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
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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
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.
The price tag completes the transformation. Acknowledging economic realities, Mercedes has pared prices sharply on all the various E-Class models. So, for 2010, add affordability as one of the car's most appealing standard features. $49,475
Best Premium Luxury Sedan
It doesn't take long to recognize when an automaker unveils a new classic. The last generation of the XJ made titanic advancements under the skin with a lightweight aluminum body and a variety of other technological innovations. Now, the latest iteration finishes the job with superior styling.
"Sultry" and "sculpted" are two words that you'll likely hear in conversations about the new design. The new "saloon" car, as the British prefer to call it, has a decidedly more coupe-like shape, especially with the flowing roof line. The elongated teardrop-shaped windows are the most striking feature. The nose shares some of the basic design DNA of the smaller Jaguar XF. The LED taillights, highlighted by three vertical red stripes, flow into the rear fenders.
As distinctive and striking as the body may be, the real breakthrough is in the interior. To our eyes, the new Jaguar XJ features the most attractive cabin on the road. Once you slip into the driver's seat, you'll understand why. Oh, and don't forgot to tick the box on the options list for the new, 1200-watt, 20-speaker Bowers and Wilkins audio system. $72,500
Best Luxury Convertible
Audi A5/S5 Cabriolet
The A5 is as handsome a coupe as you'll find on the road, sized somewhere between Audi's compact A4 sedan and bigger A6 four-door. Now comes the cabriolet, which matches benchmark design with a quick and easy-to-operate convertible roof.
We drove the cabrio during a spate of bad weather along the French Cote d'Azur and found that we could operate the ragtop at speeds up to 30 mph and go topless whenever the sun burst through the clouds.
The turbocharged, 333-horsepower, 3.0-liter, V-6 power train found in the sportier S5 delivers the same performance as the big, gas-slurping V-8 in the original A5 coupe, but is decidedly more stingy with fuel. The seven-speed Tiptronic transmission can be shifted manually. Audi's quattro drive system feeds all four wheels, adjusting torque on left and right wheels as well as front and rear axles. Go into a hard corner, for example, and the outer tire gets more power, helping steer you more accurately on dry, damp or downright snowy pavement. A5 $38,025; S5 $54,425
Best Premium Luxury Convertible
We expect that the California will be one of the more controversial of our 2010 picks, though we stand firmly behind it as Best Premium Luxury Convertible-and so do buyers, it seems. You'll likely be on a long waiting list for this Italian supercar.
There's no question it's a bit different from the likes of the F430 or the 612 Scaglietti, with some unusual touches, like the vertically stacked twin-double exhaust pipes-a layout Ferrari aerodynamicists created to reduce drag in the rear wheel wells. We see the new car as an homage to the original 250 GT California, produced between 1953 and 1964.
One notable update is the modular body, which is aluminum with the exception of the composite rear panel. A significant Ferrari first is the mounting of the V-8 engine ahead of the cockpit, rather than amidships. For those who drive al fresco, however, the nicest feature is likely to be the two-piece folding roof, a trick affair that you can raise or lower with the touch of a button in just 14 seconds.
Ostensibly, this is a four-seater, or as Ferrari dubs it a "2+," recognition that even small children really won't find room in back. But one thing we take seriously is the maker's claim that the California is a "daily driver." It's a lot easier than your typical supercar to motor around town, even in the Golden State's endemic traffic jams. $192,000
Best Luxury Performance Car
Bentley Continental Supersports
A few decades back the Bentley brand seemed destined to disappear. But about 10 years ago the British marque got a new lease on life when it was auctioned off to an unlikely benefactor: Germany's Volkswagen A.G. Really. VW has shown a surprising willingness to support its luxury brands, which include Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley, Bugatti and, soon, Porsche, while allowing them to maintain their distinctive character.
Bentley's revival began earlier in the decade, with the smaller, more affordable sporty Continental line. The basic platform has proven flexible, as the foundation for the GT coupe, the Flying Spur sedan and the GTC convertible, as well as the "Speed" editions, with more horsepower and torque and firmer suspension settings. All, however, were hefty.
The Continental Supersports takes things one giant leap forward by using carbon fiber components, even stripping out the rear seat, to lighten the basic GT platform and body. Add to that the most powerful version yet of the W-12 engine, which makes an astonishing 621 hp and 590 pound-feet of torque. That'll launch the two-seater from 0-60 in just 3.7 seconds, making it Bentley's fastest production car ever. Supersports is nevertheless lavishly equipped, and when you add the blackout wheels to a black-on-black body, it's as striking as it is quick. $273,295
Best Luxury Sports Car
It's been 55 years since the original Mercedes-Benz 300SL, best known as "the gullwing," took the automotive world by storm. The long-rumored and long-awaited update has arrived. But don't call the new SLS retro, asserts Mercedes' CEO Dieter Zetsche, proclaiming, "It is not a stroll down memory lane but a look into the future."
While the 2010 Mercedes SLS does share some of the original 300's design cues, we were pleased to discover that the reincarnated gullwing door doesn't require you to slide awkwardly across massive doorsills. Indeed, this is a very modern car.
