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Used luxury car or mainstream new car?

Date

Compare second-hand luxury vehicles with that new-car smell to see where the better value lies.

Pre-loved luxury cars can be better value than they seem.

Pre-loved luxury cars can be better value than they seem.

As consumers, we have choices. House buyers, for instance, have the option of buying a brand-new townhouse with never-before-used appliances and all the mod cons.

Or, there's the alternative - an older house with some retro appeal and the smell of the good old days about it.

But what happens when you apply these principles of lateral thinking to buying your next car?

Happy customer ... Lucinda Bondini with her second-hand Audi A3.

Happy customer ... Lucinda Bondini with her second-hand Audi A3.

Do you take the obvious (and safe) path and buy a brand-new car that fits within your budget?

Or do you approach the task from a different angle and buy something second-hand, but a car that was a real glamour in its day?

When you check out the drive.com.au classifieds, it becomes clear that there are plenty of used prestige cars out there that change hands for the price of a fairly mainstream brand-new car.

And the good news is that we're not talking about clapped-out old crates.

These used prestige options are younger than you might

think, usually serviced by the book and, thanks to the fact that prestige cars depreciate as if they've been dropped out of an aeroplane, cheaper than you probably imagine.

It's not all sweetness and light, of course.

Any second-hand car carries an element of risk and a prestige car can really punish your wallet if it goes wrong.

But as an alternative to the mainstream, this is one piece of lateral thinking that is definitely worth considering.

The Bondini family of Beaconsfield, just outside Melbourne, is an example of this type of lateral thinking and 20-year-old daughter Lucinda is one of the beneficiaries. A pretty switched-on car fancier, father Marc figured a quality car was needed when his daughters started to learn to drive but couldn't face the thought of a bland hatchback when there was so much choice about.

So he opted for an Audi A3. The car is a 2004 model, purchased in 2010, with a turbo-diesel engine and six-speed DSG auto gearbox.

And while Lucinda isn't the only driver of the A3, she does appreciate its ability to get her about safely and without mechanical hassles.

''My life right now is about study and not breaking down by the side of the road,'' she says.

''The Audi gets me to college and it's safe and comfortable - all the things dad values.''

For Marc's part, the decision to buy a second-hand Audi rather than a new hatchback was based on the engineering involved.

''Because I was aiming for a combination of power and fuel economy, I admired the technology involved,'' he says.

''I just couldn't see that the Japanese new hatches had cracked that power-versus-efficiency thing. But to be honest, I bought the engineering and the badge just came with it.''

It hasn't, however, been completely clear sailing.

Within a few months of buying the car, the DSG gearbox failed. We've heard of these units failing before and it backs up the point that even prestige brands can have ongoing reliability problems.

And because Marc didn't know the precise history of the car when he bought it, he was unable to establish how it had been treated in the past.

''The gearbox started engaging with a big clunk and then it just fell to bits,'' he says. ''The repair price quoted at a dealership was pretty hysterical, too.''

Despite that, however, the Bondini family remains happy with the vehicle and Marc says he'd buy a quality second-hand car over a brown-wrapper new car again.

And it's not just the fact that the $20,000 Audi was the alternative to something such as a brand-new Hyundai Elantra or Suzuki SX4.

''I'm happy to do that because I'm extending the life of an existing vehicle, rather than throwing away hundreds of kilos of plastic and chemicals and buying another car that's consumed more materials and energy to build,'' Marc says. ''That's a forgotten point these days.''

The face-offs

Here are a few examples of your choices when it comes to prestige used over mainstream new: 

$20,000

The $20,000 market segment is a pretty competitive one in Australia. And one of the shining lights over the years has been Mazda's 3.

The 3 has twice won its category in Drive's Car of the Year awards in recent years and, while there are more expensive versions, the base-model Neo starts out at a very tempting $20,330 (or $2000 extra if you want the automatic transmission option. Most do.) There's also the choice of a five-door hatch or four-door sedan, either of which looks pretty sharp.

Standard equipment is OK with cruise control and even 15-inch alloy wheels, neither of which is a given at this price point.

