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Auto Hypnosis

If You're in the Market for the Planet's Priciest Production Cars, Look No Further
Joshua Shapiro
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

Of all the deceased presidents, the picture of the 28th, Woodrow Wilson, on the United States $100,000 bill commands by far the most respect. Issued in 1934 and backed with gold, Wilsons gave the Federal Reserve bankers a means of accountsettlement long before the advent of electronic wire transfers. Today, dropping a Wilson--or more--is the hallmark of an ultraluxury-carbuyer.

No one needs a "Wilsonmobile." Of course, no one really needs a $40,000 designer gown or a $2,000,000 string of black pearls, either. At this rarefied level, cars are a pure extension of self, as personal in fit and finish as a fine Savile Row suit.

Since a vehicle of this sort is rarely an investment or a mere means of transportation, it stands to reason that acquiring one is an irrational lifestyle decision that expressesthe ego and achievement of the owner. For example, the in-your-face Lamborghini has considerable cachet with in-your-face athletic megastars. The baddest--Dennis Rodman, Mike Tyson and Deion Sanders, not a shrinking violet in the bunch--all picked up Diablo VTslast year.

What does a such a car bring its owner? Besides proclaiming an immunity to Richter-scale sticker shock, superluxury

automobiles offer exceptional styling, performance and exclusivity. They are undoubtedly the most beautiful, powerful, and rarestcars, to be kept hidden in estate garages or furtively glimpsed onthe road. Most are individually built and come only in runs ofabout 300 a year, the number of vehicles Toyota makes in 15 minutes. Buying one means showing up at the club with the assurance that the rest of your foursome didn't drive up in the same car.And suddenly, every parking valet and service-station attendantis your best friend.

You do not save up for these cars by putting pennies into a cookie jar; nor are they financed by taking out a home-equityloan. The base price is just that. Options, when available, aren't cheap: a rear spoiler for a Lamborghini makes a $5,000 tailwind, while a cell phone to call from your Porsche Turbo will ring up charges of an additional $3,134. Luxury, gas-guzzler and localsales taxes typically add 16 percent to the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Then there are annual expenses for registration,insurance, gas, service and perhaps state tax and parking that can add another 10 percent. Replacement tires alone for these exotic creatures can run to more than $2,000 a set.

But the expenses directly associated with the car are only the beginning. A purely aspirational buyer will feel compelled to play the part. This creates an urge to upgrade wardrobe, restaurantsand clubs, and even friends or spouses to accommodate the imageof the new vehicle. It's difficult to go on a job interview or shopat the A&P while driving a Bentley. And if you have mortgaged your house to buy one, every dent and ding becomes a source of recurring anxiety.

The profile of dream-car owners: male entrepreneurs with successful, private businesses that throw off significant cash. One MercedesS 600 owner runs a business that nets $40 million in profits a year. While perhaps 15 percent of superluxury automobiles are leased, most are purchased for cash, apparently as something of an afterthought. One Mercedes dealer recounts the story of an unassuming couple who came in to shop for an S-class sedan. The husband couldn't decide between the S 500 and the S 600. Finally, he asked the salesman, "Which one would my chauffeur prefer?" After hearing that the S 600 would certainly be more appreciated, he bought two, for cash.

The garage manager at the Beverly Hills Hotel tells a similar story of a visiting guest calling the local Ferrari dealership, which dispatched six cars to the hotel for review. The guest bought twofor cash and left them covered in long-term parking at the hotel.

A Bentley buyer is likely to have six other cars already. A hundred thousand or more for an entire two-ton package of machinery doesn't seem expensive from the perspective of someone who spenta Wilson or more for two ounces of exclusive tourbillon wristwatch.

Which cars break the Wilson barrier? No Japanese or American brands come close. The priciest Japanese offering, the race-bred Acura NSX-T, peaks at $88,000, while the American macho military Hummer and the 8.0-liter V10 Dodge Viper GTS both top off at only $66,000. Surprisingly, even the most expensive, obviously status-oriented Eurocars from BMW (850Ci at $95,000); its subsidiary, Land Rover (Range Rover 4.6 HSE with Kensington interior at $66,000); Ford's luxury marque, Jaguar (XK-8 at $72,500), or GM's former subsidiary, Lotus (Esprit V8 at $85,000), all fail to reach the stratosphere of truly costly cars.

