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

used luxury vehicle buyer guide
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

Audi exterior

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.

A person driving an audi

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

A car parked on the side of a road

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.

A person sitting in a car

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 

A car parked on the side of a road

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.

A driver smiling in a car

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-$160 Starter $335
Oil Change $55 Ignition Coil $65
Brake Pads Front $50 Rear $50 100k 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-$220 Starter $160
Oil Change $40 Ignition Coil $75
Brake Pads Front $45 Rear $50 100k 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-$130 Starter $300
Oil Change $45 Ignition Coil $55
Brake Pads Front $60 Rear $40 100k 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-$120 Starter $135
Oil Change $39 Ignition Coil $85
Brake Pads Front $50 Rear $50 100k 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-$310 Starter $150
Oil Change $27 Ignition Coil $40
Brake Pads Front $35 Rear $45 100k 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-$115 Starter $230
Oil Change $35 Ignition Coil $45
Brake Pads Front $51 Rear $33 100k 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 Brewton

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.