Palm Springs, California - Self-indulgence is a cherished principle of modern American life, whether it is expressed in the acquisition of material goods, the pleasuring of the flesh, or the wresting of power. And while pampering oneself has become synonymous with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in every corner of the Union, it is the official pastime of California. Where else but in the Golden State, then, for us to caress the leather and feather the throttles of three supremely sybaritic convertibles? After all, the convertible is the most self-indulgent four-wheeler: impractical, flashy, and, most important, the perfect platform for displaying one's wonderful self.
Not to mention that it was January and 25 degrees at our editorial offices in Michigan. So, we picked up a Jaguar XK8, a Mercedes-Benz CLK430, and a brand-new Lexus SC430 in Los Angeles and hightailed it over the mountains to Palm Springs. This resort town is collectively self-indulgent enough to transform vast acres of desert into lush, green golf courses. It's a place where they not only trim every shrub into submission and drape every wall with bougainvillea, they even rake the gravel in the medians. An ideal locale, then, to soak up some sun and consider the three similar--yet very different--philosophies by which these three cars help their wealthy owners get skin cancer. (So that's why there are so many plastic surgeons and dermatologists in Palm Springs.)
Lexus admits that in developing the SC430, which replaces the decade-old SC coupe, it benchmarked the XK8. The Jaguar made its debut in the fall of 1996 and is now a familiar fixture at country clubs, in Neiman Marcus parking lots, and anywhere else ladies who lunch hang out. The CLK convertible has been on sale for more than two years, but it didn't get its optional 4.3-liter V-8 until fall 1999. (One could argue that the Mercedes SL is a more appropriate competitor in this group, but with the current model a lame duck--a new-generation SL arrives next year--and the CLK430 costing nearly the same as the Lexus, we decided to include the four-seat Benz.)
In many respects, these are very similar cars, products of three of the world's most prestigious automotive marques, any one of them guaranteed to provide enormous pleasure to its owner. All have modern, aluminum V-8 engines with sophisticated aspiratory functions and abundant power and torque heading to the rear wheels via five-speed automatic transmissions (the Mercedes unit has manual controls). All ride on fully independent suspensions and employ four-wheel disc brakes. All have fully automatic, or nearly so, power tops, very good stereos, and comprehensive luxury and safety features. Both the Benz and the Jag also are offered as hardtop coupes, while the SC430's calling card is its fully retractable aluminum hard top, which allows it to serve as either a coupe or a roadster, la the Mercedes SLK. There are twelve sets of seatbelts among them, but only the Mercedes truthfully can be said to have room for four people.
We conducted a Four Seasons test with a 1997 XK8 and concluded that the two-door Jaguar, in either droptop or the more stunning hardtop form, was a highly desirable grand touring machine. The first recipient of Jaguar's superb AJ-V8 engine, this car certainly adheres to Sir William Lyons's famous credo, "grace, pace, and space," with 290 horses on tap, a sizable trunk, and sheetmetal that oozes sex appeal. The car's basic architecture dates back a quarter of a century to the XJS, which explains the long snout, the small windshield, the tall side sills, the bolt-upright instrument panel, and the cramped footwells. But Jaguar engineers obviously know a lot about modernizing an ancient platform, as the XK8 really does define the luxury-convertible category.
The Jag drives like a big car and, indeed, is more than half a foot longer than the Benz and the Lexus. The distinct advantage of that extra length, of course, is the only truly practical trunk of our trio. It handily fits two golf bags with the top down. In any case, you can still hurtle the XK8 over a mountain road with surprising ease. The chassis is much livelier than the car's relaxed straight-line behavior would suggest, and the Pirelli P Zeroes hold on and on. The AJ-V8 builds power smoothly and very quickly, with fast, direct shifts from the ZF five-speed automatic. Jaguar persists in using its trademark J-gated shifter, which was charming in the first Bush administration but now seems an annoying anachronism. On a twisting road, it's best to shove it into third gear and let the rev needle climb. Under these conditions, the XK8 feels like a really refined, old-fashioned muscle car.
