The Top 10 Cars for CEOs
What to buy when you’re shopping for the best driving experience, at work or for play.
October 1 2005 by William J. Holstein
You’ve worked hard for your money. Now it’s time to enjoy it. For the third year running, Chief Executive has collaborated with Edmunds.com to offer our list of Top 10 cars for CEOs.
Edmunds.com Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer and I share a common taste in cars: We like those full of personality and soul, vehicles that excite us and touch us emotionally. And we found them.
We noted several trends in the pattern of winners. One is that the grip Mercedes-Benz and BMW have had on the top end of the market is loosening. Mercedes lost a beat in the pace of its innovation partly because of the Chrysler acquisition, and both companies gaffed by loading their vehicles with error-prone electronics. Furthermore, both makers’ ubiquity on the streets has detracted some measure of their cache. Audi and Porsche, however, remain clear winners.
Another welcome trend is that Americans seem to be making slow, steady gains. General Motors’ Cadillac division is turning out aggressively designed cars-and at attractive price points-and Ford is in the money with two vehicles, the GT and the Aston Martin DB9. Other winners come from Italian (Ferrari) and British (Bentley) traditions, even if Volkswagen actually owns Bentley.
The Japanese and Koreans have not yet cracked our Top 10 list. We drove the Lexus GS 430, the Infiniti M45 and the Acura TL and appreciate the advances these marques have made, but they still don’t deliver the in-your-face styling and muscular performances that make up this year’s winners. There’s always next year. Keep trying!
Audi A8 L
It’s not the supple leather seats, powerful-yet-refined V8 engine, or even the sleek body lines that draw you into the A8. In the modern age of automobiles, and especially at this price point, you should fully expect-if not demand-such items.
No, what makes the Audi A8 such a seductive luxury sedan are the items only Audi seems to get right. Let’s start with the user interface that controls the A8′s higher-brain functions, such as the adjustable suspension, DVD navigation and 12-speaker Bose audio system. Unlike BMW’s iDrive, or Mercedes’ COMAND, Audi’s Multi-Media Interface (or MMI) is not only user-friendly, but downright beautiful to behold. The bright, crystal-clear graphics give the monitor a mini-HDTV look, and the soothing transitions from one function screen to the next confirm that Audi sweated the details.
Basic controls are similarly sublime, with high-quality switchgear and bright chrome accents apparent throughout the palatial cabin. Seat comfort is another A8 high point, with heated seats and power lumbar standard for front and rear passengers. Demanding drivers will revel in the car’s multiadjustable seat, one that includes separate upper and lower seatback angle adjustments to satisfy even the most persnickety of pilots.
All this coddling shouldn’t overshadow the advanced technology that goes into every A8. Beneath those alluring aluminum body panels sits an all-aluminum chassis that is both lighter and stronger than a comparable steel design. This advanced structure sits on Audi’s trademark quattro all-wheel-drive system, a system that enhances both high-speed handling and foul-weather fearlessness. Bringing it all together is a throaty 4.2-liter V8, good for 355 hp. and 317 lb.-ft. of torque.
Did we mention that every item listed above is standard on the base Audi A8 – for less than $70,000? Passenger-toting types can step up to the $71,000 long-wheelbase A8 L for additional rear-seat space, while big spenders might want to consider the W12 version, which offers both the extra rear legroom and four additional cylinders, along with 450 peak hp. But the price jumps to $120,000, and that’s before you order up the optional refrigerator ($1,500) and 20-inch wheels ($2,000).
That type of power, and those types of luxury features, may be necessary for some buyers. But those looking to make the most of their commute, while still enjoying an understated luxury sedan with premium features, will find even the entry-level Audi A8 an ideal ride.
As the boss, you’re always facing scrutiny at the office, and that scrutiny extends to the parking lot. The Cadillac CTS-V is the ideal car for those whose lives are lived under the microscope because most people will look at it and think, “Oh, the CEO is driving a mere Cadillac. It’s a very conservative choice.” If they only knew the truth!
For starters, the CTS-V has a Corvette engine and drivetrain, meaning the V8 400-hp. engine can rip with exhilarating auditory feedback at any speed, but it impresses business colleagues as a tamed beast, as well, with plenty of room for four and a full-size trunk.
