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Luxury's Best of the Best

The high-line sphere in today’s automotive world has grown to include almost every conceivable category. We look at the class of every class.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Brad Paisley, March/April 2012

Just a decade ago the term luxury car meant nice leather seats, refined wood trim and plenty of power. Now, a better descriptor would be choices. Yes, they still deliver all the plush you expect from a premium price, but today’s new car buyer is likely to find luxury in any category—including sedans, coupes, sports cars, crossovers and classic sport-utility vehicles—he desires.

Manufacturers have been filling market niches so fast it seems like German automakers may soon run out of alphanumeric terms to name them with. But not only are you likely to find the precise product you want, you’ll find it comes with an emphasis on high-tech features. The options are phenomenal: from iPad-sized touchscreen displays and studio-quality sound systems to advanced gas-electric drivetrains and digital safety systems that can spot—and respond to—an emergency before you even know there’s trouble.

With so much choice out there on the high-end, we are once again helping out with our latest selection of the luxury market. Here are our superlative picks in the 10 most important segments of the car world’s high line.

Best Entry-Luxury Model: BMW 3-Series

It’s hard to think of this Beemer as entry-level. The latest ultimate driving machine looks as elegant and sophisticated as many models costing significantly more. And that’s what makes the category benchmark so hard to beat—even while a few new entries, notably the latest version of the Audi A4 came close and the new Cadillac ATS promise to give the Bavarians a run for the money.

The sixth-generation 3-er, introduced in January, takes an evolutionary approach to styling, with subtle tweaks to the familiar kidney grille and improved aerodynamics that influence the overall design. What’s impressive is that the German automaker has found a way to deliver BMW caliber performance, while still recognizing that even luxury buyers want better mileage.

That meant one surprise: the decision to replace the “base” model’s familiar inline-six engine with the first four-cylinder powerplant in a number of years for a U.S. 3-Series offering. But that turbocharged 2.0-liter package still churns out a hefty 240 horsepower, with a 3.0-liter turbo six still available to bump the pony count up to 300. Later in the year, BMW will also weigh in with its latest hybrid, the ActiveHybrid 3, that will deliver a solid 37 miles a gallon—and still pump out 335 hp with its combination of gas engine and electric motor.

Best Premium Sedan: Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG

Few entries have had a bigger impact on automotive design, over the last decade, than the Mercedes-Benz CLS, the maker’s shorthand for “coupe-like sedan.” Its curvaceous roofline and elegantly sculpted body left its mark at all ends of the price spectrum. So, imagine the challenge facing Mercedes designers when they had to go and do it again.

Well, they pulled it off—with a bullet. The 2012 update is as eye-pleasing as the original. But it’s also a lot more fun to drive, especially if you can afford to park the Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG in your driveway. Here, the name is a bit misleading, as the new model migrates from the old AMG edition’s naturally aspirated 6.2-liter engine to a 5.5-liter package that also relies on twin turbos at takeoff. Specifically developed by AMG, Mercedes’ performance arm, it now makes 518 hp and 516 lb-ft. Not enough? There’s the optional performance package, which raises turbo boost and brings the numbers to a 550 hp and 590 lb-ft.

Even the base CLS delivers a more solid and planted ride, with the AMG edition maximizing thrills. Mercedes maintained the lavish leather, wood and high-end features—from its advanced COMAND infotainment system to the latest high-tech safety gear—of the original CLS.

Best Luxury Hatchback: Audi A7

The Audi A7 immediately violates one of the cardinal rules of the American market: the engrained belief that hatchbacks don’t sell. Okay, let’s keep it a secret. If buyers don’t notice, there’s no reason to tell them. The simple fact is that for a company long known for its cutting edge design the new Audi A7 once again raises the bar—both inside and out.

The new A7 lifts many of the latest high-tech features introduced on the Audi A8 flagship last year, including the trick touchpad that lets you “draw” a letter or number when programming the navigation system or dialing a phone number. A Wi-Fi hot spot lets you use a cell phone, iPad or laptop computer. And the navi displays the world as seen through Google, with real moving images, not graphics. With Audi, though, the real appeal is how it balances high-tech and high-style.

