BMW 7 Series (E38)
Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W220)
Ultimate luxury doesn't have to cost the world, as these bargain barges prove.
1. Volkswagen Phaeton (2002-present)
Introduced as a flagship model in 2002, the Phaeton dwarfed even the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Engine options included a 3.2-litre V6 and 6.0-litre W12, although a V8 petrol and V10 diesel were added in 2004.
A 3.0-litre V6 diesel arrived in 2010 and became by far the most popular model. Steep depreciation has made the Phaeton a luxury bargain, with examples available from around £4000 online. They’re loaded with equipment, too, so you won’t be lost for toys to play with inside. Sadly it's now been axed in the UK, but that means used bargains should be plentiful.
For Generally reliable with few mechanical issues to worry about
Against Most people will think you’re just driving a posh Passat
2. Lexus LS400 (1998-2000)
Arguably the safest bet if long-term reliability is your primary concern. Search for common LS400 problems online and you’ll find remarkably few of them. Indeed, the only recurring fault with the model relates to its complicated air suspension, which can be expensive to fix if it goes wrong. Fortunately, very few models came with the option.
Today you can pick up the big Lexus for as little as £700, although the best used ones tend to be the second-generation, facelifted version manufactured between 1998 and 2000. Be sure to check the cambelt has been replaced at the scheduled interval.
For The best luxury bang for your buck out there; reliable and still classy
Against Fewer toys than some rivals, although that means less to go wrong
3. Jaguar XJ8 (1997-2003)
A combination of excellent build quality, decent driving dynamics and top-class comfort have earned the XJ8 a reputation as one of the top barges to go for. The model’s stiff depreciation means examples in reasonable condition can be had for less than £3500.
The XJ8’s fuel consumption was never its strongest point; most models average around 22mpg, so be prepared to spend plenty of time at the pumps. Our advice would be to choose a car built after 1999, as engine and timing chain tensioner issues, both common faults on older models, had been largely dealt with.
For It’s a big Jag; what’s not to love?
Against Pre-2000 models come with mechanical health warnings
4. BMW 7 Series (E38) (1994-2001)
The natural alternative to the Mercedes S-Class, the BMW 7 Series entered production in 1994 and stayed until 2001. You’ll probably enjoy better fuel economy than the big Merc (the 728i is reportedly capable of returning well over 30mpg) and the E38 comes out with good results in various consumer reliability surveys, too.
Watch out for a ‘shimmy’ feeling on any test drive, though; it could mean the steering system or brakes are on their way out. Also, check for leaking cooling and air conditioning systems. Our pick would be the 740i, which gets a 282bhp V8. Examples can be had from £2500.
For There are few ways to enter the luxo-barge market for less cash
Against You’ll wish you’d spent more when the first repair bill arrives
5. Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W220) (1998-2005)
Launched in 1998, the W220 is one of the most widely available ways to get into S-Class ownership. It introduced an array of new technologies to the Mercedes range, including the Comand infotainment system, air suspension and ventilated seats.
The V8-engined S430 offers the best blend of performance and refinement, and good examples can be found for less than £4500, but the V6-engined S350 has also become popular. Check for damp footwells, which may indicate blocked ventilation ducts, and make sure all the electrics are still working.
For A fine tourer, with plenty of tech
Against That on-board tech can go wrong and fixes could be expensive