The styling is reminiscent of the CTS with just subtle changes to the grille, but the CTS-V projects a more muscular stance with its 18-inch wheels. Not enough that office tongues will wag, but enough that a discriminating driver will feel it.
And, oh yes, it only costs a bit over $53,000 and change, which means it costs less than the Lexus GS-430 while offering performance that’s compared to that of BMW’s M5.
The dimensions of the CTS are sexier than the STS, which is still a little too boxy and square, owing to its origins as a Seville. The CTS-V is not as refined as its European competitors, to be sure. After all, it’s a rear-wheel-drive American muscle car, but it offers great affordability and performance. If Cadillac keeps introducing the V-Series versions of its existing brand lineup, they are going to shake up the world of luxury sedans.
BMW 3 Series
No one is going to say the CEO went crazy and splurged on a big fancy BMW when they see you in this itty bitty 330i, but your knowing smile will eventually reveal that it offers the performance and enhancements found in its larger-and more expensive-stable mates. In many ways, it actually feels like a 5 Series in disguise.
One major attraction is that the iDrive madness (consolidated control for secondary vehicle systems) is optional and is not forced upon the driver. This seems to represent a major acknowledgement from the Munich-meisters that some drivers don’t want to feel stupid. For the uninitiated, the iDrive system attempted to force more than 200 functions into a single knob mounted between the front seats, an ambitious effort to streamline all the dashboard clutter, but it was too extreme because it required the driver to memorize too much.
A second attraction is that the dimensions of the new 330i make it much more practical as a business car. The 3 Series of old didn’t have much room in the back for adults, but by expanding room for the head, shoulders and knees, this four-door 330i is now entirely appropriate for entertaining or business travel.
The price point starts at $36,000, but the model we tested combines both the premium and the sports package and includes 18-inch alloy wheels. This actually struck us as a great value, which is particularly important in a car that you drive to work-especially when you consider that BMW pays for all regularly scheduled maintenance (50,000 miles or four years).
This car is not over the top with a 500-hp. engine, as some of our other “for play” vehicles are. The 330i is a 6-cylinder machine with a 255-hp. engine-when equipped with manual transmission, it reaches 60 mph in 6.1 seconds and with automatic, 6.3 seconds-but it still possesses the superior driving and handling capabilities that BMW is known for.
Saying that BMW has created a “sensible” or “economical” vehicle is taking things too far, but if you want to drive a BMW to work and not take grief about your exorbitant lifestyle, here’s the one for you.
Bentley Flying Spur
You can look at the Flying Spur as a four-door interpretation of Bentley’s Continental GT, or as a super-upscale Volkswagen Phaeton, and you’ll be generally correct, but you will have missed the point.
Though Volkswagen owns Bentley, and the expense checks are signed in Wolfsburg, the Flying Spur’s accent is decidedly upper-class British monarchy rather than Bundes Republik German. With a few engineering tricks-including redesigned cylinder heads-and a pair of intercooled turbochargers, Bentley engineering in England redrafted VW’s 6.0-liter W12 to 552 hp. at 6,100 rpm and 470 lb.-ft. of torque that peaks at just 1,600 rpm.
For good measure and great acceleration, the Flying Spur employs a ZF 6-speed automatic transmission with an especially aggressive first gear and steering wheel-mounted paddles to let you crack the whip manually even when you leave the Tiptronic shift lever in “drive.”
The extreme effects of such an execution of power are a snap-launch off the line-Bentley figures it’s got a 4.9-second 0-to-60 car here-and a forward rush that finds itself a home in virtually any gear all the way up to the engine’s 6,500-rpm redline. At the high end of top gear, the Continental Flying Spur has been, shall we say, witnessed reaching 195 mph.
From inside the Flying Spur, however, you’ll notice none of this acceleration drama. Rather, you’ll be entranced by the flood of premium leather covering everything from the seats and door panels to the rear parcel shelf and headliner. That which isn’t leather appears to be wood-unbleached, unstained and mirror-matched (door-to-door) farm-grown walnut, with other veneers available.
