A few months ago at the New York International Auto Show, I had lunch with Spyker CEO Victor Muller and his new chief commercial officer, John Walton, the former boss of Aston Martin North America. The conversation turned to the Bugatti Veyron, and I wondered why it would be at all difficult to sell only 300 copies of the fastest production car ever built. Muller and Walton then gave a dissertation on rich-guy psychology, a topic they know a little bit about. At the Veyron level, a lot of buyers aren’t interested in the car itself so much as what the car represents — an item I have that you don’t, even though you’re also rich. Thus, in some locales, certain supercar manufacturers finagle logistics to deliver multiple cars simultaneously, so as not to chafe delicate egos. “It’s a lot easier to sell the first car than the 300th car,” said Walton. It seems that even at the extreme upper echelon of the financial hierarchy, we’re constantly measuring ourselves versus our neighbors.
And that’s why I’ve always maintained that I’d rather have the nicest shack in the trailer park than the worst house in Snooty Acres. Psychological studies have quantified the fact that human satisfaction is pegged to our success relative to our peers, so you’ll be happier as king of the pigsty than knave of the manor.
At least, that’s what it says on the Successories poster on the wall of my pigsty.
Following that line of thinking, it’s better to have the top-dog version of a modest car than the entry-level version of something fancier. I’d rather have a Volkswagen GTI than an Audi A4, an Audi R8 instead of a Lamborghini Gallardo. Drive a Gallardo and you know, deep down in your hairy chest, that someone out there is smirking that you can’t afford an Aventador. The R8, though, is the baddest Audi on the road. With an R8, you get to do the smirking.
So maybe it’s not surprising that when I think back to my favorite cars from the past few years, they tend to be the ultimate expression of either a commonplace model or a mainstream brand. The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT is a great example. Chrysler engineers said, “You know, ain’t nothin’ wrong with the Grand Cherokee that can’t be fixed with a Launch button!” At least, that’s what I imagine they said. But I like to imagine that all hot-rod American cars are developed in a barn by people drinking moonshine and intermittently engaging in fistfights.
On the other hand, I imagine that Japanese halo cars are built by armies of stoic white-coated engineers who have pet robots, 190 IQs, and pet robots with 190 IQs. Which brings me, naturally, to the Nissan GT-R. I was sitting at a stoplight when a kid in a first-generation Nissan 300ZX nearly pulled a full Linda Blair craning his neck as he drove past. What’s he looking at? Oh, right — the King of the Nissans. I’d forgotten for a moment what I was driving, because at a red light the serenely idling GT-R can momentarily approximate normalcy, like a sociopath chatting up the neighbors at the grocery store.
Then the light turns green and you’re back to charting new g-force parabolas on the console data recorder, testing the limits of Nissan’s 545-hp chef d’oeuvre. Floor the throttle in a GT-R and you cause the pilot 30,000 feet overhead to turn on the fasten-seatbelt sign. This thing violently reorders the atmosphere. And it evokes a response far beyond its not-inconsiderable $100,000 price tag.
A guy at the local pizza joint saw me pull up in the GT-R, and now my next pizza is on the house because I took him for a brief and extremely rapid tour of the local on-ramps (max lateral g-force: 1.2). When I parked a GT-R on the street in Miami’s South Beach, passersby stopped to take photos. And remember, people in South Beach don’t even notice a Lamborghini unless it’s going 150 mph and on fire. You can debate the GT-R’s philosophical approach to speed — minimalist it’s not — but you can’t deny that this thing has some major mojo.
So why is a $100,000 Nissan more interesting than, say, a $100,000 Porsche or Mercedes-Benz? Because, unlike a 911 Carrera S or an SL550, the GT-R represents a pinnacle rather than a stepping-stone. The handbuilt engine and carbon-composite driveshaft and six-piston Brembos are standard. It’s not like Nissan is saving them for some better model.
When a mainstream company like Nissan or Ford or Honda decides to build a halo car, they throw everything they’ve got at it. They take huge pride in their accomplishment. This isn’t to say that a company like Ferrari doesn’t take pride in a new model, but the expectations are completely different. We expect Ferrari to build a 458 Italia, but we don’t expect Nissan to build something that will ace it off the line. We don’t expect Ford to build a car so cool that it’s immune to depreciation. (Have you checked Ford GT prices lately?) The original Acura NSX is a legend because it represents Honda slaying giants.
The Lexus LFA probably fits this description, too, but I’ve never driven one or even seen one on the road, and I’m half suspicious that the whole thing is a big catfish scam, the automotive version of Manti Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend. Yeah, Lexus, sure you built a $400,000 supercar, but every time we try to make plans she’s busy.
Back at the New York show, Jaguar unveiled one of the more mystifying cars in recent memory: the XKR-S GT, a hot-rod version of a hot-rod version of a hot-rod XK. The general reaction ranged from “Huh?” to “Wha…?” But I get it. Whoever buys this thing won’t care that the lap times might be .01 percent faster versus the XKR-S. They’ll care that they’ve got the keys to the King of the Jaguars.