The brakes confirm that opinion, because they were smoking by the time we'd made it down from Idyllwild to Banning. They work, but the long-travel brake pedal and their tendency to fade are less than reassuring. We are thankful that Lexus did not benchmark the Jaguar's brakes, because the SC430's are worlds better.
The XK8 also suffers from slightly inferior interior materials. There's a big sweep of wood across the dash and down the console, but it's heavily plasticized and surrounds some pretty chintzy switchgear. The leather seats look nice enough, but nice enough is not good enough at this price. Now that leather upholstery is commonplace, Jaguar's should look, feel, and smell different from the stuff you'd find in a Chevy Malibu. When we open the door of a Jaguar, we expect to go slightly faint from the intoxicating aroma.
Mercedes and Lexus also have sanitized their leather upholstery, but, otherwise, the SC430 interior has the best materials. From the moment you slide over the driver's seat and grasp the thick, richly padded door handle, every sense is soothed and every expectation met. The ergonomics, naturally, are first-class, and the climate control system detects exterior temperatures and adjusts the air flow accordingly, pumping cool air to your feet and lap on hot days and warm air on cooler days. Our test car was trimmed in gorgeous bird's-eye maple and equipped with a phenomenal standard stereo with a six-disc, in-dash CD player from Mark Levinson, a company heretofore known for extremely high-end home audio. Turn up the volume as far as your eardrums can stand, and there is virtually no distortion. The nine-speaker system automatically equalizes itself when the roof is lowered, so there's superb sound quality even at 80 mph with the wind whipping by.
The Lexus SC coupe that was introduced a decade ago was a styling revelation, a gorgeous car. The SC430 is not as successful (see the accompanying design analysis). Lexus designers spent weeks on the French Riviera, seeking the true meaning of luxury for the super-rich. The result is an overwrought exercise in floridity and frivolity, rather than a really serious car. Then again, that's exactly what a lot of buyers in this market want. The eighteen-inch wheels, a first for Lexus, don't help matters, looking as they do like aluminum manhole covers. Calling all aftermarket wheel companies.
But everywhere we went in the Palm Springs area, the newest Lexus provoked a tremendous amount of positive attention. "I'll take it, I'll take it, I'll take it," exclaimed a blond, fifty-ish woman as we idled by the gate of her well-tended estate in one of the city's posh neighborhoods. "Wow! Nice car," pedestrians called out. "Hey, honey, there's that new Lexus!" Some of this interest may be chalked up to the SC430's newness--it wouldn't reach dealerships until March 15--and some of it is down to the fact that there's never been a Lexus convertible. The SC430 is a striking car, for sure, because it strikes all the chords that people are conditioned to expect in a luxury droptop. It certainly struck Sam Pishue, a youthful Palm Springs retiree who chased us down in his old VW Beetle convertible. He'd already ordered an SC430 sight unseen and was thrilled to be able to sit in our test car. "I liked the Audi TT," he said, "but I just didn't want another canvas top. And this car almost looks better with the top up." Pishue's SC430 will join the Beetle, a concours Jaguar Mark X, and a Cadillac Escalade in his garage.
The SC430 drives serenely; it's like a two-door LS430. It's not a sport coupe in the manner of the SC400. The 300-horsepower, 4.3-liter V-8 is amazingly quiet, especially when compared with the Mercedes V-8, which burbles and rasps like a diesel. It's the most powerful of the three engines, and it gets the Lexus from 0 to 60 mph a second quicker than the other two cars. Those who like to hear and feel their engine working might be disappointed, though. The five-speed automatic defines transmission smoothness and refinement, but it doesn't shift as quickly as the others, especially when you accelerate out of a tight corner. The steering is lighter than the other cars', with very little on-center feel, and the wide front tires are sensitive to road undulations. Still, this is a pedigreed chassis--taken from the GS430 sedan--and it remains largely unflustered when it's all loaded up with cornering forces. More important for its clientele, it has the best ride of our trio.
