Used Luxury: 6 Pre-owned Vehicles Under $20k

used luxury vehicle buyer guide
Used Luxury: 6 Pre-owned Vehicles Under $20k
There’s more to the cost of a car than the sticker price.

Here’s the scenario: You recently got a promotion at work.  You’re making more money, you’re handling bigger issues, and you’re attending meetings with more important clients.  Unfortunately, your old car is on its last leg.  You go out perusing the local lot’s offerings, but the sea of beige (champagne pearl) mid-size sedans just doesn't strike your fancy.  The salesman smiles and tells you he has just what you need, then asks you to hang tight while he pulls it around.  What you see next excites and confuses you; a black Audi S4 with 19” gunmetal wheels and tinted windows.  There is a slight burble coming from the V8’s dual exhaust as it idles in front of you. You imagine the looks of envy on your coworkers’ faces as they see you pull into the parking lot each morning; shuttling your impressed clients to and from lunch meetings; carving up mountain roads on the way to that vacation cabin you’ll obviously own once you achieve the level of success owning this status symbol will inevitably afford you…

And that’s where we at Primer come in.  First off, the car you own will not change your life.  It may make coworkers talk, but it won’t be in a positive way.  However, if you just want a used luxury vehicle because you think they are cool and like what they offer, then read on.  When you are looking to make a large investment, purchase price isn’t all there is to it.  You have to factor in preventative maintenance and unexpected repairs.  We’re going to take a look at several models to see if buying a previously loved luxury vehicle is right for you.

Below you will find a real test drive review of three of the vehicles as they sit today (all six were tested but there is only so much room!), as well as a look at how much maintenance and common repairs will cost.  To test these cars, I went to Triple B Autos. Triple B Autos deals in everything from Hyundai Accents to Hummer H1s. Owner Josh Tice will even help buyers find vehicles in other parts of the country.

The Search Criteria

The price range for this scenario is $15,000 to $20,000. Our theoretical buyer has semi-established to good credit, is comfortable committing to a 48 or 60 month loan, and can afford a car payment between $275 and $325 a month. Insurance varies widely based on driver history and a variety of local factors, so we’re not including that in the equation. All of the vehicles are less than 10 years old and have fewer than 100k miles.  For maintenance and repairs we’ll price tires, 100k mile service, and a small host of common parts that go wrong when you least expect them.

2004 Audi S4

Driving Impressions

The S4 is Audi’s performance version of their smallest sedan, the A4.  It has a 4.2l V8 that puts 340 horsepower to the road through its all-wheel drive system.  There are no two ways about it, the thing is fast.  And it isn’t a sneaky kind of fast either.  The S4 growls when you push the accelerator down, and there is a definite pressure against your chest as you accelerate in any of the six gears.  Need to pass someone who’s going too slowly on that back country road? In our test, when downshifting to 3rd gear, we were able to go from 40 to 70 in just under 3 seconds.

The interior is very comfortable for even a broad shouldered, 6 foot tall fellow like your’s truly.  The blind spots are minor, the factory stereo still sounds great, and fuel consumption came in at 17 miles per gallon, which is in the acceptable range for what it is…a 4 door sports car.

Any downsides? Well, as expected with a vehicle that has reduced in value almost $30,000 during its 9 year life, there are lots of little interior nicks and the paint on the roof has some slight oxidation. Audis are also notorious for bad sensors and check engine warnings.  Finally, all that power is on tap too easily.  It’s jerky when in bumper to bumper city traffic and, when cruising through neighborhoods, I nearly got a cramp in my hamstring from trying to keep constant and precise pressure on the gas pedal.  One wiggle of the toe or, God forbid, a sneeze and this German rocket would hit light speed faster than the Millennium Falcon running from the Empire!

2006 Hummer H2

Driving Impressions

Describe the H2 in one word? Easy. “Bro”.  It’s a bro-mobile made for transporting bros and bro-ettes to and from various night clubs and stores that sell those awesome Archaic shirts (sarcasm bro!)  I tried to find something good, positive, or redeeming about the H2, but I simply couldn’t.

