Top 10 Cars of the Year
The burgeoning luxury auto market offers a wealth of options. We've picked the best from 10 segments to help you through your abundance of decisions.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007
It's all about choice, isn't it? But while it may be easy to sort through all the different brands of soap at your local supermarket, it can get downright confounding to pick the best automobile for you and your family. The choices are greater than ever—by our count, more than 100 different luxury cars, trucks and crossovers will be available in U.S. dealer showrooms come 2008—and the numbers will continue to grow. Struggling to stand out in this crowded market, manufacturers are targeting increasingly narrower niches. Consider Cadillac's combination pickup/SUV, the Escalade EXT. New brands are getting into the luxury segment, as well. Improbably enough, Hyundai will soon roll out a production version of its Concept Genesis, an under-$40,000 sedan aimed at competing with the likes of the Lexus LS and BMW 7 Series.
So how do you pick the right product? Obviously, we all have different tastes and needs. If you're looking to tow a boat, you won't want a Ferrari. But what to choose when you've focused on sedans or coupes or sports cars and still find a dozen choices? Start by checking out Cigar Aficionado's 10 Best list for 2008.
We've divided the luxury market into 10 of its most important segments, everything from so-called entry luxury vehicles to high-line cars and full-size luxury SUVs. The list takes in all but a few of the oddest and most exotic products on the market.
Our judges considered a variety of factors when compiling and comparing their choices, starting with things like styling, performance, comfort, safety, quality and range of features. Then the emphasis shifted according to category. Mileage mattered when comparing green cars and crossover SUVs while performance was a critical differentiator among our top sports car options. High-line sedans and coupes had to deliver the latest in technology and creature comfort.
Some of the calls were close, so our runners-up are more than just also-rans. They're good alternatives that readers should check out closely before making their own purchase decisions. Here, now, the Cigar Aficionado 10 Best List of Cars, Trucks and Crossovers.
Entry luxury car
Once, Cadillac laid claim to being the "standard to the world." Sadly, most of today's buyers recall a subsequent era when Caddy, to put it kindly, lost its way. The first-generation CTS was a desperately needed sign that something was stirring down in General Motors' design and engineering studios. The sedan's "Art & Science" styling was edgy and distinctive, the Autobahn-tuned platform and power train nudging into German territory, while quality and reliability topped even the vaunted Japanese.
The all-new gen-2 CTS "tends more towards art than science," suggests chief engineer Randall Schwarz, of its decidedly more refined exterior and complete interior makeover, which rivals the best in its class. The 2008 Caddy is priced along the lines of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class but boasts interior space closer to the E-Class. Getting import-oriented luxury buyers back into domestic showrooms isn't easy, but if the new CTS can't work some magic, Cadillac might as well turn out the lights.
RUNNERS-UP: Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan You've come a long way, baby. This all-new sedan marks the 25th anniversary of the original Baby Benz and, in a bold move, comes in two distinctive designs: Luxury, with its classic, tri-star hood ornament, and Sport, heavily influenced by the $400,000 SLR supercar.
Mini The completely redesigned micro-compact shows that great things still come in small packages. The '08 model remains small enough to fit into the cargo compartment of a full-size SUV, but it's surprisingly roomy, luxuriously appointed and just a blast to drive.
Audi A3 With gasoline prices unlikely to ever come back down much, American buyers may be downsizing to stretch their fuel budgets, but Audi's smallest model—in the United States—shows that doesn't mean sacrificing style, comfort or performance.
Audi's global sales now rival those of Mercedes' and BMW's for several reasons—and the S6 is one of them. The sport-tuned version of the midsize A6 boasts a muscular yet refined exterior design that hints at what you'll discover when you take the sedan out on the open road.
Tip the throttle and you're greeted with the deep, confidence-inspiring roar of the S6's 435-horsepower V-10. And the auto-maker's patented Quattro all-wheel-drive system does an incredible job of putting power to the pavement, even in inclement weather. Indeed, this high-performance sport sedan does double duty as a reliable daily driver, with plenty of room for four, even five, if need be. There is a trade-off, as you might expect, in ride comfort. But for those looking for more than just another sporty mid-luxury sedan, the S6 is both beauty and a beast.
