With mainstream automakers offering luxury-laden trims while prestige car brands attempt to democratize luxury, we organized four comparison tests to see who does posh better for a capped price of $40,000.
Luxury, like pornography, can be hard to define. In the case of automobiles, luxury is not as much about demographics or data as it is about the holistic feeling a premium vehicle gives you. Superior driving dynamics might be a major portion of the luxury car experience, but design, build quality, and interior materials also are significant factors. Although luxury used to be defined solely by high levels of craftsmanship, nowadays technology—chiefly infotainment and driver-assist hardware—is increasingly important, too.
But in the past decade or so, there’s been a wrinkle in the continuum of automotive luxury. Mainstream automakers have added high-zoot trim packages to their volume models to earn a bit more profit and amortize costs across broad volumes; meanwhile, luxury automakers have moved downmarket, producing cheaper models to increase market share. Things have become especially heated in the market for a family sedan priced in the neighborhood of 40 grand, where the two segments collide.
Sedan buyers should be pretty familiar with the Honda Accord as a practical family hauler and work commuter. After all, it’s been the best-selling car to individual buyers (not counting rental fleets) for years. And Honda has made its midsize package even more impressive with the 10th generation.
Case in point: the new top-spec 2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Touring. It comes loaded with all the things luxury buyers expect, such as leather and amazingly lifelike imitation wood inside, Honda Sense driver-assist technology, and a hot-rodded engine under the hood—all for $36,690 out the door. It’s a far sight more expensive than the base Accord 1.5T LX, which is no slouch, either, at a starting price of $24,460.
On the luxury end of the spectrum is the 2018 Audi A4. With luxury sedan sales taking a nosedive and fuel economy regulations tightening, Audi introduced the more affordable and efficient A4 Ultra when the fifth-gen model made its debut in 2017. Starting at $36,975, the A4 Ultra is one of the most inexpensive ways to get a luxury-brand family sedan in your garage.
The A4 Ultra’s starting price covers the luxury basics, with LED lights, a sunroof, and leather seats. However, most models on showroom floors are typically specced up like the zero-miles loaner we borrowed from a helpful local Audi dealership. Our tester added options such as gray paint for $575 (black or white paint are the only free colors) and the Convenience package, which adds keyless entry, a color instrument cluster display, and a few other features for $1,000. A handful of other goodies brought the as-tested price for our A4 to $39,110. That makes the two competing cars’ monthly payments within $40 of each other. Forgo a couple pour-overs a week, and you can upgrade to an Audi.
The two cars are closer mechanically than you’d think. Both have an identical wheelbase and weigh about the same. Under the hood of each car sits a 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 that drives the front wheels.
With a lower cost of entry and improved fuel economy being the reasons for the A4 Ultra’s existence, its engine makes less power than it does in other A4 trims, producing 190 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque (compared to 252 and 273 for the 2.0T Quattro lineup). Power is routed through a seven-speed twin-clutch automatic to the front wheels—Audi’s famous Quattro all-wheel drive system having been omitted on the A4 Ultra for fuel economy reasons. The trade-off would appear to be worth it, as it achieves an impressive EPA rating of 27/37/31 mpg city/highway/combined on premium gasoline.
Honda takes a traditional luxury car approach with the Accord Touring 2.0T’s engine—overpowered and understressed. The Accord Touring 2.0T’s powerplant, a detuned version of the Civic Type R’s 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4, produces 252 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque and is paired with a 10-speed automatic. The combo is good for 22/32/26 mpg on regular gas. This is the upgraded engine from the base 192-hp 1.5-liter turbo I-4 paired with a CVT—a combo also available on the Accord Touring. The difference is impressive.
One of the worst things that can happen to a luxury car buyer, particularly one shopping on the lower end of the spectrum, is the obvious revelation to both you and others that you got “the cheap one.” Although some base luxury family sedans have some pretty obvious tells, the A4 Ultra hides its relatively affordable sticker price well. The A4 Ultra’s trim looks sharp, even with its slightly smaller wheels and Eastern Bloc apartment gray paint. From its LED signature headlights, down its sharply creased flanks, to its sequential taillights, everything about the A4 screams, “I’ve made it!”
Inside, the A4 makes a good first impression. “The design vibe is a smartphone on wheels,” executive editor Mark Rechtin said. Slip into the interior, and you’re greeted with real leather seats (though they are on the grainy and thin side), neat metallic-looking trim along the dashboard, and Audi’s MMI infotainment system mounted front and center atop the dash. The plastic switchgear feels soft and satiny to the touch, and the metallic-tipped HVAC controls and MMI knob feel cool to the touch and look pricey. The knobs turn and buttons press with a satisfyingly damped click.
