Trading Places: A Value Comparison
What's the difference between a $50,000 car and a $25,000 car?
Value is, of course, a relative measure. When you feed a family of four for $5 with a box of spaghetti and jar of tomato sauce, you got a good value, as a practical matter. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when you feed a family of four for $250 at an exclusive restaurant with excellent service and a chef who elevates cooking to an art form, well, that could also be considered a good value. The same is true with automobiles. The price you pay should be inextricably linked to the performance, reliability and satisfaction you get from owning your vehicle, and not just how much it costs.
For the sake of perspective, let's do a little comparison shopping in a sector of the car market where there is considerable overlap in form and function from vehicle to vehicle — the 4-door family sedan. Specifically, we'll take a look at two vehicles that appear similar on paper, but that few people would ever cross-shop: the well-equipped Hyundai Sonata Limited 2.0T, priced at $27,245; and the base trim Mercedes-Benz E350, at $49,400. Auto shoppers would never put these two vehicles on the same list, with one costing almost twice as much as the other.
Why compare an optioned-out vehicle to a base trim? To be fair, it's because the entry-level, $19,395 Hyundai is a bit Spartan to go toe-to-toe with the Mercedes, but only a few thousand dollars in options spruces it up quite a bit. Now, we know, true Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts would scoff at the comparison here. The three-pointed-star is a badge that connotes a 100-plus-year tradition of craftsmanship, quality and elegance that goes beyond a mere listing of features. That may be true, but a detailed look at the numbers and specs is nonetheless quite revealing.
The E-Class is definitely the larger car, but not by much. It measures 191.7 inches long to the Sonata's 189.8 inches, and the E-Class is 81.5 inches wide, while the Sonata is only 72.2 inches wide. So surely the E-Class must have more room inside, right? Not really. The E-Class has 37.9 inches of headroom, 57.8 inches of shoulder room and 41.3 inches of legroom for front passengers, while the Sonata gives 40 inches of headroom, 57.9 inches of shoulder room and 45.5 inches of front-seat legroom. The Mercedes gives a little of the volume back to the rear-seat passengers, however, delivering 38.2 inches of headroom, 56.9 inches of shoulder room and 35.8 inches of legroom. The Sonata is a bit more cramped with 37.8 inches of headroom, 56.7 inches of shoulder room and only 34.6 inches of legroom.
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Here's where the top-tier 2.0T engine option on the Sonata makes a difference when compared with the Mercedes engine. By volume, the E350's 3.5-liter V6 engine should blow the Sonata's tiny 2-liter inline 4-cylinder engine away. But, thanks to some creative turbocharging, the Hyundai actually delivers 274 horsepower compared with the E-Class' 268. In practice, it hardly matters, as both vehicles post zero-to-60 mph times at around 6.5 seconds. But the fuel economy numbers definitely tilt in the Sonata's favor. EPA estimates put the Mercedes at 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway, while the Hyundai posts 22/33 mpg. What's more, the Hyundai takes regular 87-octane fuel, while the Mercedes sips a pricier vintage — premium unleaded fuel only, please.
Mercedes has a well-deserved reputation for safety, and the E-Class is certainly packed with safety features. Standard are anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist — which can automatically boost braking during emergency stops — as well as stability control. The E-Class also comes with Mercedes Pre-Safe, which tightens seatbelts, closes windows and optimizes seating positions for maximum safety when the system senses a potential crash. There's even a drowsiness monitor that checks how the driver is performing, and gives audible and visual warnings if the car thinks you're dozing off. Plus, the E-Class comes with airbags from every direction and 4- and 5-star crash ratings for front and side passengers, respectively (at least for the 2010 model, the last one that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tested).
As it turns out, the Hyundai Sonata gets the exact same crash-test ratings as the E-Class. (Actually, the Sonata may even prove to have more impressive ratings, since its 4- and 5-star results come from NHTSA's revised and tougher 2011 tests, which the E-Class has not yet undergone.) The Sonata also has ABS, stability control, a full complement of front and side airbags and Hyundai's own version of brake assist. The truth is that both cars are safe enough to keep all but the most inattentive drivers from killing themselves in traffic. If we had to give the award for safety zealotry, Mercedes would win because of the advanced built-in nanny tech.