RUNNERS-UP: Volvo S80 Not all that long ago, Volvos were boxy and boring. Their buyers were looking for practicality, not performance, for safety, not styling. The first S80 changed the equation. The surprising Swedish sedan is back and better, with a complete remake that should win even more converts.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class While it may not offer quite the prestige and opulence of the bigger S-Class, this is the heart and soul of the automaker's lineup. The E-Class went through a makeover for 2007, enhancing both its elegant design and on-road performance.
Audi RS4 Everything a muscle car should be. Though the RS4 is smaller than our other choices, its price nudges it into the mid-luxury segment. Most of your money goes into the sedan's amazing 420-hp V-8, which makes the lightweight car the ultimate pocket rocket.
High-line luxury car
We've all suffered through those impossible crushes, the romance that could never be. That's how we felt about the original Maserati Quattroporte. With its long, muscular hood, over-the-top portholes, elegant shoulders and bold rear, it was the automotive equivalent of Sophia Loren—but with a couple missing front teeth. Maserati's DuoSelect, an electronically shifted manual gearbox, would buck and stutter and shatter the image.
The grand sedan has mercifully been updated with the addition of a six-speed automatic, and the impact is unmistakable. The Quattroporte is now not only one of the most beautiful cars on the road, but among the most fun to drive. It's also offered in a variety of body and interior packages, including a mobile office model. But why you'd want to ride in rather than drive this macchina bella, we're just not sure.
RUNNERS-UP: Jaguar XKR Coupe/Convertible Graceful, elegant...and fast. Always known for its eye-catching styling (we'll ignore the kludgy X-Type), this new sports car admirably follows in the tire tracks of the legendary XK-E. And now, with the supercharged V-8, the XKR matches beauty with brawn.
Lexus LS460 The latest Lexus flagship has real presence, something prior versions were short on. Its new 4.6-liter V-8 ups the performance ante with the world's only eight-speed automatic transmission as well as techno-geek features like the self-parking Advanced Parking Guidance system.
Green luxury vehicle
Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec
and Lexus LS600h
A battle royal is shaping up in the automotive market, one likely to take several years to play out. With fuel prices rising to record levels, Mideast turmoil dominating the headlines and global warming set to shape the legislative agenda for years to come, automakers are under pressure to find cleaner and more fuel-efficient alternatives to the time-tested gasoline engine. These two models underscore the debate over which path to take.
Mercedes' new E320 Bluetec is visually identical to the conventional E-Class sedan, but under the hood you'll find an all-new 3.2-liter diesel engine. It may be called Bluetec, but it's as green as a diesel can be, capable of meeting the toughest new emissions standards while delivering phenomenal mileage.
Those who recall the noisy, smelly, slow and rough-riding diesels of the past are in for a big surprise. Modern diesels are smooth, quick and surprisingly clean. No wonder they now account for about half of all cars sold in Europe and dominate the luxury and entry segments alike. With more models like this in the pipeline—including diesel versions of the ML and GL-Class SUVs—Mercedes could kick-start a diesel revival in the United States.
Lexus likes to call the new LS600h the "ultimate flagship." The big sedan has a lot in common with the "base" V-8 model, the LS460, but is loaded with a range of creature comforts and high-tech features, everything from sumptuous, heated and cooled semi-aniline leather seats to the Advanced Pre-Collision System, which uses a variety of body sensors to spot obstacles—and potential collisions—whether another car or something the size of a large animal.
But at the heart of the all-wheel-drive sedan is its Lexus Hybrid drivetrain, which mates a 5.0-liter V-8 to two 221-horsepower electric motors powered by a battery pack. What you get is the performance of a V-12 with mileage closer to that of a V-6—at least on paper. How well the system delivers will depend on where you drive, hybrids getting their best mileage in urban stop-and-go driving. But for those looking to have it all: top-line luxury along with enviro bragging rights, the LS600h is a great package.