Your pleasure-seeking side will be further seduced by the Flying Spur’s multizone climate control, a top-flight audio system with six-disc CD changer in the glovebox and a Breitling analog clock in the dash. The Bentley’s front seats feature 16-way electrical adjustment, plus heating controls, lumbar adjustment and a pulsing massage at the touch of a button. The rear seats also cater to passengers’ whims of warmth adjustment and legroom.
Yes, with its combination of lordly might and opulent luxury, Bentley’s four-door, $165,000 take on the wildly successful Continental GT can’t help but become the darling of rappers, basketball stars, venture capitalists and, yes, CEOs.
Mercedes CLS 55
When is a coupe not a coupe? When it has more than two doors, right? But what if the roofline and overall proportions suggest a coupe, even if the car in question has four doors? That’s the question Mercedes-Benz is hoping you’ll ask after seeing the company’s all-new CLS model line.
Mercedes knows that most of today’s luxury buyers need the convenience and practicality of a four-door sedan. But they also understand the desire of many luxury sedan buyers to break out of the traditional statement these models make. There’s certainly nothing wrong with Mercedes’ own E- or S-Class cars, nor is there any functional problem with the Audi and BMW equivalents. But they don’t exactly roar with independence or style, do they?
The CLS “coupe” (as Mercedes calls it) is something else entirely. Built largely off the existing E-Class platform, the standard Airmatic suspension system offers three settings that range from S-Class-like luxury to CLK-like sportiness, depending on your mood. (The quicker steering ratio and standard 18-inch wheels further lend a “coupe-like” manner to this luxury car, and that’s in standard CLS500 form.)
Opt for the AMG-tuned CLS55 and you’ll get a full-fledged performance car that happens to seat four comfortably. While the standard 5.0-liter V8 in the CLS500 produces a healthy 302 hp., the CLS55 boasts a supercharged 5.5-liter V8 good for 469 hp. That’s enough adrenaline to reach 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, making it the quickest Mercedes sedan yet. This version also includes 19-inch wheels, a recalibrated five-speed automatic transmission and 14.2-inch ventilated front disc brake rotors (13-inch rotors in back).
Whether you opt for the standard $65,000 CLS500 or the warp-speed AMG (around $85,000), you can still outfit your vehicle with luxury features like radar cruise control, surround-sound audio, GPS navigation and a massaging driver seat.
So feed your self-indulgent side with the stylish and sporty CLS. When real life invades your world, you’ll still have the extra doors and rear-seat space to take it along for the ride.
Ferrari F430 Spider
Today’s sports car field is so stuffed with great machinery that it takes an almost otherworldly experience to justify one model over another. But if there’s a marque that specializes in transdimensional transportation, it’s Ferrari. And if there’s a model that can turn your weekend getaway into a life-affirming journey, it’s the all-new F430 Spider.
The F430 is the latest version of Ferrari’s mid-engine V8 sports car. What started as the minimalist Ferrari Dino almost four decades ago has evolved into an advanced and highly capable roadster with an intoxicating exhaust note and divine driving dynamics. And unlike the 360 model that preceded it, the F430′s larger V8 offers a deep well of engine torque from just off idle all the way up to its 8,500-rpm redline, with a healthy peak of 343 lb.-ft. at 5,250 rpm. This same V8 comes with an associated power that bumps it from 400 hp. in the 360 Modena to 483 prancing horses in the F430 Coupe and Spider.
How do these numbers translate in the real world? How about a 0-to-60 time of around 4 seconds and a top speed approaching 190 mph? Better still, you can access that level of performance without ever using a clutch pedal, as the F430 can be had in F1 paddle-shift form (a traditional manual-shift transmission is also available). Combine the ease of shifting this transmission with the adjustable suspension and stability control settings, all courtesy of the manettino switch on the steering wheel, and you’re left with an exotic car that doesn’t require exotic driving conditions (such as a racetrack) to be enjoyed.
And like any Ferrari, you can customize the F430 with a wide range of interior materials and optional equipment, including carbon-fiber trim, an upgraded audio system, carbon ceramic brake components and even Bluetooth communication technology. Of course, sports car fanatics might bemoan the fact that Ferrari now offers a real-world sports car with daily driver functionality, but spend a few minutes on a demanding road and you’ll understand that while modern convenience has been added, none of the Prancing Horse passion has been lost.
