatment a Lexus or BMW might, but we bet you'll get a thumbs-up from the coworkers you take to lunch. Unless they drive a Lexus or BMW, of course.

2008 Volkswagen Jetta

Our pick: Jetta SE, $19,850

Premium features like one-touch power windows and mirror-integrated turn signals are the stuff of big-league luxury cars, and they put the Jetta a cut above a Civic or Corolla. Our luxury choice is the Jetta SE, which gets a moonroof, 16-inch rims, a 10-speaker stereo and heated leather seats. OK, it's faux leather, but we doubt your passengers will notice. If they do, you can play the animal-rights card — just don't do it while you're waiting in line for your burger at the fast-food drive-through.

2008 Mazda3

Our pick: Mazda3 Grand Touring, $20,195

Like the Jetta, the Mazda3 is another car that feels richer than its compact size suggests. Here the emphasis is on sportiness, not all-out luxury, but the dashboard's contrasting textures look suitable enough. The Grand Touring trim's perforated leather seats feel exceptionally rich for a $20,000 car, and with this trim you'll also get seat heaters and automatic climate control. Plus, Mazda's 2.3-liter engine should prove snappy enough to make it to work by 9.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu

Our pick: Malibu 2LT, $22,485

When you equip the new Malibu with leatherette seats, like in the 2LT package, the entire interior seems to move up a notch on the luxury scale. Seventeen-inch wheels and heated seats are also part of the deal, while the Malibu's bold grille and European styling outside really make it stand out in the midsize market. The more expensive LTZ package's leather seats are nicer than the 2LT's, but most people won't mind this midrange trim level.

2008 Honda Accord

Our pick: Accord 2.4 EX-L, $25,160

Swap the Honda emblem for an Acura logo, and some passengers might think the latest Accord comes from Honda's luxury division. (Of course, then they'd have to be blind to the bajillion '08s soon to flood the streets.) The EX model's 190-horsepower engine feels refined enough for a premium car, but we'd bump up to the leather-clad EX-L, which also has heated seats and dual-zone climate control. Telling your passengers they can pick their own temperature usually draws murmurs of delight — and let's be honest, isn't that what luxury is all about?

2008 Honda CR-V

Our pick: CR-V EX-L FWD, $25,500

In cheaper trims, the CR-V is a solid grocery-getter. Bump up to the EX-L, its heated leather seats and seven-speaker stereo system, though, and the cabin transforms into something that could pass muster at most country clubs. Interior refinement is on par with the best of the small-SUV crowd, and you can pile on a navigation system and AWD and still stay under 30 large. Sadly, there's no upgrade over the CR-V's anemic four-cylinder engine — but hey, that means you get to be snooty about your gas mileage and the environment.

2008 Nissan Altima Coupe

Our pick: Altima 2.5 S w/Premium Package, $25,770

Muscular rear haunches are a surefire sign someone in the design department wanted to add a touch of luxury to the Altima coupe's looks. The rich leather and its impressive stitching have a sports-car feel, and the dashboard and instrument panel controls are of Nissan's usual high quality. If you want the quicker V-6, you still come in at $28,270. For $2,500 more, we think it's definitely worth the investment.

2008 Saturn Vue

Our pick: Vue XR FWD w/Premium Trim Package, $25,875

Saturn's new Vue is the epitome of a luxury impersonator. Classy finishes of brushed metal and rich leather catch the eye immediately, and even the backseat and cargo area seem high-end. It's probably the most European-styled American car on the road, mainly because GM borrowed the design from its German Opel division, and that's not a bad thing. A solid ride and eye-catching exterior make the Vue even more alluring.

2008 Hyundai Santa Fe

Our pick: Santa Fe Limited FWD, $28,100

The Santa Fe's exterior design borrows heavily from Lexus and Infiniti luxury SUVs. The lines flow smoothly from front to back, and even the grille makes a bold statement — like luxury SUVs are supposed to do. A smooth, nearly silent ride also makes you think of Lexus' best attributes. The leather isn't the richest out of the group, but other amenities — from the crisp blue-and-white gauges to the well-finished A/C controls — create the ambiance you're looking for.

2008 Buick Lucerne

Our pick: Lucerne CXL, $29,400

You don't have to be a Pat Sajak fan to appreciate this Buick. Sporty it is not, but upscale it certainly is. The dashboard employs GM's latest materials, and the high-rent controls achieve tactile excellence. Step up to the CXL for sumptuous leather that you'll wish every chair in your home were made of, and, if you can stretch your budget a little more, consider the Northstar V-8 engine. It's relatively effortless to drive, and for some people that's the whole point of luxury.

2008 Ford Edge

Our pick: Edge SEL FWD w/Premium Package, $29,405

If you get a Ford Edge without the leather interior, few people will mistake it for a luxury vehicle. Make the upgrade, though — especially with black leather — and you're riding in one slick SUV. The bold chrome grille and stylish overall design turn heads, and this SUV's substantial size also adds to the impression that it has a lot of value.

© 3/31/08