Let's get this out of the way right now: I will declare a winner in this, my first comparison test. No thumb-twiddling that the winner "depends on what you like." The winner doesn't depend on what you like; it depends on what I like. Since that's simple enough to figure out, and you're smart enough to ascertain if my priorities are in line with your own, let's get on with it.
As debut comparison assignments go, this one's a goodie. Our subjects are three four-passenger convertibles priced at about $100,000: the $95,000 Jaguar XKR, the $104,000 Porsche 911 Carrera S, and the $115,000 BMW M6. Our venue is Miami Beach, a place uniquely suited for objective consideration of six-figure sports cars. Why? Because nobody there is impressed by six-figure sports cars, so adulation from the proletariat doesn't figure into the decision.
The powertrains in this trio are about as different as you can find in three cars that are angling for the same buyers. We've got a 355-hp flat-six, a 420-hp supercharged V-8, and a 500-horse V-10. We've got a six-speed manual, a six-speed automatic, and a seven-speed sequential manual. A sports car's powertrain is its soul, so it's not surprising that these cars all exhibit distinct personalities based on their power delivery. The Jag is a mellow bruiser, a well-dressed muscle car. The BMW is the techno track slayer, and the Porsche is the deceptively uncomplicated, deceptively quick traditionalist.
Of course, most of the time in south Florida, horsepower is less relevant than star power. If you go where the beautiful people are--in Miami Beach on Collins Avenue and Washington Street (not so much Ocean Drive, which is packed with tourists and rental cars)--you'll be taking your time.
The Jag is the most comfortable in this role. It's got buckets of low-end torque and a ride like a maglev. Its six-speed paddleshift automatic is fantastic, ripping off throttle-blipping downshifts that echo off the walls of the high-end boutiques on Collins. Put it this way: the Jag's automatic does a better job of impersonating a sequential manual than the M6's sequential manual does of impersonating an automatic.
The M6 is a strange beast. If you accept that the essential mission of a four-seat convertible is to cruise around and look good in the sun, then the presence of a 500-hp V-10 and an SMG transmission comes off as a tad incongruous, like a beach chair with machine guns. More so than the Jag and the Porsche, this is a car for the status conscious because it simply can't be topped by anything with a spinning-propeller badge. This fall, Porsche will bring out a new 911 Turbo convertible that supersedes the Carrera S, and Jag owners will be reminded of their penury by the occasional Aston Martin, but for BMW, the M6 convertible is the top dog. And that's important when you're charging $115,000 for a car that's less than a second faster to 60 mph--4.6 versus 5.4 seconds--than an E46-series M3 convertible.
The Porsche is gracious when consigned with low-speed grunt work, but its downside, should you care, is its ubiquity. The layman would not guess that the Carrera S cab is a $100,000 car, which is at least partly due to the resale-value plummet of the previous-generation 996-platform 911. Whatever Porschephiles say, the current 997-series looks very much like the 996, and the Depreciation Fairy has waved her wand and dropped cherry 996 convertibles into the mid-$30,000 range. When you're driving a 997 and look over at the next lane to see a guy in a 996 who might've paid $65,000 less (for a car that's a few years older and has blobby headlights instead of round ones), you realize that you don't buy a new 911 to flaunt wealth. You buy it for yourself.
Eventually, I can't stand the puttering any longer. We have to get out of South Beach and find someplace to let the big dogs off the leash. But where can you take advantage of cars like this in traffic-choked Miami? Well, I'll let you in on a secret, since it's not going to be around much longer anyway: Bicentennial Park.
Shielded from prying eyes by the harbor on one side and American Airlines Arena and a forest of rising condos on the others, Bicentennial Park is thirty acres of languishing land right in downtown Miami. But this isn't some run-down municipal property. Winding through scrubby hillocks populated by napping homeless people and abandoned shopping carts is a bit of history, a seven-corner section of road course once used for the Miami grand prix. It's seven-tenths of a mile long, and even the corner curbing is still intact from the last time this place saw action, when Jacques Villeneuve took the checkered flag in the circuit's lone CART event in 1995.
Soon, I'm blasting from corner to corner in my own private grand prix. Hustling along in second gear, I hit an apex in the M6 and gradually feed in more throttle until the rear end breaks away, painting stripes on the corner exit as I gather it back and hammer down the next straightaway. The M6 dances, its balanced weight distribution and smooth torque delivery rendering joyous midcorner oversteer a no-brainer, even for a hack like me. The transmission, recalcitrant in automatic mode, happily cracks off full-throttle upshifts like the Formula 1 car it's supposed to emulate. This is what this car is built to do. Too bad that what I'm doing is incredibly illegal.
But until the cops arrive, I'm learning a thing or two about these cars that I just wasn't getting on the boulevard slog. For instance, the Porsche's steering transmits more information than the racks of the other two cars. Thick steering wheel rims are the current fashion, and the BMW's is so bulbous that you don't know whether to use it to steer or to float down Lazy River. The Porsche defies this convention with a slight, thin-spoke wheel that promises delicate tactility and delivers, no doubt helped by the narrowest front tires of the group--235/35YR-19s. If you study the Porsche's steering wheel while someone else is driving, you can actually see it thrumming mildly, a thing alive. The XKR goes where you point it and hangs on like gangbusters, but this is a car that is slightly less driver focused. Its ride is soothing rather than sporting, but, in this class, that's a calculated move.