The F430 Coupe and Spider: sports cars for the real-world enthusiast.
In a highly scientific exercise, we asked what passengers liked about the Ford GT. Several just wanted to look at its breathtaking lines. Others loved the rapid acceleration from a standing start because the car goes from 0 to 60 mph in a heart-stopping 3.6 seconds. Some wanted me to leave it in second gear and listen to the engine roar as the rpm needle approached the red line, while the intrepid begged me to hit it at, say, 40 mph and reach higher speeds in seconds for that sensation of being plastered in their seat.
No matter what your fancy, the GT is sensational, which explains why it is one of only two cars (along with the Audi A8) to make our Top 10 list three years in a row.
The GT is the ultimate in American-style muscle car-basically two seats strapped to a 550-hp. V8 engine. The designers even provided a glass window so that voyeurs can see the engine without opening a hood of any sort.
The car handles well due to its engine placement in the middle of the vehicle, and a heavy rear-end (this baby is rear-wheel drive) can fishtail if you push it, evoking love or fear depending on your driving taste.
That said, the car is completely impractical in some ways. You couldn’t fit an L-wedge, let alone a golf bag, in the trunk because it’s so small, creature comforts are limited, and it’s a little awkward getting in and out because of the way the doors are curved into the roof.
Because of its striking physical appearance, the GT is obviously live bait for police, and the insurance piranhas will extract exorbitant sums to cover it. And don’t forget the price-$153,345 isn’t chump change, and it’ll take a $20,000 dealer premium to get your hands on one. But if you hunger for peak driving experiences, the Ford GT belongs in your garage.
Back when I was in college writing poetry (didn’t everyone?), a professor used a term called “inevitability of phrasing.” What it meant was that words and phrases should work together. They should click.
That term re-entered my increasingly senescent mind recently as I contemplated the joys of the Cadillac XLR convertible. The lines are bold and sleek. The interior design, featuring eucalyptus wood, is understated and hence somehow more elegant than other luxury cars that try to cram in too much faux chestnut. The hardtop comes down and rises again at the touch of a button, without any latches to fumble with. And the sound of the engine is always at the edge of the driver’s consciousness. It’s not so powerful that it drowns out conversation or music, just enough to remind you that you have 320 hp. at your disposal.
In short, it all works together and the price, at about $76,650, is a bargain compared with most European offerings. Hard-core driving nuts will tell you that the Mercedes SL corners better than the XLR, but 99 percent of drivers never take hairpin turns at 100 mph.
Elsewhere on the competitive landscape, Jaguar’s XK convertibles are beautiful but their engines sound like they’re made of rubber bands. The Lexus SC 430, although easy on the eyes, doesn’t have the edge that the XLR does. The BMW 6 Series is the other competitor in this segment of the market and it’s a sweetheart. But it somehow lacks attitude. “These cars trade on emotion,” says Patrick Walsh, the XLR global product manager. “We wanted to create a distinct personality as an alternative to what’s out there. Our car is going to make a little more noise in the exhaust note than a European or Japanese car, and that’s alright.”
The battle will be fully engaged around the first of 2006 when Cadillac comes out with the XLR-V, with 443 hp. thanks to a 4.4-liter supercharged Northstar engine built on a Corvette chassis. The interiors will also be fancier than those of existing XLRs with more hand stitching and the like. Pricing hasn’t been announced, but it’s likely to be in the high $90,000s.
What’s ultimately at stake, of course, is whether Cadillac can dethrone Lexus, which holds the No. 1 spot in the luxury market. Cadillac has moved past Mercedes, which has slipped to fourth place, and is nipping at BMW’s heels for second place. Lots of designers are losing sleep trying to win this war. And you, dear reader, are ultimately the beneficiary.
Porsche 911 Cabriolet
Here’s how to meld exotic car performance with everyday functionality. The addictive exhaust tone of its horizontally opposed boxer engine is eclipsed only by the 911′s telepathic steering and flawless driving dynamics.
The rear-engine weight bias of this latest 911 makes it confident right