Most of the world's limited supply of $100,000-plus motor chariots come from but three European countries and only six companies. In Germany, only the cream of the crop from Porsche--its two Turbo models--and Mercedes-Benz--its three V12 models--make the grade. In the United Kingdom and Italy, all the models from Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Ferrari and Lamborghini weigh in over a 100K. All are rear- or all-wheel-driven and leather upholstered. All are powered by magnificent engines that have an unslakable thirst for gasoline--big V12s or blown sixes or eight-cylinder engines. None have cottoned to the American mania for cup holders. And regrettably, none have cigar lighters adequate for lighting a decent-sized torpedo.

Here are my top six choices of the nearly two dozen models of Wilsonmobiles now available in America.

THE PORSCHE TURBO

The Porsche Turbo, despite any rumors to the contrary, is truly the "ultimate driving machine." Other cars might be more expensive, more glamorous or showy, more plush and luxurious, and better prepared to carry a family around in style, but this is not the Turbo's game. The Turbo exists for one purpose only--to be driven. Porsche buyers are driven introverts, and this is their car. Ferry Porsche started building sports cars in 1948. The flagship 911 series, the $6,500 car with every one of its 2,381 pounds packing 130 horsepower and 120 foot-pounds of torque, debuted in 1964. The first Turbo appeared 10 years later. So depending on how you count, Porsche has had between 23 and 33 years to perfect this car. The breeding and experience are evident in the car's stellar performance and the absence of any annoying design flaws.

The Turbo feels roomier than the stock 911. Be warned, however, that the class designation "2+2" refers to the car's carrying two adults and two tiny, well-behaved pets. This is rarely an issue, since driving a Turbo is typically an individual meditation. No wood trim adorns the cockpit, unless you opt for Porsche factory customization. With the exception of the ignition key, which is located on the left of the steering wheel, the controls are neatly laid out. This affectation dates back to races that used the running Le Mans start. Being able to start the car and shift simultaneously really provides an edge for a dead-start event. The standard Becker stereo with 10 speakers is one of the few great-sounding, high-tech sound systems that you don't need a Ph.D. to figure out. The deeply bolstered electrically adjustable leather seat comfortably secures the driver while carving turns. The Xenon headlamps cast an eery bluish nighttime glow down the road. Twice as bright as standard halogens, these "Litronic" lights give the driver a deeper view into the distance--a safety feature that proves its worth when you're driving fast.

The Turbo extracts 400 hp and 400 foot-pounds of torque out of its smallish, 3.6-liter, flat six "boxer" engine by adding exhaust gas-driven turbochargers to each bank of cylinders. This is enough to power the car from 0 to 60 in a mere 4.4 seconds and reach a top speed of 180 mph. More impressive than the numbers is its effortless manner. Turbo lag is surprisingly absent. And Porsche makes all-wheel drive (AWD) standard on the Turbo with good reason. Without AWD all that raw power is tricky to control. With AWD, the power is divided among all four wheels, eliminating any chance of burning rubber. AWD also makes the Turbo's handling pleasantly neutral without any oversteer fussiness in turns.

A car is only as fast as it can stop with full control. Confident, power-assisted antilock 12.7-inch four-piston ventilated disc brakes match the engine's performance. On dry pavement these brakes can halt a Turbo moving at 100 mph in four seconds and inside 120 yards. Overall, the complete package behaves effortlessly. The car always seems to be asking its driver, "Is that all you want me to do?"

This year, Porsche has tweaked the engine to deliver another24 hp (but no additional torque). With some carbon fiber trimand new styling cues, this limited-availability Turbo S model sellsfor $50,000 more. Either is a serious investment of money and emotions. Losing one creates a depression clinically known as Turbo Remorse, for which nothing else, not even a lesser Porsche, will compensate. After driving the Turbo for one week, I got an elegant, new, glass-roofed Porsche 911 Targa with a Tiptronic automatic transmission as a replacement test car. My attitude was a blasé "Give me back that crisp-shifting six-speed and get this sluggish piece of junk away from me."

THE MERCEDES-BENZ S 600 SEDAN

Of all the Wilsonmobiles, the Mercedes V12s come closest to being practical rather than pure extravagance. With a worldwide production run of 4,600 units last year, they benefit from being able to spread the costly engineering effort over a reasonable number of units. Mercedes are safe, reliable, spacious and supported by a large dealer service network. No special marketing is done to promote the V12s, and their styling is so conservative that only the cognoscenti can distinguish the S 600 from the other S-class sedans. Only the S 600 sedan has six horizontal chrome cross bars on its grille; the non-V12s have only three.