Luxury crossover vehicle
It's been a long time since a Buick could claim to be the best of anything, unless you were looking for the ultimate old man's car. And, to be honest, we really had to think twice about giving the new Enclave the nod here. In a segment packed with some tremendous import alternatives, such as the Lexus RX350, the new Acura MDX and last year's winner, the Audi Q7, we know we'll be hearing from a lot of readers about our choice. But Buick it is.
While we're not sure we agree with one well-known reviewer, who dubbed Enclave "the best Buick ever," it's quieter, more refined and, to our eyes, much more attractive than anything else in the increasingly crowded luxury crossover segment. A lot of potential buyers may not even consider putting a Buick on their shopping lists. Too bad. The Enclave is clearly worth a closer look.
RUNNERS-UP: Lincoln MKX Despite one of the most confusing model lineups on the road—what's the difference between an MKS, MKX and MKZ?—Lincoln is finally getting back into the serious luxury game, and nothing makes that more obvious than this all-new crossover vehicle.
Audi Q7 Last year's winner remains one of our favorites in the so-called CUV segment. It's got great on-road manners, with acceptable off-road capabilities. As you'd expect from an Audi, the interior is beautifully appointed. And look for Audi's next-generation diesel engine, which will meet all 50 states' tough new emissions standards.
Acura MDX While Acura doesn't have the visibility of Japan's other luxury brands, the MDX should be on every CUV shopper's radar screen. Newly redesigned, it's a real standout, with a peppy 300-horsepower V-6 and Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive, an amazingly intuitive road-holding system.
Midsize luxury SUV
There were plenty of skeptics when Porsche announced plans to produce its first sport-utility vehicle, even if the emphasis was going to be on the word "sport." Critics be damned, Porsche now sells as many Cayennes in the United States as Boxsters and 911s and the 2008 Cayenne aims to convert those few doubters left out there.
The updated sport-ute puts the emphasis where Porschephiles like it, enhancing the performance of each version in the Cayenne lineup. A new, larger 3.6-liter V-6 gets an added 43 horsepower and can now bolt from 0 to 60 in 7.5 seconds. The Cayenne S V-8 gets an extra 45 hp, while the top-line Cayenne Turbo now pumps out a neck-snapping 500 hp and will hit 60 in just 4.9 seconds. That's sports car performance—but with the added functionality and off-road capabilities of a true SUV.
RUNNERS-UP: Land Rover LR2 Yes, it's a lot more attractive than the old Freelander, but very little has been done just for the sake of styling with the British maker's new SUV. Well-appointed and ergonomically laid out, this is a mountain goat of a vehicle, its new Terrain Response readily accepting every challenge.
Volkswagen Touareg2 Revamped, retooled and refined, Volkswagen's Touareg raises the "people's car" brand up to an entirely new level. Developed in partnership with Porsche—whose own version is the Cayenne—this is an incredibly capable and unexpectedly luxurious offering.
Full-size luxury SUV
The king of bling is back. Cadillac's massive SUV set a new standard that clicked with the hip-hop crowd. The new model, introduced in 2007, takes things a big step forward. Though it shares the same underlying platform as lower-priced GMC and Chevrolet models, the latest-generation Escalade avoids "badge engineering" with its own sheet metal and cabin. The new 'Slade is not only better looking, but simply better made, with tighter fits and a notably more refined interior.
Caddy now offers the Escalade in several different configurations. There's the standard full-size ute, the stretched ESV and an SUV/pickup version, dubbed EXT. All models feature the division's stump-pulling 6.2-liter, 403-hp V-8. If you're a serious trucker, Escalade will haul a full 7,800-pound trailer. If the show is your thing, you'll likely be more interested in the optional 22-inch tire-and-wheel package, the largest offered on any production vehicle.
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