It is somehow big on the outside and small on the inside. It has a large motor that swills fuel (10 mpg while cruising at 55mph) but returns nothing even remotely resembling acceleration.  It costs a lot of money but, for the life of me, I simply cannot find where it goes.  The interior plastics are cheap and rattle like maracas.  The ride is rough, the wind noise is loud, and the seats are slightly less comfortable than the ones in my 11 year old Jeep Wrangler.

2008 Lexus IS350 

Driving Impressions

I’m just going to come out and say it. I love this car! The V6 engine delivers 306 horsepower when you need to run, but can also give you 25 mpg when you want to be somewhat frugal. It is rear wheel drive, and feels like a properly balanced car.  It handles corners and bumps very well, and runs like a scalded dog. I won’t go into a myriad of specifics, but this is an extremely well-designed and appointed vehicle.  For the same price as the others you get satellite navigation, a great stereo, a backup camera, and very comfortable leather seats.  The vehicle I drove had 95k miles and still looked as new as the day it originally rolled off the showroom floor.

During testing, I made the following Facebook post “When cruising along, it escorts you quietly and politely like a museum docent.  However, when you press the right pedal to the carpet, it snatches you up by the neck and hurls you about like a bouncer at a roadhouse saloon”.  Looking back, flooring it is more akin to Bradley Cooper taking the clear pills the first half of Limitless.  When the pedal is down, the IS instantly becomes more responsive and precise.  Colors become more vibrant, music becomes more melodic and, although you are hurdling through space at an ever increasing rate of speed, the handling is still precise enough to allow you to weave through traffic like everyone else is standing still.

Cost of Ownership    

Maintenance and the cost of repairs are things you have to keep in mind for any vehicle you purchase.  This is exceptionally true for used luxury vehicles.  In general, their replacement parts are more expensive, they tend to have larger wheels which mean tires may cost more, and some shops will not work on them. This requires you to go to the dealer for repairs.  Dealers often charge much more than the hourly rate for labor than other shops.  Below you will find the average price for parts that eventually tend to go wrong.  These prices are for parts only, not the labor to install them.  The prices for the 100k service do include labor. Of course, tax is always extra.

2004 Audi S4

Tires (each)$145-$160Starter$335
Oil Change$55Ignition Coil$65
Brake PadsFront $50 Rear $50100k Service$1,221

Bottom line: A comfortable, sophisticated, 4 door sedan with more than enough power to get you in to trouble.  All in all it’s not a bad car, but make sure the payment doesn’t tap out your budget.  Things will go wrong.

2006 Range Rover Sport

Tires (each)$170-$220Starter$160
Oil Change$40Ignition Coil$75
Brake PadsFront $45 Rear $50100k Service$1,310

Bottom line: Electrical gremlins in the security system kept this one from starting.  Not a great sign of things to come.

2007 Mercedes-Benz C230 Sport

Tires (each)$115-$130Starter$300
Oil Change$45Ignition Coil$55
Brake PadsFront $60 Rear $40100k Service$1,287

Bottom line: Soft suspension, quiet ride, and good looks.  The “sport” seems to be missing, but if you really just want to have a Mercedes key on your ring, this is the way to do it.

2008 Lexus IS 350

Tires (each)$100-$120Starter$135
Oil Change$39Ignition Coil$85
Brake PadsFront $50 Rear $50100k Service$1,074

Bottom line: This is my personal recommendation when people ask about nice sporty sedans.  It looks great, rides great…heck, it’s just great.  You get Toyota reliability and the same level of luxury that made the European competitors famous.  You owe it to yourself to try one of these out.  The IS250 is a suitable alternative if no IS350s are in your price range locally.

2006 Hummer H2

Tires (each)$240-$310Starter$150
Oil Change$27Ignition Coil$40
Brake PadsFront $35 Rear $45100k Service$940

Bottom line: If you need an SUV, please find something else.  Take a look at the Honda Ridgeline if you want something comfortable and reliable. The Chevy Tahoe, or GMC Yukon are also a suitable alternatives if you need towing capacity.