The five-door also performs, with a 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 driving a smooth and intuitive eight-speed gearbox. Its gobs of torque will get you to 60 in 4.5 seconds, on the way to an electronically limited 155-mph top speed.

Best Luxury Sports Car: Porsche 911 Carrera S

Pity poor Michael Mauer—well, not too much. He was given the challenge of coming up with the all-new, seventh-generation Porsche 911 a few years back. But he knew that there would be severe limits on what he could do “or it wouldn’t be a 911,” he says. What he’s wrought is a new model that is at once familiar and yet surprisingly new, a classic sports car that is now longer, wider and lower.

And, as hard as it might seem to believe, it is a lot more fun to drive. Under that new body is a markedly lighter platform with the overall vehicle weighing in about 100 pounds less than the outgoing model. And, as they’ll readily tell you, less weight means a faster, more nimble ride.

The Carrera edition, with its 3.4-liter flat six, will deliver 0-to-60 times of just 4.4 seconds. The Carrera S, with its pumped up, 3.8-liter engine, gets another 50 horsepower—at an even 400, and barely needs four seconds to hit the 60 mark. But straight-line performance isn’t why you buy a Porsche. With its new hydro-electric steering and Dynamic Chassis Control system it performs miracles in tight corners. No wonder it shaved a full 16 seconds off the old car’s already impressive times on the German Nürburgring, perhaps the most revealing track in the world.

Best Premium Luxury Convertible: Bentley Continental GTC

Almost forgotten barely a decade ago, the British maker has staged one of the most dramatic turnarounds in automotive history, and after a brief slump during the global economic downturn it is once again setting record sales. The Continental line is the primary reason. The smaller of Bentley’s two platforms is as elegant as any to come out of the Crewe plant—with a forest full of hand-cut and polished wood trim—but it’s also got some serious performance bona fides.

An all-new Continental line debuted last year, starting with the second-generation GT Coupe. For 2012, Bentley has returned with the GTC convertible. With the top up you’d hardly notice it doesn’t have a conventional roof, it’s so quiet. Top down and you can push well into the 100-mph range and still hold a conversation.

The 567 horsepower V-12 sprints to 60 in barely 4.5 seconds and keeps going until the needle nudges 195. Of course, you could get even better numbers for this money in a Ferrari or Lamborghini, so Bentley has lavished its owners with the refined features that the brand has long been known for. Meanwhile, for the New Year, the British maker is offering a more mileage-minded V-8. Even the wealthiest motorists are watching their fuel bills, it seems.

Best Performance Car: Jaguar XKR-S

Here, kitty, kitty. Oops, you’ve got quite a set of claws. For some folks, 510 horsepower just isn’t enough. That’s why Jaguar upped the ante on its already impressive, supercharged XKR by rolling out the new XKR-S Super Coupe, its debut coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the launch of the legendary Jaguar E-Type.

The XKR-S is as close to a raw muscle car as you might get from the British maker, delivering a whopping 550 horsepower and 502 lb-feet of torque, enough the maker says, to propel it from 0 to 60 in just 4.2 seconds—on the way to a top speed of 186 mph.

Sadly, you may have to look long and hard to find one of the $132,000 cats, Jaguar is only planning to import about 100 copies of the XKR-S coupe to the U.S. The good news is that you might be able to find one of the new convertible models that the maker has also introduced. Same basic performance numbers, just a lot more wind in your hair.
 
Best Supercar: Lamborghini Aventador

It’s not a term one would normally associate with one of Italy’s raging bulls, but Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann is dead serious when he describes the new Aventador as an “everyday” sports car. Of course, it helps that the maker’s new flagship model now has a button to press that slightly raises the front end so you won’t scrape it up going up your driveway or into a parking structure.

But the surprising thing is that the new Lamborghini Aventador can really be tamed for around-town driving, something almost impossible with the marque’s earlier supercars, which would buck and snort when you got down to something close to the speed limit. Then again, find an open stretch of road, let your foot squeeze the trigger and you might want to keep your lawyer’s number on speed dial.

Its full name is Lamborghini Aventador LP 700-4, and that translates into an eye-popping 700 horsepower going through all four wheels. At just 2.9 seconds, 0 to 60, you’ll be able to challenge an F-16 off the stoplight. But fans of the brand will be shocked at the level of refinement in the latest Lambo offering—courtesy of the Italian maker’s partner, Germany’s Audi, which clearly knows a lot about driving cars every day.