If Mercedes can't win in this category, they've really got to start some soul searching, right? There's certainly a lot of luxury to be found in the E-Class: 14-way power front seats, rain-sensing windshield wipers, burl walnut or black ash wood trim, a 6-disc in-dash CD/DVD changer and rich leather upholstery. Hold on a minute — that's not leather, that's MB-Tex, Mercedes-Benz's own brand of vinyl, which does a pretty good job of fooling the casual observer. If you want real leather, you're going to have to cough up another $1,620. In fact, there are quite a few luxuries that don't come standard on the E-Class. Heated seats cost $450; a parking guidance system costs $970; even split-folding rear seats that give access to the trunk cost an additional $440.
The Sonata Limited is already that sedan's highest trim level, so it comes with pretty much everything Hyundai's got to offer in terms of luxury. That means 8-way power adjustable leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated seats (front and rear), in-dash CD changer, Bluetooth phone link, wireless key with push-button start and a sunroof. The only option for this vehicle is a $2,100 navigation package that also adds a backup camera and premium audio, topping out the Sonata's price at just under $30,000. The E350, on the other hand, can really escalate in price when you tack on the options. We managed to add more than $25,000 in extras without even exploring alternate engines or all-wheel-drive options.
Granted, when you option the E-Class out, you're getting a truly opulent vehicle with amenities such as a dual-screen, rear-seat entertainment system; intelligent cruise control; chrome accents; illuminated doorsills; massaging seats; a wood steering wheel; and a blind-spot monitoring system. But then you're comparing a $30,000 car with a $75,000 car. For that much money, you could buy a Hyundai Sonata, hire a driver for a year, buy an iPad and sit in the back as you're chauffeured around — effectively giving you automated, intelligent (i.e., human) cruise control and a backseat entertainment system.
This has generally been a strong suit of Mercedes-Benz. It has for years scored high on J.D. Power and Associates' long-term dependability and initial quality surveys. The E-Class, in particular, gets high marks for its fit and finish and initial quality. But after some poor results in the early 1980s, Hyundai has been trending up in the reliability and initial quality surveys. Now, as a brand, the South Korean manufacturer gets the same 4-star J.D. Power ranking as Mercedes.
The Sonata was redesigned for 2011 and the E-Class was redesigned for 2009, so it's impossible to predict how the current models will hold up over time. In Hyundai's favor is a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, plus a 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, so pretty much any major problem that occurs within that time frame isn't your problem. The E-Class is covered by only a 4-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty; to buy coverage equivalent to Hyundai's from Mercedes, expect to pay upward of $3,000.
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This is, of course, a subjective assessment. Do you like the sharp, angular Teutonic lines of the E-Class or the equally sharp, sweeping cuts on the flanks of the Sonata? What is clear is that the luxury segment no longer has a monopoly on rich paint jobs, dramatic grilles and stately sheet metal. In our humble opinion, the E-Class still outshines the Sonata when it comes to the fit and finish of its interior and the quality of the materials used inside the cabin. The Sonata still has a high plastic-to-metal ratio when it comes to trim, while the wood accents in the Mercedes add a distinct touch of class. But is the Mercedes twice as handsome?
In the End
The point here isn't to trash Mercedes-Benz; the E-Class is a remarkable car and an engineering triumph. And Mercedes is hardly alone in charging top dollar for a prestigious marque. But there's a lesson here when you think of the astounding amount of car you can get for under $30,000 these days. And Hyundai isn't the only manufacturer delivering luxury on the cheap. Ford, Chevrolet and Infiniti are also doing an excellent job producing cars that seem far more expensive than they really are — and not simply by tossing in features just because more is better. And after a few hard years of an economic recession, perhaps it's time new-car buyers start taking a long, hard look at exactly what they're getting for the money.
Sam Foley is a Connecticut-based automotive journalist who has written for GQ, Forbes, USA Today, the New York Post and various other publications.
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Bought a 2011 Sonata Limited, color radiant silver, a few months ago. And I have honestly had people tell me it looks like a mercedes. This car is great! My gas mileage is way up, can get 40 mpg on the highway. I dont want to hear about advertising, we are bombarded here in PA with GM, Ford, and Dodge, POS' ads.
