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Top 10 Luxury Vehicles

We pick the best of the best in the 10 categories that define world class driving
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

If you believe it's all about choice and you're searching for a luxury car, then you're in luck. Whether you're seeking a full-size SUV or a 600-horsepower roadster, more alternatives have never existed before. But is it possible there might be too much to choose from?

Not since the earliest days of the auto industry, the era of Packards, Panhards and Bugattis, have there been more luxury brands competing for the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of American motorists. The proliferation is all the more overwhelming when it comes to individual models. Not all that long ago, Mercedes-Benz provided a pretty narrow, straightforward set of choices: the midsize E-Class, full-size S-Class and SL roadster. These days, the German automaker has an alphabet soup of offerings. From the SLK roadster to the new R-Class "Grand Sports Tourer," there are more than a dozen different models—more if you count high-performance AMG variants, like the 604-horsepower SL65.

Almost by definition, a luxury buyer should expect the chance to acquire a product tailored to personal needs and tastes. But making that selection can be daunting. Consider, for example, the flood of full-size luxury sport-utility vehicles alone, which includes the completely redesigned Cadillac Escalade, an all-new Mercedes GL, the Lincoln Navigator, the Infiniti QX56 and the Lexus GX470.

We're here to help with this first annual guide to our favorite luxury cars, trucks and crossovers. As with any car ranking, our choices reflect a mix of hard numbers and personal preferences. We've looked at factors like performance and fuel economy, comfort and roominess, styling and engineering excellence. Technical sophistication has helped win high scores, but we've also penalized some models for making things difficult to understand and operate. We've also given weight to what we like to call the "head-turning" factor, that special something that causes folks to notice when you drive by and prompts valets to give you the prime parking spot when you hand them your keys. Of course, novelty also has its clout. But the latest isn't always the greatest. We expect, even encourage a bit of debate over our choices. But even if you would opt for one of our runners-up, you'll agree these are the cream of a bumper crop.

ENTRY-LEVEL LUXURY SEDAN
Infiniti G35
This Japanese marque, the upscale arm of Nissan, has been the forgotten brand in today's increasingly crowded luxury market. The arrival of the G35 sedan has changed that. Infiniti's offering is a stylish, fun-to-drive Asian alternative to the cars of the BMW 3 Series, which have dominated the segment. Unlike all too many Japanese imports, the G has a distinctive look and presence. Its 280-horsepower V-6 is both peppy and sophisticated. Snow Belt dwellers will, of course, love the all-wheel-drive G35x, but don't dismiss this option even if you live in sunnier climes. It provides performance-oriented drivers plenty of added grip on dry pavement as well. An all-new version of the G35 was unveiled at this year's New York Auto Show, and we expect it to make the nameplate even more competitive than it was before. $31,200

RUNNERS-UP:
BMW 330i We admit to having thought long and hard before giving the nod to Infiniti and not this entry. BMW's obnoxious iDrive, with its console-mounted knob for controlling many functions, was one big negative, though the 3 Series is still a segment benchmark. $36,600

LEXUS IS 350 As a former U.S. president once noted, so much depends on what the definition of is is. In this particular instance, the latest version of this Japanese sports sedan finally lives up to its lofty expectations. Like all Lexus products, there's plenty of high tech. Better yet, the new design theme is a visual standout. $35,440

MID-LUXURY SEDAN
Lexus GS430
Every so often, a car revolutionizes the concept of luxury. Seventeen years ago, one such new player entered the market, and it didn't play by the traditional rules. Lexus's products were quiet, technically sophisticated and unexpectedly affordable. Sadly, they also lacked soul. The new GS sedan offers hope that Toyota's high-line brand is finally coming into its own. The V-8-powered GS430 is fast, fun and as lavish as anything we would have hoped for. It has plenty of advanced electronic systems on board, but unlike in so many Japanese high-tech cars of the past, the technology remains largely out of sight until needed, then comes into play quite unobtrusively. Though the GS430 won't transform the luxury segment like the original LS sedan, this is a car that should help redefine the staid image of Lexus. $52,070

RUNNERS-UP:
BMW 550i Like the 3 Series, the BMW "5-er" is, in many ways, the benchmark for its segment, even if the angular design of this vehicle—the bustle-back rear, in particular—is a turnoff for many, and some technical usability issues have arisen. Still a top contender that's tough to beat.$60,485

AUDI A6 To reveal a personal secret, we've always been Audi fans. And the new A6 demonstrates why those who chart their own course routinely opt for Audis, rather than better-known European imports. The bold nose is controversial, but the overall look is elegant, with performance and comfort to match. $40,820


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