Best Luxury Crossover or SUV: Range Rover Evoque

There were few surprises when the Range Rover Evoque nabbed the title of North American Truck of the Year at January’s Detroit Auto Show. But maybe there should have been. The Evoque is the first model ever built by Range Rover parent Land Rover that’s built on a car-based crossover platform. Even more heretical, it features a downsized four-cylinder engine.
But the initial order bank suggests the new Evoque is rapidly on its way to becoming the best-selling model in the British marque’s history. It is certainly nabbing just about every award that it qualifies for since its late 2011 launch. And it deserves them.

Designer Gerry McGovern has come up with a distinctive, swept-back look that is a far cry from anything that ever wore either the Land Rover or Range Rover badges before. The underlying platform, meanwhile, is surprisingly nimble and manageable, with the sort of on-road manners the maker traditionally couldn’t deliver. Yet, while you might not be able to maneuver the most grueling off-road trails in Moab, Utah, the Evoque still manages to handle some tough terrain thanks to its Terrain Response system, which allows you to instantly shift the settings for everything from brakes to engine to suspension to best manage road conditions.

Best Luxury Green Machine: Lexus GS 450h

When Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda introduced the new Lexus GS line at last summer’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, he promised that it would be part of his goal to put more passion into the Japanese luxury brand. Of the entire Lexus lineup, the GS series has always been the most sporty, much as the 5-Series is arguably the best luxury driver’s car in the BMW line. But passion was not a word one traditionally associated with a Lexus.

Think again. The base model got strong consideration in one of the other categories but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the combination gas-and-electric drive in the GS 450h can satisfy both an environmentally minded driver and one who still wants some serious excitement. To improve the green claims of the Lexus GS 450h engineers took a number of steps to improve its 3.5-liter V-6, which already used a combination of port and direct fuel injection for the gasoline side of its drivetrain. The bottom line is a 30 percent improvement in mileage over the GS 350 gas-powered sedan, while still going  from 0 to 60 in just 5.6 seconds.

This is the first model to wear what Toyoda described as the “new face of Lexus,” but the rest of the car is a lot more handsome, as well. You can always expect plenty of technology from Lexus. The GS includes a new high-definition video monitor that’s several inches bigger than an iPad. But our favorite interior touch is the “renewable” bamboo-trimmed steering wheel.
 
Best Luxury Concept Vehicle: (tie) Acura NSX and Lincoln MKZ

Acura NSX: The original Acura NSX, of 1990, was the first Japanese supercar, a real game-changer with its industry-first aluminum monocoque. Sadly, the Honda luxury brand could never quite figure out how to update the two-seater, which it finally pulled from the lineup in 2005.

Since then, Acura has toyed with a variety of ways to revive the NSX, including one misguided prototype using a heavy V-10 engine. But now we feel the long wait will be worth it. Due for a return to production sometime late next year, the next-generation Acura NSX will once again be a styling and technology tour de force, with a trick gas-electric powertrain that uses a single electric motor and a V-6 to power the rear wheels. Each of the front tires is powered by a separate, smaller electric motor. That approach will allow aggressive torque vectoring—turning the wheels at slightly different speeds to help power through the tightest corners.

Lincoln MKZ: As for the new Lincoln, the MKZ will resurface later this year in production form, but the concept is worth honoring now. Few brands have done a better vanishing act than Lincoln over the years. But the New MKZ says this old dog has some very new tricks in store.

Perhaps we should have come up with an avian analogy, as the exterior design of the new sedan was strongly influenced by the look of an eagle’s outstretched wings, according to Lincoln design chief Max Woolf. That’s especially apparent in the new horizontal grille, which replaces the tired, Lincoln waterfall grille. The exterior is elegant and graceful, but the most striking feature is the full-glass retractable roof. We’re not talking panoramic sunroof. The entire glass top slides back to give a convertible-like feel. Add the sleek interior which, Woolf says, was modeled after a suspension bridge, and Lincoln just may have a reason to stick around.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com on the Internet.

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