Drive this, not that: 10 pricey autos and their cheaper counterparts
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So You Can't Afford: Porsche Carrera 911 S
400-hp 3.8-liter flat six
The inexpensive imitator: Chevy Corvette
Chevrolet's Corvette has been competing with the Porsche 911 since it first landed on our shores in 1964. Back in the 1960s, the Vette would smoke the Porsche on any road—as long as that road didn't twist. Today the sports car icons are much more evenly matched.
But Maybe You Can Afford: Chevrolet Corvette
430-hp, 5900-rpm 6.3-liter V-8
Both should hit 60 mph in just a tick over 4 seconds. The Porsche, with its endless new technology like the Dynamic Chassis Control, which replaces the traditional antiroll bars with active ones to get you around corners faster, would probably squeak out a quicker lap time on the track. But is the Chevy less fun? No way. In fact some would argue that with fewer driver technologies, the Vette might be the purer experience.
We're not expecting to convert any lifelong 911 fans here. Behind the wheel, the Porsche is like a luxury coupe—the interior is gorgeous. The Corvette is as it's always been: a bit down-market by comparison, especially with its thinly padded thrones. But if what you want is muscle and you don't care much about the name on the back of the car, you could get the Vette and buy some very nice seats with the $48,700 you'll save. In fact, you could almost buy another brand new Corvette.
So You Can't Afford: Audi A7
300-hp, 3.0-liter supercharged V-6
The inexpensive imitator: Volkswagen CC
Mercedes-Benz invented the slinky four-door coupe when it introduced the original CLS in 2004. But VW wasn't too far behind when it took that same idea and applied it to a far less expensive car with the 2008 Passat CC. Now this group of cars has grown to include the Porsche Panamera and the new Audi A7.
But Maybe You Can Afford: VW CC
200-hp, 2.0-liter inline-four turbo
Although the CC is front-wheel drive and has 100 fewer horsepower than the Audi, drivers can buy it with the optional 3.6-liter V-6 and all-wheel drive, so it lines up even more closely with the A7. The V-6 CC sells for $37,403, but that's still 20 grand less than the Audi. The CC is certainly smaller, yet it still provides a comfy 37 inches of rear legroom, the same as the Audi.
The biggest difference in terms of usability is that the VW uses a traditional trunk with 13.0 cubic feet of luggage space while the Audi is a hatchback with a whopping 24.5 cubic feet of room even before the rear seats are folded down. And, since it's an Audi, it outclasses the VW on the inside. But that $30,000 price gap between the two makes a compelling argument for the CC. It's still the only reasonably priced four-door coupe on the market.
So You Can't Afford: Mercedes-Benz S-Class
429-hp, 4.6-liter twin turbo V8
The inexpensive imitator: Hyundai Equus
It appears that Hyundai's mission is to beat the luxury-car brands at their own game. And it's having some serious success doing so. The Genesis Coupe is the perfect low-buck foil to the Infiniti G37. The Genesis sedan arrived ready to take on the mid-level luxury sedans like the BMW 5 Series. The Korean automaker had to have some serious confidence to take on the large luxury sedans—like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class—with its new Equus. After all, since the 1970s the S-Class has been the car world's benchmark for what a large sedan should be.
But Maybe You Can Afford: Hyundai Equus
429-hp 4.6-liter V-8
On paper the Equus packs a serious punch. It matches the big Benz in horsepower, but produces it with a much smaller engine. The Equus is about the same size too, with a larger trunk than the Mercedes. The Equus packs the same level of luxury features, from its reclining rear seats to the smart cruise control and lane-departure warning.
So where's the extra $35,500 worth of car you'll get with a Mercedes-Benz? It's largely in the details. The leather is more sumptuous. The wood, buttons, and switches are higher quality. And when it comes to the drive, you can think of the Hyundai as Buick-level engagement. The Mercedes-Benz feels tauter and more responsive in the corners. And, of course, buying a big Mercedes-Benz doesn't require any explanation. It's an S-Class. You might have to explain to people why you bought a $60,000 Hyundai.
So You Can't Afford: Fisker Karma
402-hp (drive motors), 260-hp 2.0-liter turbo generator
The inexpensive imitator: Chevy Volt
Despite advancements in technology and a rebirth of the electric car, plug-in hybrids are still rare machinery on the streets today. There are only a mere handful for sale by large-scale manufacturers. The Chevy Volt may have been the one to break that ice, but it's the Fisker Karma that wants to command the room. The Karma's proportions are sensual and gorgeous, to be sure. And its powertrain will propel the sexy four-door to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds.