2007 Acura TL Type-S

Tires (each)$105-$115Starter$230
Oil Change$35Ignition Coil$45
Brake PadsFront $51 Rear $33100k Service$1,115

Bottom line: This is a close second to the Lexus.  Personally, I prefer rear wheel drive (the Lexus) to front wheel drive (the Acura), and I think the Lexus is slightly less refined during full throttle maneuvers. Again, it’s reliable, good looking, and very sporty. There’s a reason this one popped up so many times in our reader’s recommendations for the sub-$30k Dream Car.


I say again, having a nice car will not create any dramatic changes in your life.  It won’t make you more successful, or create envy among your peers (not in anyone you should worry about at least). If you buy the right one though, you can have more fun on your weekend road trips and enjoy your monotonous commute to work a little more.  You should always do your research and look at the Consumer Reports review, as well as other sites like Edmunds.  I also like to review owner’s forums for common issues and fixes.  Whatever you end up buying, make sure you’re happy with it.  There aren’t many things worse than having buyer’s remorse for the next 59 months.

Adam currently serves as the supervisor of Student Services for Columbia Southern University. His hobbies include adventure racing, anything involving the outdoors, and zombies. He spends his free time enjoying all of these things with his wife and two dogs.

  • GLR

    Less luxe looking but also great is VW Golf (any edition). My dad’s is 15 y-o and looks brand new with a little care (wash, vacuum, etc). The interiors are confortable with discreet “velvet”(not sure) seats that survived 4 children and still look new after a wash.

    It took us on all sorts of roadtrips fairly fast without guzzling fuel and, at least in black, has a nice outside design just like any audi of the same generation

    I personally drive a small Fiat Seicento and I couldn’t recomend it enough but it’s just not the kind of car you guys are probably looking for

    • Adam Brewton

      Driving a Seicento? You must be outside the US. Cool little cars though! I wish we had more small cars like that here. Thanks for the feedback on the Golf too. I think that should always be on someone’s test drive list when looking for smallish hatchbacks.

      • GLR

        Sure, I’m in Europe and there’s no denying the ease of parking both cars versus bigger ones I see mentioned online.

        Golf, especially older versions, can be purchased on the cheap, in comparison to these guys and a little TLC on the interiors can make it look really fancy. This because the people this article is directed at may prefer a bit cheaper option. I know I would if looking to replace my car

  • Paul

    One big car missing from your list is a 2005-2007 Infiniti G35. Fun car, luxury styling, and definitely under your price point.

    • Adam Brewton

      I agree. I looked around to find one but there was an unusal shortage in my area when this was being written. There were a few with over 100k miles, and a few that cost more than $20k, but, in theory, that could have skewed the test. You’re right though, very sharp car, well built, and reliable…unless you get the sedan. Those are kind of ugly 🙁

      • Deke

        Even if they don’t look as good as the coupe, I’d love to find one of the late G35/early G37 sedans with a 6-speed. They exist, but they aren’t always readily available.

  • TJ

    I’ll chime in on insurance, since I work in the industry. You can call in and ask your agent for a quote before you buy the car. A lot of people don’t think about the cost of insurance before getting the vehicle and I have had many clients who are in shock at the price. It’s something that people don’t think about until after they’ve bought the car and it is too late.
    You are right though, it really varries depending on location and driving history. For instance, with my company, Ohio and North Carolina tend to be super cheap while Florida is outrageous.

    • Adam Brewton

      Thanks for the added insight. I have to hop online and get quotes everytime we think about buying something new. Most people have an old-school mindset when it comes to insurance, and only consider the number of doors, seats, and engine cylinders. It also involves, theft rates, safety ratings (how much will it cost to fix you if/when it crashes) and repair cost (how much do those body panels cost if/when it crashes).

      • TJ

        Credit rating is another factor that a lot of people don’t think about.