And safety is good, too, with six airbags and the full suite of electronic driver aids. But if you can live without the new car smell, $20,000 also gets you into some pretty tasty used-car territory.

Just as a for-instance, the same budget can secure a 2006 Audi A4 TFSI sedan, which not only bears the Audi badge but also is a size bigger without being too big for urban work.

It's also a safe car and carries plenty of standard equipment, as you'd expect of a car that cost almost $62,000 when it was new in 2006. And, for the same money as the Mazda 3 with an automatic gearbox, the A4 TFSI becomes the upgraded model from mid-2006, which got parking sensors and retailed for almost $64,000.

The Audi also trumps the Mazda's 108kW with a turbocharged 147kW from its super-smooth four-cylinder engine, yet in fuel economy terms there's nothing in it with 8.2 litres officially for the Mazda and 8.3 for the Audi (helped no end by the clever CVT transmission). That said, the Mazda doesn't require the A4's diet of premium ULP.

$40,000 soft-roader

In the world of soft-roaders, the situation can play out much the same.

In the conventional corner, you have the Toyota Kluger, which in KX-R base-model form costs $39,990. Of course, the Kluger does feature the latest electronic safety kit and comes with a decent amount of luxury gear and plenty of airbags but, in this guise, it's a five-seater only and two-wheel-drive (in this case the front wheels). It's also powered by a petrol V6 in a market segment that has come to embrace the turbo-diesel engine. All of which makes the left-field alternative - a 2005 BMW X5 - all the more enticing.

For around the same money, you're getting not only one of the best three-litre turbo-diesel engines in the business you're also buying the vehicle that set the benchmarks in the SUV market segment and cost $84,300 when new. The X5's inline six can't match the Kluger's V6 for power (201kW plays 150) but the BMW trumps the Toyota in the all-important torque stakes by a huge margin (480Nm versus 337). In 2005, the X5 was a five-seater only, too, but it's still probably the best SUV to drive around.

Like any Toyota, however, the Kluger can be relied on to go the distance and since it's brand-new anyway servicing costs are likely to be much lower than for an elderly diesel BMW X5.

$40,000 big sedan

Perhaps the greatest illustration of what we're talking about occurs when you start comparing big sedans. Because of that depreciation we mentioned earlier, big luxury cars such as large Audis, Benzes and BMWs can take a real hiding in the retained value stakes.

Proof? How's this for size: A Holden Commodore Omega (base-model) listed at $39,990. Spend the same sort of cash in Left-Field-Land and you're staring a BMW 735i from 2005 square in the eye.

Mechanically, it's a walk-over; where the Omega can feel a bit wanting with the slight lack of torque from the engine, the BMW just wafts along with plenty to spare.

And, even if they were dead level in driveline terms, there's absolutely no contest when it comes to driveway appeal, even if the 735i in question is a superseded shape. It was a $172,300 proposition when it hit showrooms and still looks like an expensive car.

The tears will fall, of course, if the BMW ever goes wrong in a major way, and many 7-Series BMWs were used as hotel limousines and luxury taxis, so steer clear of anything with big mileage on board.

Reality check

Buying any second-hand car carries a risk, a gamble that's multiplied when it's a prestige second-hand car.

Parts and servicing for luxury cars are typically more expensive than for a mass-market vehicle and everything from a windscreen to brake pads is likely to cost more than you may have imagined.

Modern technology and metallurgy mean the cars of the past 20 or 30 years are much longer-lived. A well-built car of the past couple of decades can sometimes cover 400,000 kilometres or more before anything major needs attention. In the case of a used prestige car you're also dealing with some pretty good core engineering, making the chances of a trouble-free run potentially even better.

Prestige cars are usually serviced properly, too, as the original owners are more likely to be in a financial position to do so, but a careful check of the service handbook is essential.

The counterpoint offered by a new car of any standard, of course, is the new-car warranty. Warranty periods are getting longer and provided the vehicle is serviced correctly, a car with a three- or five-year warranty offers a painless experience (or should) no matter what goes wrong (accidents and falling trees aside).

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