“Audi does a superb job of using the interior design to mask the material selection,” associate editor Scott Evans said. “The design is hypermodern and looks premium, and the textured silver plastic stands in well for fake wood.”
But dig a bit deeper, and there is some disappointing decontenting to hit the price point—starting with the fancy tech Audi is most known for. With the cheaper trim package, the game-changing Virtual Cockpit is missing, as is any driver-assist technology. (Honda Sensing is standard on even the cheapest Accord.) . MMI is at least friendly with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which lessens the blow.
Some of the material choices are disappointing in a tactile sense. The armrests aren’t leather, and neither is the dash topper, which is a sort of squishy rubber. There’s also a lot of hard, unsatisfying plastics hiding below your beltline.
The material choices are pretty easy to overlook considering this A4’s sticker price, but the back seat isn’t. The lack of legroom means taller passengers will find themselves with their legs pressed up against a hard plastic seat back instead of softer surfaces found on higher-spec A4s. Cupholders are also conspicuously absent in back, though there are at least bottle holders in either door pocket. The Audi claws back a few points by offering up HVAC controls to rear-seat passengers.
As for the Accord, if a mainstream automaker is to put up a credible alternative to a luxury car, it can’t just beat the luxury maker on price and value. And Honda appears to be taking the challenge seriously. The Accord Touring oozes curb appeal, with a Mercedes CLS-esque stance and wheel arches filled by attractive 19-inch wheels.
“Get inside, and the effect is familiar Honda yet futuristic,” Rechtin said. The leather-lined cabin is anchored by comfy seats, rich-looking LCD digital displays on the instrument panel and on top of the dash, and both “wood” and satin metallic trim. Honda sweat the details, too. Its infotainment system has a larger screen than the A4, and it’s more user-friendly, too, with big icons and an easily navigated user interface. Even its HVAC controls are nice, its knurled metal knobs spinning with a satisfying click, and, as an added bonus, the knobs are backlit either blue or red, depending on whether you’re cranking the heat or A/C.
“The buttons and stalks all have that tactile detent cushioning, a little hint of elegance that makes you think Honda spent the extra hour of overtime to get the product just right,” Rechtin said. The feature-rich cabin is rounded out by heated seats front and rear, a limolike back seat, and USB outlets spread throughout the cabin. The loaded infotainment system works with CarPlay, as well.
For all the extra attention to detail, the Accord’s cabin does have a few minor flaws. The wood trim, although it looks nice, doesn’t feel like And as Evans puts it, the light gray leather seats “highlight how plasticky some of the dash and door parts are, particularly in the corners where the dash and door meet, where there appears to be a sheen and color difference between the two neighboring panels.”
Those nitpicks can be easily forgiven once you hit the road. The Honda Accord is a sweetheart to drive. “This drivetrain is a winning combination,” Evans said. Honda’s 2.0-liter engine and 10-speed automatic are a fine pairing, the former seemingly always in its powerband and the latter shifting seamlessly. The engine purrs under gentle throttle but responds with a satisfying snarl when you ask more of it. “Shift quality is whisper smooth; even downshifts are handled without much of a jolt from the transmission,” Rechtin said.
The Accord is an elegant handler with one of the most refined front-drive suspensions on the market. “It goes around a corner really well for a midsize family sedan,” Evans said. “It doesn’t roll much, and steering is accurate and precise.” The Accord rides nicely over poor pavement, too, isolating the cabin from all but the harshest bumps. However, the cabin could be considered on the noisier side under hard acceleration, registering at 38.7 sones with our test gear due to the engine’s pleasing growl, but it quiets down to a reasonable 16.9 sones while cruising at 65 mph.
Our test data would seem to back up what we learned on the road. Here are the highlights: The Accord is properly quick from 0 to 60 mph, needing just 5.8 seconds, and thanks to its fast-shifting transmission, it also doesn’t suffer from noticeable turbo lag, needing only 2.8 seconds to complete a 45–65-mph pass.
In comparison, the Audi A4 Ultra lacks the grace of the Accord. Having spent plenty of time behind the wheel of MT’s long-term all-wheel-drive A4 Quattro (priced at $52,325), it almost feels like Audi spent less time engineering the front-drive version. Throttle tip-in on the Ultra is rather aggressive, and it’s difficult to pull away smoothly from a stop. This makes the A4 feel faster than its 7.0-second 0–60 time would otherwise indicate, especially when the A4’s front-left tire peels out as it struggles for traction.
