Some contests are won before they've even begun. Take Cadillac's long-awaited high-concept flagship, the XLR. I drove one away from Palm Springs, where Cadillac had brought the press to introduce its new two-seater, the other day. It had yet to meet its presumed natural rival, the Mercedes-Benz SL500, face to face, but it had accrued a significant honor already, for it was an instant winner of my infrequently presented Exceeds All Reasonable Expectations trophy.
As a car and as a sporty personal luxury device that dares to be anything but cheap, the XLR is very good, a relative bargain, even. But as a Cadillac, the XLR is almost unbelievable, so much more than might have materialized. In many ways, it's the best Cadillac there ever was. Considering some of the grim times GM's prestige marque has known lately, that may merit an award all by itself. Evidently, there are some things you can do with the new C6 Corvette platform. The XLR-which drives nothing like a Corvette, looks nothing like a Corvette, but could run close to one-is one of those things. We like.
How the XLR would fare against its most formidable competitor, however, the blue-chip SL500, we'd have to find out. We wanted the two to meet right away, as they inevitably will every day for years to come. From the valet parking lots of upscale shopping malls in Westchester to the pricey plastic surgeries of Beverly Hills and back again. Head to head, toe to toe, snob to snob. But in order to begin living the top-down luxury lifestyle as close to the XLR's Palm Springs launch as possible, we decided to convene our posse first in the uncrowded mountains near Fontana, California, where we could drive hard and instrument-test with minimal intrusion from the outside world, before heading back to the city to make the scene in the bumper-to-bumper traffic that is West Hollywood night life.
In the name of comprehensiveness, we might have brought along the Lexus SC430, for it, too, has the "two seats and hard top that folds into the trunk" thing down, and it's a certain competitor for XLR dollars. But we opted against it. The Lexus is a superbly built coupe with a slamming V-8, downgraded by its strange looks and curiously unsettling compromise between ride and handling, which favors neither. We know the SC430 well and respect its build quality, but it won't be unseating any of these cars for driver's honors.
Instead, finding ourselves in the mind of spending $76,250 (for an XLR) or more (try $86,655 for an SL500), we came up with the bright idea of bringing along a couple of even more powerful and more expensive but rather less subtle open two-seaters for a face-off of their own-both machines of foreign extraction, both with folding tops, but in this case soft ones. We wanted to revisit Jaguar's XKR ($86,975) and to drive for the very first time the Maserati Spyder ($90,892). If not now, when?
We wanted the Maserati so bad that we ponied up molto lire at Budget Rent a Car of Beverly Hills just to lay our hands on one. Budget's high-performance office will rent you everything from a Mini Cooper S to a Hummer H2 to a Ferrari 360 Modena or a BMW Z8. Call us paranoid, but after a year of waiting, we were beginning to wonder whether Maserati didn't want us driving its cars. Given the historic reliability record of Italian cars in America, one could easily understand such reluctance, not that it bodes well for the car, which must be pretty darned reliable if it is to make any time with the American consumer these days. For the new Maserati to wind up a cheap-to-buy, expensive-to-fix oddity in the side yards of repair shops around America, like the fast but fragile De Tomaso-era Maserati Biturbo, would be a shame. (Maserati eventually did provide a car, but it was too late for this test.)
What we have here is a pair of apples (XLR and SL500) and a couple of oranges (XKR and Spyder). Being an opinionated lot, we will presume to compare and then rank them together. Breaking every rule and convention of automotive journalism, we'll also tell you up front who the winners are. Drum roll, please. At the end of the day, the Cadillac isn't quite as good as the Mercedes, but it beats the Maserati and the Jaguar, in that order. As noted, the Cadillac gets a special achievement award just for being.
Fourth: Jaguar XKR
You can't be too rich, and you can't be too thin. But you can be too old, and in this company, Jaguar's XKR shows signs of being just that. (Not that it's so thin, either.) Its late-'90s good looks have aged gracefully enough, but the old stager harks back to an earlier era of motoring with a chassis and body structure related to the XJ6 of the late '60s. One can't help appreciating all its power-390 horsepower at 6100 rpm and 399 pound-feet of torque at 3500 rpm make for a wicked fast automobile. According to numbers gathered by technical editor Don Sherman at the California Speedway, the XKR is the second fastest of our crew, despite its 4040-pound weight, with 60 mph coming up from rest in a mere 5.8 seconds and the quarter-mile dispatched in 14.1 seconds. The SL500 weighs more, with 4120 pounds to move around, but it's the general floppiness of the XKR (and the XK8 from which it is derived) that you notice the moment the road starts winding.
