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The Fast and the Luxurious

A new fast class emerges as luxury carmakers enter the performance category
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Steve Wynn, Jan/Feb 03

Road America isn't a track for the faint of heart. At just over four miles, it's the country's longest racetrack, with blindingly fast straightaways linked by a series of unnerving turns and switchbacks. To master this track requires the best of both man and machine.

The track, located in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, is the perfect course for a car like the new SL55. At first blush, one might confuse this topless two-seater with an "ordinary" Mercedes SL, a luxurious and powerful but certainly not race-ready roadster. One lap of Road America is all you need to see the difference.

As we hit the end of the long straight, the speedometer is nudging 150 and we don't have time to scrub off much speed. We dive into the corner hard, letting the rear end slip out just a little to push us through the turn. The car slaloms through the back S-curves like an Olympic skier going through time trials. Down the back straights, through a couple more turns and with adrenaline spilling and hearts racing, we pull into the pits. I'm smiling so hard that the corners of my lips are jamming against the inside of my helmet.

A confession is due. This really isn't just another Mercedes-Benz roadster. Its full name is the SL55 AMG. Aficionados will recognize those three letters as the symbol of the German automaker's high-performance brand within a brand. At a base price of $113,250, the limited-edition roadster isn't cheap, but a long line awaits the few Mercedes that will be imported into America this year.

Of course, the same can be said for BMW's new M3. And the new Audi RS 6. Considering the initial, favorable response to Cadillac's edgy CTS sedan, the higher-powered CTS-v, expected to hit the market early in 2004, is likely to have plenty of demand as well.

These vehicles belong to a special breed, the best of the best, as well as the fastest of the fast -- limited-edition brands within brands from Europe's three largest luxury carmakers. And now, Cadillac is entering this high-stakes game with the imminent introduction of its new V-Series. Hefty premiums accompany their beefed-up powertrains and track-ready chassis. But for those looking for the ultimate in performance, there's really no other option.


BMW M Series

If BMW already claims the title of being the "ultimate performance machine," what does that make a car like the M3? Blindingly fast and unexectedly luxurious.

The M3 is the newest addition to a fabled series of limited-edition vehicles that have often sold out before dealers get the first cars in stock. "We started this subsegment," boasts BMW Chairman Helmut Panke, "and it's been very successful."

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