        Isurance is all about risk. It’s all about what kind of risk do you as a driver, driving that car, in that location present and what is the appropriate rate to charge to cover that risk and make sure the company stays financially stable.

  • Deke

    I would love an early-mid 2000s S4/M3/M5/AMG, but the reliability of said cars scares me a little. It’s not even really the cost of maintenance that turns me off, more just the inconvenience. Regardless, I haven’t completely ruled one out.

    • Adam Brewton

      My wife’s cousin has an M3 (mid 2000’s) and has had zero issues out of it. He’s not a fanatic about maintenance and uses it as one should use an M3, but he does take care of it. I was randomly left stranded by my Audi a few times, so I’m with you there.

  • Ryan

    Consumer Reports is garbage!!! Your article lost all credibility the minute you said to check their reviews.

    • Andrew

      Why’s that?

    • Adam Brewton

      I think it’s important take all reviews with agrain of salt, and you should review as many different sources as possible. That’s why I also suggest Edmunds and the various owner’s forums. Nothing beats hearing from people who own them, but it’s the internet and everything you read is unfortunately not true. CR has been spot on for some of my vehicles, and others have been way off. There’s so many parts on a car to go wrong, that they all have bad days. However, if everybody reports that they’re vehicle has had reliability issues, you should be ready for the one you buy to have them too, and feel blessed everyday it works properly.

      • Ryan

        The problem is that CR is held up as the bastion of auto reviews, but their process is highly flawed.

        • Adam Brewton

          I agree, they shouldn’t be your deciding factor. Just a piece of the puzzle. JD Power, C&D, and others should all come nto play when you’re spending big money (for most of us) on a vehicle. While CR rating system is flawed (those bubbles are useless) their video reviews and long-term tests have some great info. Thanks for the links to those other articles too. Again, it’s great for shoppers to have all the info they can.

  • Ron Macoon

    ah man, now i’ve got the itch!!!! must resist….

  • Cdun

    Might want to bump up the cost of the S4 oil change, 9.5 quarts of synthetic isn’t cheap. I love my 05 S4, oil change costs me $90 and I do it myself, It’s kind of funny because while it is the most expensive oil change I have ever done, it is also the easiest.

    • Adam Brewton

      Sorry about that. I went back and spoke with the tech who gave me all of the info for each car. He looked it up again and said he must have read it wrong because he didn’t believe it really took 9.5 quarts! Yet one more reason to do your research yourself 😉

  • Jay

    I’ve owned nothing but Audi’s and my friend had the Audi S4 from the same generation as you listed before (2006.5) and I have to go ahead and say they are NOT the type of used car to buy. You’re right, they are great cars, they’re fun, stylish and can still turn heads, but they are the type of car that if you cannot afford to buy it new, you shouldn’t but it. Why? Repair costs. If you can do most of the work yourself and you have access to a garage and the right tools then you’ll probably be fine. If not, labor and parts are going to crush you when these things fail and yes random little things will fail an the most inopportune time. If you can find one with a great repair and maintenance history, that’s a step in the right direction, but I’ll say it again, it’s one of those car that while it is affordable now, the repair costs are still a premium and luxury price.

    • Abe

      2 points on the S4 – you should def be able to buy a several years newer S4 (b7 body style) for under 20K.

      Secondly, yes, repairs can be pricey. I love my car, 5 stars for driveability, style, performance.. but the electronics on audis can be suspect. did not expect to have to replace the navi, the window regulators, the head light ballasts on a luxury vehicle.

      One thing i do to keep costs down is to go to the dealer for all routine maintenance, and when they find an issue i take it to i another mechanic who is half the price of the dealership.

  • Brock

    If you want all wheel drive, go with the IS 250. Freaking awesome car (although not quite as manly as the 350…).

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  • Marco

    Like this interesting article. Recently I plan to buy a mid or large suv because I need sizable cargo room. 4×4 is not a must. But if already included also great. Need stylish exterior looking. And, if luxury, that will be perfect. My budget is almost 30K or little more. Can you also recommend one?