The Jaguar is not only the oldest of our quartet, but it's also the most expensive (except for the Maserati, which is slapped with a $3700 gas-guzzler tax), which is not usually a promising combination. One might want to consider the ordinary XK8, at $74,975, but it comes minus the supercharged engine that is the XKR's best feature. Spooled up, Jaguar's AJ-V8 comes on like a runaway freight train. But when the situation calls for anything more sophisticated than stomp-and-go, the XKR becomes harder work. It is not an easy car to drive smoothly when hard-charging.
In less frenetic driving, the Jag has its charms. Ride is nice; steering feels about right. But when you come out of the throttle, the engine stays hung up; when you get back into it, you're greeted with lunch-boltingly aggressive tip-in. Add a weird, springy brake pedal, an unruly suspension tuned for mellow, and the imprecise J-gate shifter found in all Jaguars for too long, and it's very hard to get a rhythm going. It's time for someone to take the J-gate out back and shoot it.
The vestigial rear seats offer a place to toss your briefcase, and the trunk actually will hold some luggage even when you're driving al fresco-the big upside of a soft top over a retractable hard top. The downside is that with the top up, you have to trust your mirrors completely, because vision is compromised.
Entering its eighth year, the XK8 still looks good, but its styling hardly sets the heart aflutter as did the unbeatable E-type to which it pays homage. Uninspiring as ever, its interior deploys a veritable raft of wood veneer but manages to look plastic anyway.
Third: Maserati Spyder
In these times of corporate homogenization, it's nice to see that the Maserati has that genuine Italian-car feel. Sumptuous leather interior? Check. Lively steering and curve-loving chassis? Check. Addictive engine note from a high-revving, great-looking, crazy-fast V-8? Got it. Cowl shake? Lanky, long-throw shift action? Crappy switchgear? Feeling of fragility? Got those, too. It's the all-Italy team, present and accounted for.
Meaning all that's missing is a sexy, come-hither shape. Someone maybe needs to show Giugiaro a Ghibli. Following a period where he seemed to have mislaid his mojo, the older Giugiaro was fairly well along the comeback trail when he penned the original 1998 Maserati 3200GT, but he hadn't yet come all the way back, as he would with the design of last year's Alfa Romeo Brera show car. The Maserati is a car from the period when he didn't seem to be paying enough attention. The Spyder looks good from some angles, less so from others.
A Spyder with the electronically actuated six-speed Cambiocorsa gearbox is yours for $4000 extra, but we like the Spyder's six-speed manual transmission on open roads. The wonderful multicam soundtrack of the Ferrari-designed V-8 needs no explanation. Engines just don't get any better to listen to, and the Maserati is the undisputed hot-rod king of our gathering, ripping off 60 mph in five seconds flat and tripping the quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds at 109 mph. That's fast. The Maser handles reasonably, although it, too, is not immune to cowl shake. Notwithstanding its fully independent rear suspension, it feels like a 1970s Alfa Spider, only larger and a lot faster. An SVT Mustang Cobra built by Italians. Nice, but in a kind of connect-the-dots, rather than seamless, way.
Completing the stereotype, the Maserati's completely electric soft top went wobbly on us one night, needing a helping hand to get it shut, as senior editor Joe Lorio had predicted it would. The Spyder's satellite navigation system and stereo controls also proved useless.
Second: Cadillac XLR
When you get down to it, the Jag-versus-Maserati fight is just the opener for the main event here, pitting the XLR against the SL. How does the XLR stand up? Better than you might think but not well enough to dethrone the heavyweight champion.
The XLR immediately scores points for its not-even-slightly-retro, stealth-fighter styling inside and out. Online editor Greg Anderson thought it looked like a DeVille that had had a piano dropped on it, but others disagreed and thought the design did just what it set out to do. The XLR has real on-road presence; with its wide stance and narrow greenhouse, it looks particularly good from the rear. The angular lines somehow keep it from looking fat-assed, unlike the more rounded Corvette. GM has contrived to deliver a plastic surface better than a Corvette's for the XLR, which is assembled in the same Bowling Green, Kentucky, plant as the Vette, on a separate final-assembly line. Fit and finish are first-rate, although the occasional smell of fiberglass resin warming in the California sun was disconcerting.
