July 15, 2010 at 4:46 pm EDT | by Joe Phillips
Top sport sedans

Luxury sedans in this economy? Yes, like Lady Gaga, you actually can mix flashy and frugal.

Still, in today’s slow job market, luxo sport sedans connote success and can set you apart from the competition. And after years of lackluster quality, today’s luxury cars are built better than ever.

Then there’s depreciation. Higher-end vehicles usually hold their value better than less expensive rides. So even if you can’t afford new, a used luxury sedan—especially if it’s still under warranty—can be a prudent buy.

At the end of the day, it’s really like choosing Pradas over Penny loafers: going upscale looks better, lasts longer and may save you money in the long run.

BMW 5 Series
Mpg: 20 city/29 highway

As if BMW didn’t offer enough testosterone with its high-performance M cars, now comes the sixth-gen 5 Series. All three trim levels get gutsier engines, with the top-end 550i blasting from 0 to 60 mph in a blistering 5 seconds. Even the low-end 528i—at $15,000 less—can hit 0 to 60 in just 6.6 seconds. Despite more power, fuel economy is also up. Styling is more buttoned down—call it understated elegance—with softer lines and a front-end that no longer mimics the Batmobile. And ride and handling are BMW at its best, with tight braking and cornering. As with most of the cars below, the 5 Series comes with traction/stability control, as well as pre-collision, lane-departure and blind-spot warning systems. And BMW lovers will be happy to learn that the iDrive audio/climate/info control is less geeky and much simpler now. Two must-have options: 14-way power front seats and an automatic parallel-parking system.

Infiniti M37
Mpg: 18 city/26 highway

Sleek, sinewy and sensual. No, it’s not those shirtless World Cup athletes. But the redesigned M37 also sizzles, with a longer, wider and lower profile that makes it more macho. The cabin is also slick, with flowing lines, bolstered seats and a bubble dash. A strapping 330-hp V6 is the best in its class, giving Euro competitors a run for their money. Those same competitors quickly tack on expensive options, but the M offers plenty of standard gear: bi-xenon headlights, power-folding heated mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control, rearview camera, Bluetooth and iPod interface. Upscale packages add an air-purifier, power sunshade and “eco” pedal that makes it easier for the driver to save gas—though it often feels like Thing from the Addams Family pushing back on your foot as you try to accelerate. For $10,000 more, there’s the M56, with its brawny 420-hp V8 and throbbing exhaust rumble.

Mercedes E-Class
Mpg: 18 city/26 highway

Long the standard bearer for premium luxe sedans, Mercedes suffered quality-control issues the past decade. But no longer, as evidenced by the recently restyled E-Class with its stellar fit and finish. Two engine choices-—the V6 and V8—are carryovers, but that’s OK. Both are potent and gas-savvy. Everything else is new, with firm yet comfortable seats, lots of legroom and spot-on braking and handling. Best of all, the new E costs $5,500 less than last-year’s model. Few automakers can streamline costs like that, yet at the same time bolster quality. Along with the usual high-end gizmos, the midsize E also has infrared night-vision display, power trunk-lid closer, panoramic sunroof and—in what feels like pure nirvana—a massage function built into the driver’s seat.

Porsche Panamera
Mpg: 18 city/27 highway

In 2003, Porsche—after 70 years of making exotic two-seaters—stunned auto aficionados with its Cayenne SUV family hauler. In 2010, Porsche turned heads again by churning out its first sedan: the V8-powered Panamera hatchback. This year, two lower-priced V6 models are added to the Panamera lineup. The result—regardless of engine choice—is the sexiest, most thrilling sedan on dealer lots today. Panameras offer the best of the 911 coupes—superb control, rousing speed—along with roomy cabins and every amenity conceivable. There’s even a backseat refrigerator and whopping 16-speaker stereo. And with the backseats folded, the cargo space expands to an impressive 44.6 cubic feet.

Purists may scoff at Panameras, just like they did with Cayennes, which have become one of Porsche’s best sellers.

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