With so many sedans, coupes, crossovers and sports cars on the market, you'd think there'd be something for everyone out there. Yet when you get down to it, most of the 100-odd new models coming to market this year aren't all that different from one another—nor what's out there already. Sure, they may feature a little more chrome, a couple extra horsepower or a bigger sound system, yet the majority of the machines on the road today are pretty much interchangeable. But not all. A rare few really pack a punch: whether you're talking about ultimate performance or breathtaking design, they're the extreme machines that stand out in a me-too market. What do they have in common? Not much, and that's the point. With nearly 1,000 horsepower, Bugatti's awe-inspiring Veyron is truly one of a kind. But power isn't the only thing that defines an extreme machine. Mercedes' new smart fortwo is small enough to serve as a spare tire for some big SUVs, yet it'll grab you plenty of attention.
Here's a roundup of some of the most intriguing, exciting and unusual extreme machines on the road right now. We guarantee that none of them will make you feel as if you're driving a chromed clone.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE—AND THEN SOME
Bugatti Veyron 16.4
Back in the 1980s, it took barely 250 horsepower to qualify as an extreme machine. These days, you'll get more from a minivan. But it's hard to imagine anyone ever exceeding the raw numbers of the Bugatti Veyron 16.4, its W-16 engine pumping a neck-snapping 1,001 horsepower through all four wheels. Named for Pierre Veyron, the Bugatti team driver who won the 1939 Le Mans race, the strikingly futuristic two-seater tops out at 254 miles an hour. And if you've got a place to keep foot to floor, you'll suck down a tank of gas very quickly.
Veyron is a showpiece for Volkswagen, which acquired the legendary Bugatti name and pulled the covers off a prototype at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show. The production version launched in 2005 with only one car a week rolling off the assembly line, in Alsace, France. The price tag? Since you have to ask, you probably can't afford it, but in case you're willing to bust the bank, it starts at $1.5 million.
If you've survived the stock market's tumble and have a need to speed up your morning commute, you don't have to settle for the basic Veyron 16.4. Last September, at the Frankfurt Motor Show, Bugatti introduced the ultimate version, called the Veyron EB 16.4 "Pur Sang," or "Pure Blood." It features a stripped-down body, cleanly polished down to its bare aluminum and carbon fiber, with distinctive, diamond-cut aluminum wheels. Only five Pur Sangs are being built.
LIFTING THE COVERS
Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Roadster
Few cars have the visual stopping—or staying—power of the Mercedes-McLaren SLR. It's been a surprisingly long four years since the automaker's race-derived supercar first screamed onto the scene, but only now are we getting the long-awaited ragtop version. Like the original coupe, the SLR Roadster looks both elegant and menacing, with an impossibly low-slung nose that was derived from the McLaren Formula One race car. Only the most subtle changes have been made to accommodate the convertible roof, mostly to keep the top in place when you nudge full speed, at 206 mph.
Both coupe and cabriolet have a venerable heritage to uphold, tracing their roots from the 1955 300SLR "Uhlenhaut Coupe" with a stop along the way at the 1999 Detroit auto show, where Mercedes and its racing partner rolled out the first of two concept cars that eventually evolved into the production SLR.
The roadster retains the SLR coupe's unusual mid-front engine layout, and the basic stats remain the same: the 5.4-liter supercharged V-8 pumps out 617 horsepower and 575 screaming foot-pounds of torque. It's easy to spin the big tires, but the sound you'll more likely remember is that distinctive, resonant "brap" that bellows from the SLR's chromed tailpipes.
Both versions of the SLR are built for speed, not comfort. Getting in is a decidedly awkward maneuver that requires you to squat down and slide across a tall, wide sill. The driver's seat is a classic, carbon-fiber racing bucket, fixed in one position, though you can choose from small, medium or large. But for those who want the ultimate performance roadster, the $497,750 SLR is the extreme machine.
DROPPING JAWS WITH THE DROPHEAD
Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé
That's Drophead, not drop dead, though when you're sitting behind the wheel of Rolls's new convertible, you might as well be saying the latter to anyone you've been hoping to one-up. This massive machine has more than just presence. The purchase price should include a course in proper waving, because you're definitely going to feel like royalty—and need to have the bank account to afford this ragtop that starts at $412,000.