The XLR's cabin really shines. Nothing about its interior is cheesy, with the possible exception of the Bulgari-designed gauges, which look as if they came out of a Chevette. Ditto the Bulgari-designed keyless entry and touch-start key chain, which has the fit, finish, and class of a child's toy. Hey, Nicola, phone home. Whatever Cadillac paid you for them was too much. Fortunately, the rest of the car is just plain classy-eucalyptus wood, real aluminum, handsome instrument and door panels. It is so un-Corvette-a car that wears its cheapness most conspicuously in its interior, a necessary condition of its great-performance-bargain status. The XLR operates under no such constraints. Spend even some small fraction of the extra $25,000 you're charged for an XLR replacing the Corvette interior, and the results get pretty impressive.
Impressive, too, is all the Buck Rogers electronic hoo-ha in the XLR. It's the sort of thing Cadillac used to be famous for: electrically unlatching doors (with hidden mechanical solutions in case the battery fails), keyless ignition, heated and cooled seats, power opening and closing trunk lid, retractable hard top, head-up display, DVD navigation system-all standard-and, of course, OnStar, which had an advisor standing by, ready to direct us to our choice of bad Mexican restaurants near Fontana. With all the technology, the XLR represents a vision of what Cadillac once was and should be again: the car of the future.
In order to build the XLR, Cadillac had to reengineer 85 percent of the Northstar V-8 for north-south installation and in the process picked up 20 horsepower, for a new total of 320 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. These permit credible 6.5-second 0-to-60-mph times, matching the SL500's performance exactly but going on to beat it to the quarter-mile by 0.2 second, at 14.8 seconds and 99 mph (versus 15.0 seconds and 97 mph).
Upon viewing a bare XLR chassis in Palm Springs, it was clear that one key to the Cadillac's excellence was a massive and solid structure, with considerably modified rear architecture added to deal with the space-eating folding roof and providing further stiffness. The Magnetic Ride Control dampers are a revelation, allowing us to swallow sure bottom-outs with ease. That leaves the Northstar V-8-along with GM's LS1, one of the great American engines of our time-to shine. Granted, at low speeds, the powertrain in our test car had a pre-production sound and feel, and there was that noxious resin smell to contend with, but the thing will get out of its own way, its five-speed manu-matic being pleasant and easy to use.
Inside, there's plenty of room (for people, if not their stuff) and good visibility-just as in the Mercedes, a bonus of the retractable hard top. The driving position is comfortable and pleasantly free of idiosyncrasies. But, despite its pleasing appearance and abilities, this car ultimately doesn't feel as vaultlike as the Mercedes. On the other hand, it's much cheaper. We think a lot of people will buy it instead of the SL500, because it is an entirely creditable alternative, quite an achievement for Cadillac, which hopes to sell between 3000 and 8000 per year, an even more exclusive number than Mercedes vends.
First: Mercedes-Benz SL500
It may be the slowest car here, but there's no denying the SL500 is the overall winner, which may say more about us than it does about the vehicles. This generation SL has truly sidestepped from bank-vault shopping device to fleet-footed canyon-road carver. It's delightfully easy to drive fast, with one exception. The five-speed Touch Shift gearbox is a pleasure to use, and the Active Body Control suspension is incredible. Letting the side down is an electrohydraulic braking system that is anathema to smooth driving, particularly in less demanding, stop-and-go situations, where it is nigh on impossible to stop smoothly. The big engine is alternately hushed and throaty, as the situation warrants.
Like the Caddy's, its retractable top is a technological tour de force. It's actually more impressive, as it's polite enough not to take up all the trunk space when retracted and, at sixteen seconds, goes up or down twice as fast. The interior is similarly more spacious, and visibility is better than in the Maserati or the Jaguar.
Despite what we know about Mercedes-Benz's slipping build quality, the SL still feels like an expensive, well-designed piece. While the XLR is very nicely bolted together, its body is made of plastic and smells like it. SL owners need make no explanations or apologies for their purchase, and there is something about the SL's suit of armor that is more appropriate to this class of car. If that sounds snobby, well, sorry. Overall, the SL is the most fabulous of our fab foursome. But the Cadillac's proud visage can be seen plainly in the SL's rear-view mirror. By our reckoning, that makes for two winners of this test: one actual, one spiritual.