But Maybe You Can Afford: Chevrolet Volt
149-hp (drive motors), 84-hp 1.4-liter generator
Both cars are plug-in hybrids. The Volt might be cool and techy on the inside, but it's no luxury car. It is more efficient, though. The Karma was certified by the EPA for a 52-mpg equivalent. It has an electric range of 32 miles and returns 20 mpg when running on gas. The Volt returns 93 mpg-e, has a 35-mile electric range, and returns a fuel economy of 37 mpg on gas.
The Fisker will certainly be the more compelling vehicle to drive, and the one that draws the larger crowd. But the Volt is backed by one of the world's largest and oldest auto companies—GM. And that's comforting when so much of this technology is so very new.
So You Can't Afford:Land Rover Range Rover
375-hp 5.0-liter V-8
The inexpensive imitator: Jeep Grand Cherokee
For more than 60 years, the four-wheel-drive world has been dominated by two brands—Jeep and Land Rover. Yet neither is stuck in the past. Oh no. All Land Rovers use intelligent 4WD systems, and Jeep's brand stretches wildly from the rugged Wrangler to the compact Compass. But can the top models of each brand be compared fairly, despite a price gap of nearly $50,000? That's why we're here.
The Range Rover is more luxurious than the Grand Cherokee by far. The level of craftsmanship and materials on the inside of this British machine rival that of Bentley. The Jeep has moved a large leap forward in this department but, still, you can see where Land Rover's money went.
But Maybe You Can Afford: Jeep Grand Cherokee
When it comes down to hard mechanicals, though, the two 4WDs move closer. Both ride on an independent suspension system. And the Grand Cherokee uses an optional advanced air suspension that mimics the pioneering multiheight system that Range Rover has used since the 1990s. Both vehicles use a 4WD system that can be tailored to suit particular terrains as well.
When it comes to towing, a properly equipped Grand Cherokee can move a 7400-pound trailer. The Range Rover beats that, but by just 316 pounds. Under the hood, the Rover's V-8 matches up well with the optional Hemi V-8 in the Jeep. But while the $100,000, 510-hp Supercharged Range Rover is still geared for off-road use, the 465-hp SRT8 Grand Cherokee is the closest a driver could come to a Jeep hot rod. And it does so at just $54,670. So for the cost of one Range Rover, you could have one Grand Cherokee for off-roading and another one for the street.
So You Can't Afford: Ferrari 458 Italia Spyder
562-hp 4.5-liter V-8 at 9000 rpm
The inexpensive imitator: Lotus Elise SC
How could a four-cylinder Lotus with just a tick over 200 hp compete with a 562-hp Ferrari? Well, on hard numbers, it can't. The Ferrari is a supercar that would demolish it in any speed contest. When it comes to pure driving pleasure, however, the Lotus is like a junior-league Ferrari.
But Maybe You Can Afford: Lotus Elise SC
217-hp, 1.8-liter supercharged four-cylinder
The Elise has reflexes like a shifter kart. Its steering is extraordinarily sharp, direct, and precise. Its featherweight construction delivers a power-to-weight ratio and handling dynamics that rival the world's best sports cars.
The Ferrari is all of these things too, of course. And the 458 Italia, particularly the convertible Spyder version, may deliver the most bewitching engine sound of any car—period. But to hear those wonderful noises and to feel the prodigious thrust from that V-8, you must be traveling at speeds far greater than any speed limit on any U.S. road. The Elise on the other hand, provides a similar adrenaline rush at far saner speeds. And of course, opting for an Elise means you can keep that $200,000 price difference locked safely in your bank accounts.
So You Can't Afford: BMW M5
560-hp 4.4-liter twin turbo V-8
Price: $90,000 (est)
The inexpensive imitator: Subaru WRX STI
The top sport sedans have progressed so far that they are just about as quick as the last generation of supercars. A Cadillac CTS-V, for instance, will hit 60 mph in about 4 seconds flat. And now, with a the new twin-turbo 560-hp V-8, the BMW M5 could be even quicker, and reach 190 mph. Wow.
Yet, selling at an estimated $90,000 when it arrives in the U.S. next year, the 2013 BMW M5 will be far too pricey for many of the enthusiasts who would appreciate it most. But, going for less than $40,000, the Subaru WRX STI is a bargain-priced super sedan that won't break the bank.
But Maybe You Can Afford: Subaru WRX STI
305-hp 2.5-liter turbocharged flat four
An all-wheel-drive Japanese four-door with a Subaru badge doesn't have the wow factor of a BMW. But its 0-to-60 time of just over 5 seconds isn't exactly slow. The Subaru's beauty is in the holistic approach to its equipment. The suspension, steering, big brakes, and wide tires all come together in a package that feels seriously capable and engaging when you bend it into a turn—just like the BMW, albeit at a less ferocious level.
