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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

ULTRA-LUXURY CAR
Bentley Continental Flying Spur
What was once an endangered species is now king of the ultra-luxury segment. Ironically, Rolls-Royce Motor Co., the former parent company, once nearly eliminated the lesser-known Flying B, but today, operating as a separate company, Bentley handily outsells its former sibling. The Continental Flying Spur is one good reason. This dramatic sedan shares basic underpinnings with the sleek and swift Continental GT Coupe, but is more than just a practical variant. While it's 20 inches longer to provide cavernous space for all four passengers, it maintains, even enhances, the performance of the Coupe, thanks to improved weight balance. The Flying Spur is the car that grabs that choice valet parking spot, but it's also a sheer joy to drive. It not only says you've got money, but that you know how to enjoy yourself. $172,125

RUNNER-UP
ROLLS-ROYCE PHANTOM Seeing the locomotive-sized grille rushing up in the rearview mirror, your instinct is to immediately move aside. The massive Phantom is no mere luxury car. It's the ultimate statement in achievement and attainment. You'll find endless opportunities to customize this behemoth, though Grey Poupon isn't an option. $332,750

HIGH-LINE LUXURY SEDAN
Mercedes-Benz S550
Mercedes' S-Class has always been the one to beat, and the benchmark just got better. A last-minute drive led us to make a late switch in our pick for the best-in-class high-line sedan. We'll hear from some skeptics who don't like the new sedan's styling, the flared wheel wells in particular. Benz designers also picked up the big butt, pioneered on the BMW 7 Series, which offers distinct aerodynamic advantages. But whatever your aesthetic reaction, you're likely to fall in love after a few days driving the new S-Class. The bigger engine is muscular, yet reasonably fuel-efficient. Handling is superb. Cabin and cargo space is vast. And the electronic control system is a major improvement over the old S as well as the approach by a major German rival. The leader remains the one to beat. $87,175

RUNNERS-UP
AUDI A8L W12 Our original pick as best-of, Audi's long-wheelbase flagship may not have every bell and whistle, but it comes close, and its multimedia innerface control system is the best of the breed. The sedan's design is striking, almost sensual, and the power train is both quick and silky smooth. A joy to drive or just ride in. $120,610

BMW 760Li Big and bold, with a presence few can ignore, the V-12-powered flagship is truly the "ultimate driving machine," and were it not for a few minor quibbles, the 760Li might have made our best-of pick. We hated handing the keys back after a week living inside this standout sedan. $121,295

 

LEXUS LS 460 We're stretching the rules here (we've not yet driven the latest-generation Lexus flagship), but we have to give the maker kudos for finally taking a chance on bold styling and for including a mind-boggling array of technology that even includes a system that will automatically parallel park for you. $65,000 (estimate)

MIDSIZE LUXURY SUV
Land Rover Range Rover Sport
The Range Rover is, without question, one of the most competent and capable off-roaders you can find. It's also hard to argue that few American motorists actually ever drive down anything rougher than a gravel road. Land Rover addresses that reality with the newest version of its flagship SUV, the Range Rover Sport. Subtle visual details hint at the difference, but what matters most is the way it handles on the highway. The torquey, 390-hp supercharged V-8 is a real stump-puller, but also offers a thrilling top end. If you're one of those who still like the occasional off-road foray, you're not sacrificing much with this five-passenger ute. The Sport still can ford 25 inches of water and climb almost any hill. $70,250

RUNNERS-UP
PORSCHE CAYENNE TURBO S Porsche put the "sport" back in sport-ute, with the original Cayenne. For those who didn't get the point, there's the new Cayenne Turbo S. Surprisingly competent in ditches and mud bogs, this 520-hp version is still quick and nimble on pavement. $112,415

LAND ROVER LR3 The smaller and more affordable sibling to our top pick, the LR3 boasts jaw-dropping off-road capabilities, as we discovered during several days driving through the fens and fields of Scotland. A massive improvement over the old Discovery, the new LR3 is comfortable and capable, on road and off. $38,285

LUXURY CROSSOVER VEHICLE
Audi Q7
Another last-minute substitution. We had to give Audi the crown after spending time driving the automaker's first crossover/SUV. From nose to tail, the Q7 maintains Audi's distinctive styling without looking like a sedan on stilts, as did BMW's original X5. It's odd that Audi took so long to get here, as it had a decades-long lead with its trademark Quattro all-wheel-drive technology. But the wait is over, and with its 350-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8, as well as a car-like platform, the Q7 performs and handles more like a sports car than a traditional truck. Even so, it's got the power to haul a reasonably large boat or trailer. Audi officials promise the Q will be the first in an expanding line of crossovers. If this is an example of what's coming, it'll be worth the wait—again. $49,900

RUNNERS-UP
MERCEDES-BENZ ML500 Sorry, Mercedes, you came darned close to taking this segment. We still think the ML is one of the best crossovers we've ever driven. It drives like a car, with great performance and comfort, while offering reasonable towing and off-road capabilities. A massive improvement over Mercedes' original, truck-based ute. $49,275

ACURA MDX Acura helped define the luxury crossover segment—great on-road manners, high seating, reasonable off-road ability—with its original MDX and it remains a perennial favorite, but there's a new version coming and we have high hopes that it will take the concept to an even higher plane. $37,125

