HARDER AND HOTTER
No one really needs more performance when it comes to cars in this league, but that hasn't stopped automakers from building faster and racier variants of these already-fast-and-racy cars.

Jaguar XKR-S
There's no shortage of performance in the Jaguar lineup. With the XFR sedan, the XKR coupe, and the XJ Supersport sedan, the British automaker has a trio of 510-hp supercharged brutes that are plenty competent around a track. What Jaguar doesn't have is performance with cachet, because the R sub-brand doesn't carry the same emotional weight as the BMW M, Mercedes-Benz AMG, and Audi RS badges.

What a difference an additional consonant makes. Extracting more performance from the XKR to create the XKR-S was largely an exercise in calibration rather than fitting new hardware. The familiar supercharged 5.0-liter V-8 is up 40 hp and 41 lb-ft of torque compared with the XKR, for a total of 550 hp and 502 lb-ft. Engineers have stiffened the front suspension uprights, tweaked the rear suspension geometry, increased spring rates, and dropped the ride height 0.4 inch. The adaptive dampers and the active rear differential have also been tuned more aggressively.

We already knew that the XKR is a torque monster, so it's no surprise that the XKR-S produces silly thrust before the pedal is depressed even halfway. Jaguar claims that 60 mph comes in 4.2 seconds and top speed is 186 mph. With the rotary gear selector twisted all the way to the right for the sport setting, the six-speed automatic will crack off shifts with a hammerlike punch. Activating Dynamic mode sharpens throttle response, tightens the dampers, and opens a set of flaps in the exhaust. At full throttle, the XKR-S emits a raw, guttural snarl of blats and grunts, and the sharp bark at liftoff is chased by intermittent aftershocks of snaps and crackles. It's hardly the seductive symphony of an Italian engine, but this Jag has a presence and aural individuality that makes the heart flutter.

What really gets our pulse pounding, though, is the devilish active differential, which uses an electric motor to progressively lock the rear wheels together. As we hustle through the turns of the Algarve race circuit in southern Portugal, the diff makes its existence known by dialing in the perfect amount of lockup to keep the car neutral and balanced. Thanks to the rigidity of the chassis, the progressive action of the throttle pedal, and the supportive seats, you can perfectly read and anticipate the differential's intentions, inviting explorations into controlled oversteer without threatening a smoky spin.

The XKR-S sits at the pleasant intersection of legitimate track credibility and Jaguar brand character, making the R-S tag a worthy addition to the great performance sub-brands. Here's hoping that it makes its way to more Jags.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $132,875 | HARDER: 5.0L supercharged V-8, 550 hp, 502 lb-ft | HOTTER: French racing blue


Aston Martin Virage
Aston Martin has become a master of spinning its VH architecture into an endless array of similar yet different cars. The new Virage is no exception. Its 5.9-liter V-12 puts out 490 hp, landing it squarely between the DB9 and the DBS. The Virage also adds carbon-ceramic brakes, twenty-inch wheels, and firmer Bilstein dampers than in the DB9. It looks like any other Aston -- beautiful -- but shares only its roof and door skins with the DB9.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $213,710/$228,710 (coupe/convertible) | HARDER: Firmer suspension, carbon-ceramic brakes | HOTTER: Typical Aston genes, tweaked


Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Bicolore
The Italian moniker would lead you to believe it's all about the two-tone paint job here, but the Bicolore's real selling point is rear-wheel drive. Whereas the limited-edition, rear-wheel-drive Gallardo Balboni came with a clutch pedal, the Bicolore is offered only with a six-speed automated manual mated to the 543-hp V-10.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $196,995 | HARDER: Rear-wheel drive | HOTTER: Blacked-out greenhouse


Maserati GranTurismo MC
Compared with Europe's MC Stradale and its four-point harnesses, optional roll cage, and automated manual, the American MC looks like a tame grand tourer: standard three-point belts, rear seats in place, and a torque-converter automatic. Still, there's no question that the MC presents an unlikely balance of sport over luxury for Maserati. In addition to an 11-hp increase, the adaptive suspension has been tossed in favor of fixed-rate dampers.

ON SALE: Now | PRICE: $143,400 | HARDER: Nonadjustable suspension | HOTTER: Aggressive aero bodywork


Audi R8 GT Spyder
Even in its first generation, the Audi R8 V-10 is such a complete driving machine that it worries such renowned rivals as the Porsche 911 Turbo and the Lamborghini Gallardo Performante. To find out whether shedding nearly 200 pounds and gaining 35 hp (for a total of 560 hp) is really worth a hefty $40,000 price hike, we went rain dancing on the back roads around Le Mans' Circuit de la Sarthe until the fading daylight signaled the end of playtime.

The droptop GT's standard equipment includes a six-speed automated manual, LED headlamps, hip-hugging bucket seats, and fancy custom wheels. In sync with the 43/57-percent front/rear weight distribution, all it takes to induce power oversteer or a liftoff tail slide are a jab at the stability control button and a stab at the throttle. Even though Sport mode will further sharpen the claws of this hard-core softtop, the steering isn't as ultraquick as you'll find in a Ferrari 458 Italia, the transmission isn't as machine-gun rapid as that of the McLaren MP4-12C, and the damper calibration isn't as crash-bang hard as that of any 911 adorned with a GT badge. Performance? Beyond reproach, with 398 lb-ft of V-10 torque arriving at a lofty 6500 rpm and with the ability to storm from zero to 124 mph in only 11.5 seconds. Roadholding? Tenacious -- sensational in the dry and out of this world in the wet. Handling? Fail-safe but never boring, benign but not to the point of being passive, predictable, controllable, and -- if desired -- beautifully malleable. True, this is a very expensive car. But when you consider the unique equipment and the limited production run, this special Spyder should hold its value better than the lesser versions.

ON SALE: Early 2012 | PRICE: $210,000 (est.) | HARDER: 35 more hp, 187 fewer pounds | HOTTER: Carbon fiber everywhere

Boomshadow
Guys, could you please fix your layout? The tiny little thumbnail photos completely disassociated from the matching text makes this entire feature a hot mess. If you have to, give each car a completely separate page so we can just see text and photos all at once. You probably won't have to add too many page clicks, and even if you do, that's just more ad space to sell. Am I meant to believe you have a print magazine as well? I'd never know this wasn't a first-week blog from the layout.

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