With the roof down, you can chat at will in the remarkably quiet cabin. The fully automatic hard top ascends or descends in about twenty-five seconds, similar to the Mercedes. (The Jag wins this contest, retracting in only twelve seconds and coming back up in sixteen, but it doesn't have a hard tonneau.) When the top is up, there is some oddly shaped trunk space, but when it's down, there's hardly any room at all, and the temporary spare tire is right in the middle of what little there is. Relief can be found in the optional run-flat tires, which eliminate the spare and provide room for a couple of duffels or maybe a golf bag. The rear seat also will fit a golf bag.
Both our Jag and Lexus test cars were equipped with optional navigation systems; Mercedes-Benz's Comand system is available in the CLK430, but ours was not so equipped. As has been our experience in other Jags, the XK8's nav system worked pretty well but on occasion would inexplicably send us off in the completely opposite direction from where we wanted to go. The Lexus setup, on the other hand, is intuitive and well designed, and the screen tilts seven degrees up or down to avoid sun glare.
While the Lexus tries hard to beat the Jaguar at its own game, the Mercedes seems to step back and watch the catfight with bemusement, smug in the belief that its restrained demeanor and general aura of seriousness will make it the ultimate winner. It's an easy argument to consider, because the Mercedes is in many ways the best convertible of this group. For starters, living, breathing adults actually can sit in the rear seats, where they'll be protected in a rollover by the rear headrests, which can be raised and lowered electrically, serving as reinforced roll bars when they're up. Access to the rear is facilitated by front seats that automatically move up and out of the way. A roadster is a roadster is a roadster; it appropriately seats only two people and arouses no feelings of resentment among the friends you've left standing at the curb. A convertible with minuscule rear seats such as the Jag or the Lexus, though, only tempts those friends to come along for the miserable ride. The Merc's fully lined convertible top--and the Jag's--is proof enough that a hard top is not really worth the compromises it produces, although the CLK's requires the twist of a handle and a push to get it started on its electrically powered trip to the rear. The CLK's trunk is also compromised by the folding top but not nearly as badly as the SC430's.
The CLK430 has the least amount of horsepower--275--but is also the lightest car. The 4.3-liter, 24-valve SOHC V-8 is not as refined as its competitors' DOHC units, but its raucousness gives it more appeal. The five-speed manu-matic transmission rips off shifts quickly, precisely, yet smoothly. The steering has good feel and only the tiniest of on-center dead spots, and it's not overly susceptible to road imperfections. Like those of the Lexus, the Benz's brakes are reassuring, and they have brake assist for emergency stops. And, although the car is not quite the piece of Germanic granite its mid-Nineties E-class-based predecessor was, it's still very solid.
These are all extraordinarily good cars, but, by a tiny margin, the CLK provided the most involving driving experience as we barreled through the mountains at high speed. "The Mercedes covers ground at a wonderfully relaxed pace, requiring some input from the driver but always translating it into perfectly coordinated maneuvers. In the long, long loops above Palm Springs, I could marry the brakes and steering with supernatural grace, with the car barely rolling or pitching," said West Coast bureau chief Michael Jordan.
After driving around under palm trees for several days, it was clear to us that these luxury convertibles are like three different flavors of Hagen-Dazs: Every one of them is divine self-indulgence but in its own way. The Lexus is the most pampering, with a lavish interior, exquisite engineering and production quality, and coupe or convertible versatility, plus the world's best factory-installed car stereo. And it's probably what many real buyers in this field would most want, partly because it's the newest. The Jaguar is pure elegance and beauty, and its slick V-8 engine helps you forget that it is, at heart, an old car. For any Palm Springs golfer who has always dreamed of owning a Jaguar convertible, there is no better car in the world. The CLK430, while not pretty like the XK8, is extremely handsome, properly proportioned, and utterly poised under all driving conditions. It's a convertible with function rather than flash, and, although flash might be the very reason many people buy luxury convertibles, the Benz is still the best driver of the bunch.