LUXURY SPORTS CAR
Ferrari F599GTB Fiorano
With a 620-hp V-12 derived from the legendary Enzo, and some of the most innovative technology ever built into a Ferrari, the Fiorano replaces the long-lived 575M Maranello, the best-selling car in Ferrari's history. It's a lot to live up to, but the Fiorano rises to the challenge. Here's how to decipher the name: the 599 refers to the engine's 5.99-liter displacement; GTB is short for Gran Turismo Berlinetta; and Fiorano is Ferrari's test track, on the outskirts of Modena. The voluptuous body, like the F599's underlying frame, is made of light, strong and durable aluminum, which makes the F599 as nimble as anything ever to roll out of the house that Enzo Ferrari built. $280,000 (estimate)

RUNNERS-UP
MERCEDES-BENZ SLR McLAREN Money's no object? Great, because the SLR will set you back quite a bit. This gull-winged coupe has plenty of shortfalls, including seats that never seem to fit quite right. But when you're talking 600-plus horsepower and 0-to-60 times in the high-three-second range, we'll forgive a lot. $475,750

CHEVROLET CORVETTE Z06 Chevy? On a list of luxury cars? Hey, get over it. "America's sports car" has gone world-class and deserves some serious attention from import snobs. It's a handful out at the limits, but the Z06 is blindingly fast, technically sophisticated, and takes no guff from anyone. $64,890

FULL-SIZE LUXURY SUV
Cadillac Escalade
The bling is back. Cadillac's Escalade has proven a favorite with the hip-hop crowd, and this year's all-new Slade is likely to continue the momentum, even with fuel prices at record levels. (While it might not sound like much, 13 city/19 highway are good numbers considering the heft of the new Escalade.) Though the new ute shares platforms with more mundane General Motors entries, such as the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, Caddy's offering gets unique sheet metal and a one-off interior that's finally fit to be called luxurious. There are a few technical shortfalls, like the lack of power-up windows, now found on even mid-level Hyundais, but on the whole, this is as good as it gets in the full-size luxury SUV segment. $57,280 with four-wheel drive

RUNNER-UP
MERCEDES GL The long-awaited replacement for the ancient Galendäwagen bears a striking familial resemblance to the smaller Mercedes ML SUV. It's massive and powerful, and unless we see fuel prices double again, we're betting there'll be a market for the stylish new offering. $54,900

LUXURY ROADSTER
Lamborghini Gallardo
With gull-wing doors flung open, Lamborghini's Murcielago is the poster child for over-the-top exotic sports-car design. Think of the Gallardo as its smaller, only slightly less outlandish sibling. Sure, the gull wings are gone, but with its cab pulled forward to make room for a brute V-10, the Gallardo is still expensive eye candy. The ragtop Spyder all the more so. Press a button and the canvas top folds away in just 20 seconds, making it easier to see the gawkers this roadster draws. Better have a traffic lawyer on permanent call. At 520 horsepower, the Spyder will hit 60 in barely four seconds, and it nudges 190, even with the top down. This isn't a roadster for everyone, even if you can afford it. But if you're looking to draw attention, what better way to drive al fresco? (See review in Good Life Guide, page 52.) $200,000

RUNNERS-UP
MERCEDES SL55 AMG Sure, you can get even more power out of the larger displacement SL650, but sometimes bigger isn't better. One of the oldest entries in the segment, the SL55 isn't showing its age. It's a pure classic that's fun to look at and more fun to drive. $132,175

CADILLAC XLR-V While not quite as refined as the SL, its obvious role model, Caddy's XLR roadster becomes even more "world-class" with the addition of a new supercharged version of the automaker's exclusive Northstar engine. The "V" stands for velocity, as you'll discover the first time you stand on the throttle. $100,000

PORSCHE BOXSTER The classic, reasonably affordable German roadster went through a complete remake a little more than a year ago. The latest version is even better balanced than before, though if you don't care about pulling the top down, check out its counterpart, the Cayman coupe. $45,000

LUXURY CONVERTIBLE
Jaguar XK
Few cars boasted the visual stopping power of the original E-Type Jaguar. But the XK came close, picking up the original feline proportions. Now comes an all-new XK. Yep, as Jaguar's advertising slogan suggests, it's "gorgeous," though the lines are a little more angular and the overall shape just a touch chunkier than the original. That's the risk a designer faces when given the mandate to "make it better, but keep it the same." The good news is that the new XK uses the same sort of aluminum chassis that was introduced a few years back on the XJ sedan. So instead of flexing like a limp noodle on rough pavement, the new convertible is as stiff and solid as you could want, with its 300-hp V-8 providing all the power you need. $81,500

RUNNERS-UP
BMW 650i The original 6 Series was one of the most beautiful designs ever to emerge from Bavaria. The revived sedan is striking, the convertible even better, if you like top-down motoring. We'd have preferred a foldaway hardtop, but the canvas package retains a usable trunk, if not much of a rear seat. $81,195

AUDI A4 CABRIOLET Among the most affordable of the luxury convertibles, Audi's entry maintains the gracious lines of the sedan. The Cabriolet has plenty of power and if our own experience is any indication, you'd be likely to roll the top down whenever the sun's out—even in midwinter. $37,340


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