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Divine Machinery

Our choice of the ultimate luxury cars in 12 different categories shows what it takes to boost posh to new levels of excellence
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Phil Ivey, March/April 2010

The rich are different from you and me," F. Scott Fitzgerald reportedly declared. "Yes," replied Ernest Hemingway, "they have more money." These days, "Papa" might have come up with an alternative retort, "They have more cars."

The more affluent the driver, the larger the fleet in the garage, it seems. Bentley's research shows that its owners are likely to have at least six other sets of wheels in their garages. Even the plebian Porsche Boxster is likely to be parked next to two or three other cars, trucks or crossovers.

Pity the luxury buyer of a couple decades ago who chose from a list decidedly smaller than today. Hard to remember, but the Mercedes-Benz lineup was once limited to E-Class, S- and SL models. When it added the smaller C-Class, it made the car world chatter, but these days no one flinches at the company's continued march through the model-name alphabet with the CLs and GLs, SLKs and SLSs. And Mercedes is not alone. Cautious BMW has even gone on a spree, adding models ranging from the compact X1 crossover to the sporty new 5-Series GT. Domestic makers Cadillac and Lincoln are broadening lines, as well.

And in the process, the boundaries of the luxury category are being redefined. Lexus, Toyota's high-line division offers the HS250h, a dedicated hybrid model, as well as its IS-F muscle car and the new LF-A, a carbon fiber supercar that is expected to carry a price tag of more than $375,000, when it reaches showrooms late this year.

The mid- to lower-luxury segments are seeing a surfeit of new models, many offering the sort of opulent touches and high-tech features previously reserved for only the market's most expensive models. Maybe the rich aren't all that different after all. Luxury car sales have slumped nearly as low as the rest of the American auto market this past year-especially at the high end of the market. "People don't want to be seen laying off 100 employees and then rolling up to the factory in their new 7-Series," says Jim O'Donnell, CEO of BMW North America.

Reflecting the ever-changing nature of the luxury market, we've tweaked the categories again this year to come up with the 14 best luxury vehicles (in a dozen individual categories) available in 2010.

Best Entry-Level Luxury Model
Tie: Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac CTS Coupe

We'll begin with the same comment we offered two years ago when we declared the Enclave our pick for top luxury SUV: Yes, Buick. There's a reason the brand is a best-seller in China, the surprisingly demanding and fastest-growing passenger car market, and the LaCrosse suggests American buyers should be ready to welcome back this marque. The sedan is stylish, roomy and well-appointed. The astonishingly silent cabin is the most refined and elegant Buick has delivered in decades. The ice-blue lighting of its gauge cluster and its large navigation screen provide high-tech accents. With the Enclave, and now the LaCrosse, Buick could soon pose a real challenge to the high-line Asian and European marques.

Over at that other American luxury marque, Cadillac, the latest version of the CTS sedan has put General Motors' flagship brand back on track. Now come several intriguing spin-offs. We honored the high-performance CTSv last year, and the latest variant, the striking CTS Coupe, deserves kudos in our 2010 Best-of. The two-door version not only maintains but somehow sharpens Caddy's distinctive "Art & Science" design philosophy. And the interior shows that the U.S. maker is intent on setting a new benchmark, despite the CTS Coupe's affordable price tag. LaCrosse $27,835; CTS Coupe at $40,755; all prices are base-level manufacturers' suggestions.

Best Midrange Luxury Sedan
Mercedes-Benz E550

This top-to-bottom remake in many ways represents the best Mercedes can muster, even more so than the flagship S-Class. For 2010, the German maker is offering two distinct variations of the E-Class sedan, the relatively conservative Luxury edition and the more extreme Sport. The latter, which typically dominates the U.S. order bank, features a much more pronounced, blacked-out lower air intake and a three-, rather than four-bar grille-lamellas, in designer-speak. The Sport also gets twin, squared-off chrome exhaust tips and a blacked-out rear diffuser.

One of the most delightful additions to the 2010 E-Class is a new, 14-way power seat that includes a four-way adjustable lumbar support. Once you get used to working the controls, you may want to order a spare seat for your living room.

The E-Class also boasts a gadget freak's cornucopia of high-tech info-tainment, performance and safety features. The tongue-twisting Distronic Plus with Pre-Safe Braking helps you maintain a safe distance in stop-and-go traffic and, in an emergency, will even begin braking for you.

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