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."
It all began in 1972, with the formation of BMW Motorsport GmbH. Today, it's simply called BMW M. For its first few years, the division focused exclusively on racing, but in 1974, BMW Motorsports turned its attention to the street, producing a road-ready version of the 5 Series racer. Volumes were so low, it was almost an afterthought, but by the mid-1980s, with the introduction of the first M3, the demand for a car that truly was the ultimate BMW could offer was obvious.
The newest addition to the lineup is the latest to carry the M3 nameplate. At $45,900, it carries a steep premium over most of BMW's best-selling 3 Series models. But you get plenty for your money, including an elegant interior, lavishly appointed from its custom "M" sill plates to the saddle-shoe leather seats and trim. Still, performance is at the heart of every M model, and the 3-er certainly delivers.
Start with a 333-horsepower Inline-6 engine mated to an optional track-style, sequentially shifted manual transmission. Don't confuse this with the auto/stick transmissions that have become so popular of late. This is a specially designed 6-speed manual that requires no clutch pedal. It can operate in a self-shift mode, or you can do it yourself with the Formula One-style paddle shifters. Either way, the M3's got the top end you'd expect of an Autobahn-burner, but it's also got the power to launch from a stoplight with a blinding puff of tire smoke.
In years past, BMW had a tendency to offer M Series models only in limited runs, but this time it looks as if the M3 could be with us awhile, along with the bigger M5. Indeed, as the German carmaker watches demand grow for its rivals' performance models, Panke says, "We continue to look at expanding the M Series line." But BMW has a somewhat different philosophy from other premium European marques, and won't do high-performance versions of everything in its lineup.
The automaker recently introduced a more powerful version of the X5 Sport Activity Vehicle, but chose not to slap the M badge on the SAV's big fenders. "We have [also] decided against offering an M version based on the 7 Series," BMW's top-line luxury sedan, but Panke broadly hints there'll be an M-designated spin-off of the new 6 Series coupe that's soon to join the lineup. And few would be surprised if an M2 follows when BMW introduces the long-awaited successor to the legendary 2002 model a couple years from now.
Like its Bavarian competitor, Mercedes-Benz has long held to the opinion that the AMG badge should appear only sporadically, and on limited-volume runs. That approach made almost every model an instant collector's edition. You might actually pay more than the original sticker price for a three-year-old E55 AMG, if you can find one. But AMG is about to become a bit more common, if not a household name.
AMG was founded in 1967 by two former engineers, Hans-Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher, in the German city of Grossaspach (hence the AMG). Initially, it was just one of many so-called "tuners," which would take a production car, upgrade the engine, improve the suspension and then market these vehicles through their own distribution network. But over the years, AMG and Mercedes began to work more and more closely together until, in 1997, the Stuttgart-based giant invested in its ally, which had moved its operations to the small German town of Affalterbach in 1978.
As recently as 1996, AMG sold just 296 cars in the United States. Last year that surged to 7,502. And the numbers are likely to continue growing. While this badge of honor will continue to be applied only to low-volume lots, "We have made a commitment to have an AMG model in each of our segments," notes Dave Schembri, the vice president of marketing in the United States for Mercedes-Benz. That means there will even be a version of AMG's massive SUV, which will be known as the G500.
But AMG will still operate very much like the small company founded by Aufrecht and Melcher. "Our philosophy," explains chief executive officer Ulrich Bruhnke, "is one man, one engine." That means each AMG power plant is hand-built by a single assembler, a process that takes between two and two and a half hours, so the factory doesn't roll out many engines, at most about 100 a day. To meet Mercedes' increasing demand, the plant is slowly expanding, and was expected to have 60 engine assemblers in place by the end of 2002. One advantage of being owned by Mercedes, notes Bruhnke, is that AMG is now involved right from the initial design stage with each new product its parent produces.
AMG's appeal to Mercedes is obvious. The SL55 roadster commands a $27,000 premium over the already sporty SL500. But AMG also serves as the foundation for the subtle transformation under way at the German automaker, part of Mercedes' effort to pump passion into its brand. There's no better way to do that than to emphasize performance. AMG "has brought us an entirely new class of owner," explains the specialty brand's marketing chief, Robert Allan. And a loyal one. The typical AMG buyer is likely to have at least three or four Mercedes parked in the garage.
Call it the comeback brand. Audi has done an incredible job of rebuilding its image -- and its sales -- in the wake of the now-disproved "unintended acceleration" fiasco. Performance has been a foundation stone in the automaker's revival. "If you're going to be a real, credible player in the luxury market, you've got to have some performance in your brand," asserts Len Hunt, who runs the U.S. operations for the Volkswagen subsidiary.