Once cruising, things improve somewhat. The engine makes good midrange torque, but the Audi’s transmission can be reluctant to downshift. We can’t shake the feeling that the A4’s 3.7-second 45–65-mph time will increase exponentially with four passengers and their luggage on board. The A4 Ultra goes around a corner well, however. Steering is a bit numb due to the stock tire choice, but body motions are well controlled, and the suspension is well damped when riding over poor pavement. The cabin is quiet, too, with our meters registering 19.6 sones at full-throttle acceleration, almost 50 percent quieter than the Accord, and 14.6 sones at 65 mph.
Cost, no matter the segment, is always a major purchase consideration. Although it’s tempting to compare as-tested prices, we need to be far more nuanced than that. Armed with IntelliChoice data, we can get a full breakdown on how much everything from insurance to repairs will cost you, the buyer, over five years.
Somewhat surprisingly, the A4 Ultra might actually be cheaper up front than the Accord 2.0T Touring, thanks to generous incentives on the hood of the Audi. However, once we break costs out over 60 months, the A4’s advantages disappear. That luxury car badge means luxury car expenses, with the A4 costing more than the Accord in just about every category but especially in repairs, where the Honda solidly pulls away.
We understand: A luxury car is always going to struggle against a mainstream one when it comes to perceived value; your dollar would seem to go further at a Honda dealer than it does at an Audi one. So the ultimate question when it comes to Accord 2.0T Touring versus A4 Ultra is simple: With the Audi’s over the Honda and the extra features the Accord has that the A4 doesn’t, is the Honda a better luxury car?
Verdict: It’s close, but at this 40 grand price point the Accord Touring is a more convincing luxury car than the A4 Ultra. “Audi does a superb job of dressing up the A4 to keep your eyes away from the cost-saving measures,” Evans said, “but when you dig even a little bit, you find them.” That, coupled with its imperfect road manners, sinks the Audi. The Accord, on the other hand, makes a strong effort at defining the holistic luxury experience. It’s not perfect, but it does just above everything a little bit better than the A4—it’s nicer to drive, more sophisticated, and more rewarding to spend time in. Is luxury worth it? Sometimes. But in this case, the mainstream is luxury.
Honda won this battle by a whisker. That might leave some of you still unsettled as to our verdict. You might have your own priorities as far as practical wants and needs. So for those still on the fence …
Get the Honda if you:
- Need room for five
- Want a loaded infotainment system
- Desire zippier performance and handling
- Want driver-assist technology
- Place importance on cost of ownership
Get the Audi if you:
- Love the look and feel of refined design
- Want a quiet interior
- Need fuel economy for a long commute and don’t mind paying for premium
- Don’t need the back seat much
Read our other comparison tests right here!
|2018 Audi A4 2.0T (Ultra)||2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Touring|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, iron block/alum head||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||121.1 cu in/1,984 cc||121.8 cu in/1,996 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||190 hp @ 4,200 rpm||252 hp @ 6,500 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||236 lb-ft @ 1,450 rpm||273 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,000 rpm||6,800 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||18.1 lb/hp||13.5 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed twin-clutch auto||10-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.4-in vented disc; 12.8-in vented disc, ABS||12.3-in vented disc; 11.1-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.5 x 17-in cast aluminum||8.5 x 19-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||225/50R17 94H (M+S) Continental ProContact GT TX||235/40R19 96V (M+S) Michelin Primacy MXM4|
|WHEELBASE||111.0 in||111.4 in|
|TRACK, F/R||61.9/61.2 in||62.6/63.1 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||186.1 x 72.5 x 56.2 in||192.1 x 73.2 x 57.1 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.1 ft||39.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,444 lb||3,410 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||57/43%||61/39%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.9/37.4 in||37.5/37.2 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.3/35.7 in||42.3/40.4 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||55.9/54.5 in||58.3/56.5 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||13.0 cu ft||16.7 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.5 sec||2.4 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.7||2.8|
|QUARTER MILE||15.4 sec @ 91.0 mph||14.4 sec @ 97.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||120 ft||119 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.85 g (avg)||0.89 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.2 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)||26.7 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,300 rpm||1,400 rpm|
|SOUND LEVEL† @ FULL THROTTLE||19.6 sones (max)||38.7 sones (max)|
|SOUND LEVEL† @ 65 MPH STEADY||14.6 sones (avg)||16.9 sones (avg)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$39,110||$36,690|
|AIRBAGS||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||10: Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/Unlimited miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||15.3 gal||14.8 gal|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||23.6/42.5/29.5 mpg||00.0/00.0/0.00 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||27/37/31 mpg||22/32/26 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||125/91 kW-hrs/100 miles||153/105 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.63 lb/mile||0.76 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded regular|
|† sones (est) from dBA; the sone is a linear measure of loudness that more closely corresponds to human experience|