Though it shares many of the basics of the Phantom sedan, Rolls-Royce engineers have done a lot more than just chop off the roof. At more than 18 feet, nose to tail, it's shorter than the sedan, but still positively massive, weighing in at an elephantine 5,776 pounds. Perhaps the most eccentric element of the design is the pair of suicide, er, front-opening doors. They do, however, make it a bit difficult for backseat passengers to get in and out gracefully. Some of the more visually arresting options for the Drophead are a teak deck that covers the foldaway roof and a distinctive bare, brushed stainless steel hood (pictured).
To move all that metal, Rolls Royce's parent, BMW, has stuffed a 453-horsepower, 6.0-liter V-12 engine under the hood. If you don't mind ruffling your hair a little bit, the Drophead will launch from 0 to 60 in just 5.7 seconds. Just remember to smile and keep waving.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
BMW 128i Convertible
The Bavarian maker's roots stretch back to 1916, when it was first incorporated as Flugzeugwerke. But the car that built the brand known today as Bayerische Motoren Werke is the classic and classy 2002tii. This pint-sized, turbocharged ur-BMW introduced a generation of Baby Boomers to the joys of European sports sedans, and today, its successor, the 3 Series, remains the most popular offering in its class.
The company has long yearned to return to the original 2002's downsized dimensions. Now with growing concerns about fuel costs, Mideast politics and global warming, BMW's decision to launch its all-new 1 Series couldn't be more perfectly timed. The 1er's wheelbase is four inches shorter than on the 3 Series, while overall length and width are down about 10 inches. This is no retro-mobile. The 128i and more powerful 135i convertible are decidedly modern in appearance. Nor are they entry-luxury econoboxes. Even the most basic 1 Series model is surprisingly well equipped, with an array of upscale options available.
The 128i convertible slips into U.S. showrooms this spring, the sportier 135i a couple months later. Unlike with the new 3 Series Hardtop cabriolet, BMW opted for a lighter soft top, but it's surprisingly quiet, when up, and easy to operate—opening or closing in just 22 seconds, even while you're moving, at speeds up to 25 mph.
THE ULTIMATE SPARE TIRE?
In a market that traditionally lives by the motto "bigger is better," driving around in the new smart fortwo is going to guarantee you some surprised glances. The two-seater is just 8.8 feet long, fully three feet shorter than the already downsized MINI. It's barely five feet wide, five feet tall, and boasts a 28-foot turning radius. It is, in other words, small enough to fit in the cargo bed of the largest Ford F-150 pickups.
The French-made coupe—also available with a quirky, fold-down cloth top—is actually the product of Mercedes-Benz and is aimed at the emerging market for micro-compacts in parking-scarce Europe. You can fit three smart cars—sideways—in one conventional spot.
Unfortunately, the financially struggling brand abandoned a cool little roadster, but smart launched an all-new version of the coupe just in time for its long-delayed U.S. debut starting at $13,590. The two-seater is surprisingly fun to drive around town. Though top speed is 91 mph, you may feel a bit intimidated challenging 18-wheelers on the freeway. Initial demand is proving surprisingly strong, suggesting that for some U.S. motorists, small is swell.
A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS
Audi R8 Le Mans
Audi's latest show car—for now—might seem like a contradiction in terms: an eco-friendly sports car. It'll blast off from 0 to 60 in a tire-spinning 4.1 seconds, thanks to a twin-turbo, 6.0-liter V-12 that makes an impressive 500 horsepower and an even more startling 738 pound-feet of torque. But even with a top speed of 186 mph, that doesn't mean you'll need to keep your credit card on file with the corner service station. In production trim, look forward to getting somewhere around 24 miles to the gallon.
Of diesel fuel, that is. This version of the already sold-out sports car has a lot in common with Audi's R10, the first diesel-fueled race car ever to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Of course, it bears little relation to the balky diesel of the '70s. Today's "oil burners" meet the toughest new emissions standards, don't smoke or smell, and they're not only smooth but incredibly quick, if you gear them right.
Based on the Lamborghini Gallardo platform from Audi's Italian sports car subsidiary, the R8's design is already one of the most striking on the road, with a low-slung design that captures kinetic motion. The V-8 version already has waiting lists, and Audi officials haven't revealed when the R8 Le Mans will hit the market, but well-placed sources expect it to scream into showrooms within the next year.
Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
We've been eagerly eyeing the spy shots for more than a year, wondering when General Motors would finally lift the veil of secrecy on its most ambitious sports car project ever. Since its launch, more than 50 years ago, the Chevrolet Corvette has been positioned as "America's sports car." While the 'Vette has always boasted plenty of performance and eye-catching design, it has also fallen just a bit short of European rivals, like Ferrari. Now, with the debut of the ZR1, code-named Blue Devil, there'll be no more excuses.