The replacement for the less-than-loved SLR-and about $100,000 cheaper-the new SLS features an aluminum space frame and other modern touches: rectangular, rather than round, headlights which flow up into the front fenders; a more steeply-raked windshield; a decidedly taut and aerodynamic body; larger, wider tires; and a Formula One-style wing that cuts across the cross-hatched, blackout grille.
Power? Plenty. The new supercar uses a heavily modified version of the 6.3-liter V-8 created exclusively by Mercedes' performance division, AMG. In the SLS, it makes a whopping 571 horsepower, and is promised to tear from 0 to 60 in just 3.7 seconds. Top speed is 197 mph. $261,018
Best Luxury Roadster
With the launch of the Z3, for 1996, BMW helped revive the classic roadster, a niche it has been exploring for more than 75 years. But something about the two-seater-and the remake, the Z4-didn't quite work and kept them from vying with the more sporty Porsche Boxster.
All that's changed with the launch of BMW's latest incarnation of the Z4, the first real redesign since 2002. What's emerged from the Bavarians is a truly striking blend of styling and performance. Start with the adoption of a metal, rather than cloth top. The foldaway hardtop can be opened or closed in barely 20 seconds. The new design means a quieter, more comfortable cabin-and also enhances safety and security.
Slightly larger, the new Z4 boasts both a roomier and decidedly more upscale interior that, for the first time, features the iDrive controller-a new version, we should add, that's a lot easier to understand and operate.
Go with the sporty, 3.0-liter inline-six and you'll get surprisingly good mileage as well as performance, though we'd opt for the the 3.5 liter, 300-horsepower I-6 mated to a new, double-clutch gearbox, which is badged the sDrive 35i. It delivers the best of a stick and an automatic all in one, and allows rapid-fire shifts using steering wheel-mounted paddles. 3.0 liter $46,575; 3.5 liter $52,475
The 2010 Panamera joins impeccable performance numbers, incredible functionality and one of the best luxury cockpits ever designed. But the body. Oh, the body. The back has a bit of the ant queen, the shape that was ultimately required to fit two large adult males into the rear seat of Porsche's first-ever four-door sports car. Blame or credit-whichever you prefer-the tall and now-retired CEO Wendelin Wiedeking, who insisted on a car that would carry him in any seat.
Once you slip inside the debate ends.The cabin is divided into quadrants and, if you opt for it, features a separate set of climate controls for each person. The sweeping center stack is an almost overwhelming display of knobs and switches. Porsche consciously avoided an iDrive-style controller in favor of an aircraft style console that gives you quick access to the seemingly endless array of controls.
The "base" Panamera S features a 400-horsepower, 396 pound-foot 4.8-liter V-8. The engine is shared on the 4S, though the latter model gets all-wheel-drive. For the ultimate kick, there's the Turbo-actually a twin-turbocharged version of the V-8 that boosts the pony count to 500, and torque to 516 pound-feet. Turn on the launch control system and it'll hit 60 in less than 4 seconds.
U.S. versions have an electronically shifted dual-clutch, seven-speed manual gearbox that can be operated as seamlessly as an automatic or shifted using the steering wheel-mounted paddles. $89,800
Best Compact Luxury CUV/SUV
The "K" at the end gives you a hint: kurz, in German, or short, in English. This is the first compact crossover/SUV in the Mercedes-Benz lineup, and it made a grand entrance into the world, playing a supporting role in the film version of Sex and the City.
The price is likely to surprise-pleasantly-those used to paying a hefty premium for anything bearing the Mercedes tri-star hood ornament. The only complaint is that the German maker has saved a few pennies with an interior not quite as lavish as what we'd expect.
But the GLK is worth the money and then some. It's decidedly more solid and attractive than the somewhat tinny BMW X3. It's also a lot more quiet and comfortable around town, yet the new Mercedes offering will go places the girls from New York would likely never consider. Despite a car-based platform-lifted from the C-Class sedan-the GLK can handle some seriously challenging off-road trails.
The powertrain isn't the most fuel-efficient in the segment, but the trade-off is some surprising performance out of the GLK's V-6 and a smooth-shifting, seven-speed automatic transmission. $34,775
Best MidRange CUV/SUV
Tie: Lincoln MKT and Land Rover LR4
As a classic sport-utility vehicle the newest member of the Land Rover family would win hands down. But these days, many customers want a car-based, crossover utility vehicle (CUV)-or what one might call a sport-ute lite. In that category, we had to give the nod to the Lincoln MKT in its latest incarnation. And hence the tie.
The domestic offering is handsome, with an in-your-face, love-it-or-leave-it chrome grille that has come to define the rebirth of the Lincoln brand. The cabin is roomy, comfortable, well-turned and incredibly quiet. The twin-panel panoramic glass roof is a must-have option.
The MKT's power train flouts traditional SUV/CUV thinking. Nope, no V-8. Parent Ford opted to equip the 2010 MKT with the six-cylinder EcoBoost engine. The new high-tech, twin-turbo package delivers eight-banger power and performance with the fuel economy of a six.
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