Currently reading: Luxury on the cheap - used car buying guide
These bargain barges offer the champagne life for beer money. We pick five of the best
Darren Moss
3 mins read
4 June 2015

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.


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Volkswagen Phaeton

The Volkswagen Phaeton’s decade-old platform needs more than a tweak to be a success in the luxury car market

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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

Join the debate


16 March 2015
... until the first repair/maintenance bill arrives. Ouch!

16 March 2015
It's running costs that count - and even without depreciation, I'd guess that none of these cars will cost beer money to run. I think it's wrong to use period photography to illustrate articles of 10-20 year old cars, with descriptions based on how these cars behaved when new. There is a reason why most are sold cheap: nobody wants them. The truth is that people who can afford to run a luxury car can probably afford the depreciation of a new or relatively new model.
Of course, if you're buying a car to look good on the driveway and impress the neighbors and don't intend driving it much, then ignore these comments.


16 March 2015
...if you know what you are doing, and buy wisely this is cheap motoring...remember fuel is not a major consideration in secondhand running costs unless you cover big mileages (in which case you shouldn't even be reading this!)
Even those of us who have been in the trade all their lives make mistakes sometimes...the totally unexpected just happens....
Afrer all, James Rupperts Shed 7 didn't cost much to run did it?

16 March 2015
I expected to see the superb Rover 75 on this list.

16 March 2015
You either pay up front with a new car or keep spending on an older one to keep it going. Both have it's merits. One of my cars is fairly new and I enjoy cleaning it and looking after it etc, while another is nearly 16 years old and I enjoy the challenge of keeping it roadworthy and maintaining it. Wouldn't mind one of the older 7 series (E38) as I like the design and prefer this generation of BMW to what they offer today. Any thoughts ?

16 March 2015
Luxury = ride+quietness+peace of mind=Lexus. But I always liked the look of the 740i, it makes this generation of Jag look messy.

16 March 2015
comments are true on this; be prepared for some bum-twitching repair bills at this age of car, hence why they're cheap. Cambelts, suspension bushes etc can become hefty labour-bills on complex older cars. Not a reason not to buy, but it can be a false economy.


16 March 2015
... I worry about buying almost ANY modern car. I tend to prefer buying new, not just for the smell(!) but the warranty, but tend to keep a car for around 6 years. It only takes one black box to go kaput to be landed with a 4-figure bill. As Scotty once said in Star Trek III, "...The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain..." Gone are the days when an engine can be fixed by a wipe down with an oily rag. Still, that's the price one pays for highly efficient engines designd to pass ludicrous emission and consumption tests.

17 March 2015
TS7 wrote:

Still, that's the price one pays for highly efficient engines designd to pass ludicrous emission and consumption tests.

What's ludicrous about having a 150mph car that can realistically achieve 40mpg and keeps the air a lot cleaner than it was a generation ago. Ludicrous is the cars we had in the 70's; such as a 3 litre Capri with only 138bhp,and a 2.0 litre Cortina GT that could barely crack a hundred mph while consuming more fuel than a modern 911 and emitting far more pollutants.


17 January 2018

is your comparison of a Cortina from the 70's with the 21st century advancements in tech that can offer said 911.


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