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These cars cost a fortune, but. . .

By Douglas MacMillan, BusinessWeek
March 07, 2007 11:10 IST
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Look in the mirror and say "I deserve a car that costs more than most people's homes." If you can't, then you may want to read something else.

Yes, we know, spending obscene amounts of money on a car, especially one that burns gasoline like barbecues burn lighter fluid, is, well, obscene. Sort of. But we can live with ourselves because not only are we providing a livelihood for hundreds of talented engineers, designers, and craftsmen and their families in Stuttgart, Solihull, Modena, and Crewe, but also because we are keenly alive to the fact that an exceptionally well-made and strikingly beautiful car is no less a work of art than a fine painting.

It's also a heck of a lot of fun.

Now, of course, we know there are people out there who honestly don't care about what they drive. To these people, a car is a means of transportation. All they want is something that will get them from point A to point B. But these are also often people who plaster "Save the Rainforest" and "I Voted for Kerry" stickers all over their bumpers.

You don't plaster anything all over a car that cost six-figures, no matter how compelling the message. It would be like mixing Hawaiian Punch with a 1982 Chateau Margaux.

Why So Much?

But for most whose hearts have ever leapt at the sight of the lines of a magnificent Italian sports car or whose veins have pulsed with excitement when sitting behind the wheel as the speedometer rapidly ticks over 100 mph, the only reason for not buying that Aston Martin, Lamborghini, or Maserati is pecuniary.

No matter how much you might hunger to own a car capable of racing from 0 to 60 in five seconds or less, there's no getting past the sticker price. On top of that, with insurance, maintenance, and gas, keeping an exotic car on the road can cost around $80,000 a year.

For some lucky people, including a few readers, I hope, such an expenditure is of no concern. Maybe you've already got the kid's college tuition paid for, as well as the mortgage on your first and second homes, have a balanced portfolio, a great accountant, an understanding spouse, annually support several charities, and currently at least one practical car in the driveway. Why can't you blow some dough on your ultimate dream toy?

By this point, you may be wondering just what makes a luxury car so expensive. Is a $350,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom so superior to, say, a Toyota Camry that it should cost roughly 17 times as much?

Well, that depends on your point of view, but as anyone who has ever driven, or been driven in, the Phantom can attest the two have about as much in common as a Savile Row suit and a pair of Dockers.

Parking Wizard

Only 1,000 Rolls are made each year at its relatively new, €100 million factory in Goodwood, Britain, whereas Toyota sold nearly 450,000 Camrys in the U.S. alone last year.

Moreover, the Rolls is almost entirely handmade and can be built to the owner's specifications. It also features such state-of-the-art technology as an aluminum space frame body, aluminum panels, composite front fenders, and a modified 6.75 L, 48-valve BMW V12 engine capable of 453 horsepower and 531 ft. lb. of torque, which can accelerate from 0 to 60 in 5.7 seconds. (Not bad for a car that weighs 5,622 lbs.)

Inside, the car is upholstered in 450 pieces of leather cut by a computer-guided knife, lamb's wool rugs, and perfectly matched exotic woods.

It might not be for everyone and, yes, is a bit on the pricey side. What if you fancy something a little more down to earth? For the 2007 model year, Lexus debuted a never-before-seen feature for its Lexus LS460 L: automatic parallel parking.

The NP Navigation sensors detect the position of surrounding cars and the direction of the vehicle's wheels, while a control module power-steers the auto into tight spaces. The LS460 L's base MSRP is $71,000, and this feature is an option for only about $1,200 extra. The carmaker has patented the technology, but expect to see variations on automatic-parking systems appear in other super-luxuries in coming years.

While cool gadgets like the LS460's auto-parking technology are one reason people are willing to spend big on high-end cars, there are other factors as well. Despite their size and weight, luxury cars can also be a kick to drive.

If you're eyeing a road-rocket like the Koenigsegg CCX -- which can cost around $722,000 -- a luxury car may be too refined for your tastes. But luxury cars, as opposed to sports cars, deliver in terms of both power and performance, and the comfort level is high.

A Good, Safe Ride

The general rule of thumb is that the more expensive a sedan is, the more comfortable it will be -- especially in the back seat, where most big shots tend to spend their time anyway. (The astonishingly fast Bugatti Veyron, which lacks a back seat, actually has a surprisingly plush interior, but considering it costs around $1 million, that's the least they could do.)

Not only is there more leg- and head-room but there are also such amenities as rear-seat entertainment systems and climate controls. While the same may be said of the average minivan, a luxury sedan also can offer sweeteners such as adjustable rear-seats, picnic trays, refrigerators, even champagne-glass dispensers. The Rolls offers pop-out umbrellas stored in the rear door in case of a sudden downpour.

Luxury cars also tend to be safer. They're often heavier and come with more standard safety features than moderately-priced cars. (However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration don't rate most high-end luxury cars because they sell in such low volumes.)

Of course, all machines are susceptible to breaking down, and wear and tear -- and cars driven at higher speeds tend to need more time in the shop. Whereas you can just drop your Ford Fusion off at the local dealership and usually be on your way soon after, if your luxury car's spare parts have to be ordered from Britain or Italy, it can take a while and usually costs a lot more.

Vanity Factor

The main reason for buying a luxury car is, and there's no reason to be ashamed of this, vanity. Successful people take pride in their success. They like to keep up with their neighbors. They get a kick out of tooling up to the valet at the country club in the most gorgeous car in the parking lot and tossing him the key. They don't want to look, or drive, like anyone else. Now the only question left is: Which one should you buy?

Depending on where you live, some cars just don't make a whole lot of sense. If you lived in Germany, you could take just about any car you wanted to the autobahn and put it through its paces while the local polizei sit in a nearby cafe munching on strudel. In other parts of the world, however -- notably the U.S. and, increasingly, Britain -- driving 85 mph would land you in traffic court.

It's tough to keep a car like a Saleen S7 in first gear while crawling through the traffic on Rodeo Drive or the Long Island Expressway, when it was meant to be driven on a race track. Fortunately, the cars on our list, with the exception of the Veyron, are all as comfortable in rush-hour congestion as they are on an open road.

Sort of makes you want to rush out to your nearest luxury auto showroom and go for a test spin, doesn't it? We know that's where we're heading.

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Douglas MacMillan, BusinessWeek

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