The S 600 embodies the philosophy that "more is better." It has more features and subtleties than the average owner could noticein a year. The S 600 also has sensors that vary the speed of the windshield wipers according to the amount of rain, adjust the speed of the air conditioning fan according to the amount of sunlight,automatically switch to cabin air recirculation if smog levels surpass a given threshold, dim headlight glare in the rearview mirror, and secure the doors and trunk should they be left slightly ajar. The key fob will close the windows and the sunroof when the car is locked. The excellent Bose Beta sound system shifts the volume to accommodate changes in the speed of the car. Like the Porsche Turbos,the 600s come with nifty Xenon headlamps.

The cabin is luxurious. The dashboard, steering wheel, center console and doors are lavished with a forest of burl walnut. The seats are two-toned Nappa leather. The dashboard shift knob, steering wheel, sun visors, rear shelf and upper door panels are all trimmedin leather. Even the headliner is genuine suede. The heated front seats are adjustable 12 ways, have three levels of variable back support, inflatable side bolsters, three separate memory settings, and front- and side-impact air bags. But then again, the back seats are also heated and adjustable and have individual lit vanity mirrorsand powered rear-window sunscreen, all of which makes the sedan eminently suitable for chauffeured driving.

Driving the S 600 is like driving a vault. Volvos seem flimsyby comparison. The combination of double-thick window glass and heavy engine-compartment insulation makes the car exceedingly quiet. Like other Mercedes, the 600s have great suspensions and brakes. The S 600 coupe is so buttoned-down that only when the speed exceeds 120 mph does it begin to manifest personality. The S 600 sedan is more accessibly practical, being one of the few exotic cars in which four adults can ride in sustained comfort. This staid car will hustle from 0 to 100 mph in 12.3 seconds, only a second slower than a Corvette. For those with more than a million dollars and a craving for something more exotic, Mercedes is considering building 20 to 30 "street" versions of its racing mid-mounted, 6.9-liter V12 engine-powered CLK-GTR.

THE ASTON MARTIN DB7 VOLANTE

My favorite experience regarding the Aston Martin DB7 Volante was listening to a couple's conversation, which went like this:

Woman: "Isn't that the new Celica?"

Man: "No, that's a new Aston Martin."

Woman: "All cars look alike."

Man: "That Volante is just another car, like Claudia Schifferis just another woman."

That the DB7 is such a lush motoring machine with archetypal sports car lines is completely due to Ian Callum, its Scottish, ex-Ghia of Turin designer. The Aston Martin DB7 is the true James Bond fantasy car. Upon getting into one, the immediate sensationof heading for a casino, wearing a tuxedo and sitting next to Honey Ryder (or Claudia) overcomes you.

The British know how to convey sophisticated luxury in their motorcars. Nobody does the wood, leather and carpeting number better. The cabin of the DB7 is simple and elegant. All the controls, warning lights (neatly color-coded for severity) and gauges (analogue white-on-black) are laid out so as to be accessible and unobtrusive. The Connolly leather seating, with contrasting piping, is heated and has inflatable lumbar support. Sitting in the car is like wearing a fine, fitted cashmere blazer--soft, warm and soothing.

The convertible DB7 Volante, with its winged Aston Martin logos on the C-pillar shining like blazer buttons, has a powered roof and a heated glass rear window. Although it is a tad less stiff than the coupe, the open-air joy of taking the top down while venturing through sunny countryside more than compensates for the occasional squeak. Both come with a four-piece set of matching luggage.

Driving it isn't bad, either. The perfectly balanced, dual overhead cam, 24-valve, in-line six-cylinder 3.2-liter engine, assisted by a belt-driven Eaton supercharger, delivers 335 hp and 361 foot-pounds of torque. Its four-speed automatic transmission can deliver the goods. Handling is crisp, although it is subject to noticeable oversteer during braking. Off the track, the DB7 can run comfortably with the Ferrari.

The Aston Martin Lagonda is an old marque, a bit like threadbare royalty. Established in 1913 by Lionel Martin to build race cars, the AML has struggled financially through many owners for most of its existence. In more than 80 years, it has produced only about 13,000 hand-built cars. In 1994, it was bought by Ford, which has kept it an exclusive and independent manufacturer. In this age of robotics, each DB7 takes 180 hours of handwork to build. Buyers are encouraged to customize everything.


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