Hyundai is made in America, by Americans, in a right to work, non-union state.
Its time to wake up America, the days of unions, and the old way of doing things are OVER. We live in a global economy now and all of the union run companies are dead or dying.
As for the Hyundai vs the MB. The MB is at best 10% better but is 90% more money upfront and about 50% more to insure, operate and repair. It's for fools who are buying the nameplate. Much like the fashion industry, if the labels on the outside were removed, you could not tell the difference between Nieman Marcus and Macy's.
Let's face it. Hyundai has made a paradigm change in the industry. It used to be that less expensive cars were basic boxes with wheels, noisy and featureless. Hyundai has sent a wake up call to every competitor out there; and I, for one, am happy to see it finally hapening. No, I'm not a Hyundai dealer, owner (yet) or associated with them in any way. A couple of years ago I said I would never consider a Korean car. Well, they did the smart move and truely got my attention in the last year.
They're top of the line in JD Power quality ratings. They brought beautiful styling to the lower cost of the market, they're offering signifcantly more features for the money, the top mileage in every category they play in, AND they're offering the best warranty in the business. The competition is lagging in EVERY one of these areas within this market segment. Time for the likes of Honda, Toyota, Nisson, Ford, Chevy and VW to take notice and compete. I've been a Honda and BMW owner for the last 30 years. However, unless they come up with competitive vehicles in this new model year, I'm leaning seriously toward Hyundai and Kia.
Mercedes? They're quality has gone down in the last 10 years, plenty of plastic in those cars (unless you want to upgrade to the $75k model) so don't be fooled. And, Vynal seats with a fancy (marketing) name? Cut me a break!! And the repair bills are astronomical compared to the Korean or Japenese cars. BMW too. I have a $55k 530i with 80k miles on it and the dash and radio pixels are gradually disappearing! AND, this is known and common!!! My Honda RSX has 110k miles on it and I haven't had one problem with it. Just change the oil and standard maintenance... that's it.
Wake up call to the arrogant higher end car manufacturers. Buyers are looking for value. Even those with money to spend. It doesn't make sense to spend more for less, and that's the message the other manufacturers need to get. That's where I'm putting my money. Congratulations Hyundai!!! You just may have won yourself another 30 year customer.
Why go blow your money on a NEW $25,000-$50,000 car..?
I can do and see alot of things by just finding a Used $10,000
low mileage car..? My money is better used for other things and needs...?
I bought my 2011 Sonata last July(2010) and have had many comments on the appearance. My manager took one look at it and said it looked like a Mercedes E- Class. I would never expect to have my car perform like a Mercedes nor have the sound deadening insulation or fit. But it is the car I can afford and look good in.
If I could afford a Mercedes, I would probably buy one or a BMW.
@California Dreamin, I agree with you. Hyundai has come a long way, from not being on my even considered list to vehicles that are worth at least a look, especially the Sonata.
I also can relate to your comments around some of the arrogant luxury brands that seem to be coming up short on quality and reliability these days, Mercedes in particular. Me, I got screwed with a new Lexus. Too many problems in the first year alone, all met with arrogance from the service department like it was my fault the car was junk. Thankfully the warranty covered it all, but I'm certainly happier with the vehicles I've owned that just work like they're supposed to day in and day out. When it comes to being satisfied, it really doesn't matter where they fall on the price scale either as long as they're reliable. Maybe Hyundai has finally arrived at that point.
When it comes to value, if you measure it strictly in terms of real dollars, a $17,000 Hyundai Sonata is a better value than my Lexus was. Forget all the problems I had with it, even if it had been something close to reliable it was a money loser. It depreciated $26,000 in the 3-1/2 years I owned it. Even if the Hyundai depreciates down to zero in 3-1/2 years (which it won't) you'd still be $9,000 ahead. Makes you wonder whether ANY of the high end luxury cars are worth it....unless you just want status.
Her current car is a Ford Flex.
Today's cars feature such advanced technology that the added features in the high-priced cars are so little they are NOT worth it.