With that giant wing on the trunklid, the WRX STI embraces its roots as one of the MVPs of the sport-compact-car world. The look seems a little dated today. Still, the potent Subaru price tag is just too good. Let loose that spoiler and dump some of that money you'll save on the long list of aftermarket go-fast parts that are available for the STI. Oh, and you can even get a wagon version of the Subaru.
So You Can't Afford: Lexus LFA
552-hp 4.8-liter V-10
The inexpensive imitator: Nissan GT-R
In the world of high-end Japanese supercars, these two are the benchmarks. And in this matchup, the less expensive car could actually be the quicker machine.
The LFA is a carbon-fiber V-10 monster that screams to its 9000-rpm redline. It's built in extremely low numbers and it's one of the most expensive cars on the planet. But save your cash. The Nissan GT-R will do almost everything the LFA will do, for $275,000 less.
But Maybe You Can Afford: Nissan GT-R
545-hp twin-turbo V-6
There's a reason the GT-R is nicknamed Godzilla. According to Nissan's internal testing, the 545-hp 2013 GT-R will scorch 60 mph in 2.7 seconds. That's beyond even a motorcycle time—it's sportbike territory. It takes the LFA over 3.5 seconds to do the same job.
Around a track, though, the LFA will be a match for the GT-R. In recent tests, the LFA set a Nürburgring Nordschleife lap time of 7:24, while the LFA Nürburgring Package demolished the production lap record with a blistering 7:15. The previous model GT-R set a best lap time of 7:24, but Nissan says the more powerful 2013 edition will shave a little more than 7 seconds from that time. Not quite enough to dethrone the Lexus.
Still: Is the Lexus's exclusivity, its incredible track potential, and its ferocious V-10 enough to justify the enormous price difference? Not to us. We'd take the GT-R and park a Ferrari 458 Italia next to it in our garage—and still keep more than $30,000 in the bank.
So You Can't Afford: Lamborghini Gallardo LP-560
552-hp, 5.2-liter V-10
The inexpensive imitator: Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
Before you start writing an angry letter, we know: There's absolutely no similarity between a Mustang and a Lamborghini. The Mustang is a rear-drive muscle car, with a hot V-8 up front and a (cough) live axle at the back end. It's a ruffian that gallops along on old technology. A Lamborghini is the very definition of Italian exotica. There's a lightweight aluminum chassis, sophisticated all-wheel drive, and a scalding V-10 hanging out behind your head, ready to wail. It looks more like something developed at Area 51 than any machine Detroit could churn out.
But Maybe You Can Afford: Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
650-hp 5.8-liter supercharged V-8
Price: $60,000 (est)
But the new 2013 Shelby GT 500 isn't just any Mustang. Ford has boosted the power by a full 100 horsepower over the last one, up to a staggering 650. That's even more horsepower than Chevy's ZR1 Corvette. And though the Shelby weighs about 500 pounds more than the Gallardo, we'd suspect the two wouldn't be too far apart in a drag race.
Here's the most interesting part. The Mustang, according to Ford, will hit a clean 200 mph. The advanced, technology-packed Italian supercar will go only 1 mph faster. That's some serious bragging rights for anyone who ponies up for this Mustang.
So You Can't Afford: Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
411-hp 6.2-liter V-8
The inexpensive imitator: Nissan Frontier PRO-4X 6MT
Ford's mighty Raptor is the factory-engineered production incarnation of a Baja trophy truck. It's engineered to tackle off-road terrain at speeds far greater than any other vehicle. It wears a long-travel suspension damped by Fox remote reservoir shocks. And under the hood is Ford's potent 411-hp Coyote V-8. But at over $40,000, it's certainly not cheap for a truck.
But Maybe You Can Afford: Nissan Frontier PRO-4X
261-hp, 4.0-liter V-6
Quietly, Nissan has been producing a capable and much less expensive off-road package for its midsize Frontier pickup for years. The Pro-4X comes with larger tires, Bilstein shocks, a locking rear differential, hill-descent control, and more. These are really the tools of slow-speed off-roading. And with only 265 hp under the hood, the Frontier can't even dream of catching the speedy Raptor in the dirt.
When locked in low range, crawling over boulders, they are much more evenly matched. This years' Raptor does come with a new Torsion front differential, so it should be a better slow-speed crawler when traction is limited. But the Frontier is much smaller and nimbler on tight trails, some of which are simply too small for the Raptor to fit. Remember, the Raptor is several inches wider than your neighbor's F-150.
The Frontier certainly won't match the Raptor's thrill ride, but it could be a good pickup for those that need serious off-road capability in a tidier package. Plus, with the extra $15,000 in your pocket, you could buy a Polaris Ranger RZR 900 to supply your four-wheeled adrenaline rush.