Over the past decade, Audi has significantly upgraded all of its power trains, and even its base models are legitimate contenders. But the new RS 6 will be ready to take on all comers. Its twin-turbo V-8 will pump out 450 horsepower and Audi's patented quattro all-wheel-drive system will ensure that it gets used for a fast launch.
The top-line version of the mainstream A6 sedan, and the most powerful production car ever to carry an Audi badge, the RS 6 is the latest in the automaker's fast-expanding performance lineup, the S series. There's a direct link between S models and the automaker's racing program, which has consistently dominated such well-known circuits as Le Mans in recent years. By making use of track technology, according to Hunt, "It says, 'not only do these guys go round in circles, but they can do it on the street.'"
Like Mercedes, Audi uses its S lineup to put a halo on more mainstream models such as the A4 and A6. But despite hefty premiums, demand has been growing steadily for the exclusive performance machines, too. As a result, Hunt says he's pressing to ensure that there's an S version of "any future model we talk about." The folks in Europe seem to be listening, and he promises, "We're going to have a performance feast."
As at Mercedes, the more demanding needs for S models are now being incorporated right from the start of a new vehicle program, which will have a positive impact on the timing of future models. Consider the redesigned A4 coming in 2003. Traditionally, Audi would have waited another year before adding the S4. Now the two models will launch about a year apart. The same will be true for the top-line A8 and its performance spin-off, the S8. But the big question is whether there'll be an S version of the hip little Audi TT roadster as well. For the moment, Hunt says, that debate is still under way.
Cadillac? It's been a long time since the classic American marque could lay legitimate claim to being "the standard of the world." While big bruisers like the Seville STS had plenty of horsepower, you might be more inclined to associate Cadillac with the soft "boulevard" ride of the full-size DeVille, a favorite of retirees. Well, think again.
Caddy is catching a new generation of buyers with its knife-edged new CTS sedan. The compact four-door introduced a radical design theme, dubbed Art & Science, that will quite literally reshape the General Motors division over the next few years. It's a controversial look, but Cadillac came to realize that by trying to appeal to everyone, it didn't really win over anyone, sending sales into a tailspin.
With the CTS, beauty really is more than skin deep, and the car has won praise from a wide range of reviewers for its stiff chassis and tight handling, honed through extensive testing on the grueling German Nürburgring racetrack. The sedan isn't quite up to the competition yet. It needs a definite upgrade to its interior -- and some more power. The current V-6 is more than adequate for everyday driving, launching the manual version CTS from 0 to 60 in 6.9 seconds. But that's not in the same league as the likes of the M3.
That's also about to change. Early in '04, Cadillac launches its own limited-edition lineup, the V-Series. That's "V, as in velocity," says General Motors' vice chairman Bob Lutz. But it could also stand for "victory," if it helps restore the tarnished luster of the automaker's flagship brand. "If a company like ours can't even get its flagship straight," Lutz laments, "how is it going to get its other divisions fixed?"
Unabashedly modeled after Mercedes' AMG, Cadillac eventually could offer a V version of almost every model in its lineup. The first vehicle to wear the distinctive V badge will be the CTS-v, which will be powered by a version of the Corvette's LS1 V-8. Insiders are being cagey with details, but look for something between 350 and 400 horsepower. That would likely make the small Caddy a match for its European rivals, at least in off-the-line performance. The CTS-v will also get a significantly upgraded interior.
The coming year will be a busy one for Caddy, with the two-seat XLR roadster also on the launch schedule. A V-version is also in the works, though debate is raging over whether to equip it with a supercharged V-8 or a new high-tech V-12 under development. Either way, Lutz promises that Caddy's performance line "won't do anything that isn't up to the level of the Europeans." To back that claim up, GM is investing a hefty $4.5 billion to revive the Cadillac brand.
WHERE ARE THE JAPANESE?
Sharp-eyed readers may notice something missing from the list of high-performance luxury brands within brands. So far, Japanese marques have been reluctant to play in this game. Acura, of course, has its aluminum-bodied Ferrari fighter, the NSX. But the segment sales leader, Lexus, has steered clear of ultraperformance models, in part because it has laid claim to being the greenest manufacturer in the luxury segment. It's even stayed away from stick shifts because they'd make it difficult to meet the most stringent ULEV, or Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle, standards. But Lexus is desperate to attract younger buyers and might just find an advantage to building a higher-performance image. Likewise, Nissan's Infiniti division could use BMW's M or Mercedes AMG as a model to help it move out of the luxury sales cellar. So keep your eyes focused. The field of high-powered luxury models is only going to get bigger -- and faster.
Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an auto magazine on the Internet at www.TheCarConnection.com.