Unveiled at this year's Detroit auto show, and due out for 2009, this is the ultimate Corvette. The show car's numbers are staggering: rated at 620 horsepower—the final production figure could nudge closer to 650—with at least 600 pound-feet of torque, the new LS9 engine, a supercharged 6.2-liter V-8, will push the two-seater to more than 200 mph, making the ZR1 the fastest production automobile in GM's history. And with a price tag anticipated to top $100,000, it will also be GM's most expensive sports car ever.
Snobs may turn up their noses in favor of those exotic Europeans, but they'll do so at their own peril. Even the more mundane Corvette Z06 is a machine to take seriously, with world-class performance and handling and a striking design. Mimicking some of its rivals, the ZR1 adds a transparent Lexan cover over the LS9, so you can get a good look at what's about to make America a true superpower once again.
You could say there's a lot of bull at Lamborghini. The Italian automaker's founder, Ferruccio Lamborghini, had a thing for the beasts, using one as the brand's mascot. Lambo's ferocious Murciélago sports car is named for one of the most famous bulls ever to enter the ring. And now, it's naming its newest model after the fighting bull that, in 1943, killed Mexico's leading matador, Félix Guzmán.
Think of the new Reventón as "an even more extreme and beautiful" spin-off of the Murciélago, suggests Lambo's CEO, Stephan Winkelmann. Though you'll recognize some of the basic lines of the older sports car, Lamborghini designers were inspired by the edgy F-22 Raptor advanced fighter jet when sculpting the Reventón.
The most expensive (reportedly $1.6 million) and exclusive car ever to roll off the line in Sant'Agata, near "speed central," the town of Modena, Reventón features a 650-horsepower version of Lambo's rampaging 6.5-liter V-12. And that's no bull. As with the Murciélago, that power is delivered to all four wheels for maximum performance.
The automaker plans to produce just 20 Reventóns, so the factory price of 1 million euros could prove irrelevant.
CAN I GET THAT IN GREEN?
Cadillac Escalade Hybrid
Think of the new Cadillac Escalade Hybrid as environmentally friendly bling. Though we're still waiting for the Sierra Club to weigh in, we expect that some folks might feel a lot less guilty about driving Caddy's humongous sport-utility vehicle when they order the all-new, 2009 version equipped with General Motors' new two-mode hybrid system.
Like Toyota's hot-selling Prius hybrid, the Escalade Hybrid adds a pair of electric motors to its 6.0-liter V-8, along with a 300-volt battery pack. At low speeds, and for short distances, the SUV will operate as a pure electric vehicle—while still delivering all that cargo space and comforts Caddy is known for. In city driving the Escalade Hybrid will charge up its batteries whenever you break or coast, reusing that energy to improve mileage in stop-and-go conditions by up to 50 percent, according to GM. Unlike competitors' hybrid systems, the new two-mode technology boosts fuel economy at highway speeds as well. Even for those who can afford this Escalade (expected to run $70,000-plus), when you're talking about $3-plus gas, the savings add up quickly.
ON THE EXTREME EDGE
In today's fragmented automotive world, manufacturers are racing to outdo one another, and the extreme market seems to grow by month.
Porsche's Cayenne Turbo is a favorite—who can resist a big SUV packing the 500-horsepower soul of a sports car?—but we're eager for the arrival of the automaker's first four-door sports car, the Panamera, which is expected at the end of 2009. BMW has always pushed the envelope, and now promises what's being billed its ultimate sedan. Code-named CS, this coupe four-seater made its debut at the Shanghai Motor Show last summer and should be reaching showrooms in 2009.
At the other extreme, we're seeing a flood of new, small cars that belie conventional wisdom, packing performance and luxury into pint-sizes. The BMW 128i convertible, highlighted above, has plenty of competition, including the all-new MINI Clubman.
With interest growing in environmentally friendly cars, trucks and crossovers, it's not unusual to find a Prius parked alongside a Ferrari at affluent homes these days. But wanting to save the Earth doesn't mean settling for something boring. Take Tesla's new Roadster. We'd have highlighted this electric supercar if the company had a firm date for production. But despite ongoing issues with the power train, we're hoping the California start-up will eventually overcome those problems and start building the Roadster, which is expected to deliver 0 to 60 times in the neighborhood of four seconds—about as quick as a Porsche 911—along with about 200 miles range per charge.
It's just one of the new extreme machines that will positively electrify you.
Contributing editor Paul A. Eisenstein writes on automotive issues for Cigar Aficionado.