All three of these cars make music. The Jag, with its active exhaust, builds from a bellow to a sizzling high-rpm crackle, with a healthy dose of supercharger shriek harmonizing with the chorus at wide-open throttle. The M6 sounds the most exotic, simply because you don't hear a wailing V-10 every day. It's particularly fun when the engine burbles with random bass notes as you abruptly lift the throttle. The Porsche makes its signature flat-six grumble, which sounds like a bag of walnuts in a clothes dryer. Somehow, that's really fine, too.
Finally, a police helicopter takes notice of our party, and we mosey along before the ground units show up. Soon this space will become Museum Park, site of two new mu- seums. The public will return, and this waterfront property will probably be considered beautiful. I think it's beautiful the way it is now.
After three days with these cars, I've reached a few conclusions. The XKR, for example, forces you to review your priorities. In this group, it frankly comes off as a bit soft. But consider what buyers actually do with a car like this, and you find that the Jag is built to perform the exact duties to which it will likely find itself consigned. Your golf clubs fit in the trunk, it has cosseting seats, and, in a pinch, Biff and Tiff can fit in the back for the short run down to the club. It's not slow, either. Blasting into traffic at full throttle on the Causeway, the Jag threatens to eat the 911 whole, despite its nominally slower zero-to-sixty time. Out beyond the Jaguar's flight deck-cum-hood, I can hear the Porsche flat-six's plaintive wail to redline, and yet I have to back off the XKR's throttle for fear of ingesting the Carrera S.
One of the Jag's problems is that its predecessor was a major step forward in every respect--power, styling, quality. The new car represents progress in terms of the driving experience, but it's a step sideways, at best, aesthetically. If European pedestrian safety standards are truly to blame for the bluntness of the Jag's front end, then I have a bone to pick with European pedestrians. (I'd hit a few of them just to make that chunky snout worth it, but it's so hard to tell which ones are European.)
The other issue for the XKR is its relationship to Ford. This is underscored one day on Collins Avenue, when a passerby eyes the parked XKR and asks his friend, "Is that a Mustang?" Incredulous on the Jag's behalf, I inform him that he's looking at a Jaguar XKR. He replies, "Well . . . Ford owns Jaguar, though, right?" I'm surprised that someone who can't tell a Mustang from an XK knows that Ford owns Jaguar. That speaks to the problem when volume companies swallow up premium brands--people's perceptions work in only one direction. Nobody buys a Ford because of some trickle-down halo from Jaguar, yet it's possible that people like Miami Mustang Man might avoid a Jag because they associate it with Ford. That's why there should be no Ford cost-cutting evident in the XKR's interior--it only reinforces the stigma. To that end, please, Jaguar, get rid of the cheap column stalks and the plastic shift paddles. Plastic paddles belong in kayaks, not Jaguars.
If the Jaguar is a diamond with a few visible flaws, at least it's fairly priced. That's a hard claim to apply to the M6, but watch me try: One way to look at the M6 is as a grossly expensive alternative to an M3 convertible. The other way to look at the M6, though, is as an exotic bargain. After all, the next V-10-powered roadster up the food chain is the Lamborghini Gallardo, and that's closer to $200,000 than $100,000. So is the M6 a bargain four-seat Gallardo or an overpriced M3? It's both.For my hypothetical money, if I wanted an M6, I'd go for the hardtop model and for god's sake take it to the track every now and then, where it's happy. And if I wanted a 6-series convertible, I'd buy a 650i and relish the V-8 torque and seamless conventional automatic, a powertrain combo that's far more in line with the MO of a big luxury droptop.
Which brings me to our winner. I didn't want to pick the Porsche, honestly. A Porsche winning a comparison test is such a clich. Furthermore, with the 911 Carrera S, it seems like Porsche isn't even trying. While BMW knocks itself out by building an 8250-rpm V-10 and Jaguar goes to the extravagant length of making its car out of aluminum, Porsche just takes the car it's been building for four decades and tinkers with it a little bit.
I mean, 355 hp for $104,000 must be the worst horsepower-per-dollar ratio on the market. The Carrera's rear seatbacks actually angle forward, which is only ideal if you carpool with Quasimodo. Options are criminally expensive. And this is the winner?
Yes. The main reason for the 911's appeal doesn't jump out at you, but it's there on the spec sheet: curb weight, or lack thereof. The M6 packs a 145-hp advantage over the Carrera S, yet it's only 0.1 second quicker to 60 mph. That's because the 911 weighs a mere 3318 pounds to the M6's 4398 pounds. To put that in perspective, if you could somehow fit Shaq and the rest of the Miami Heat starting five into the Porsche (maybe Jason Williams could sit on Dwyane Wade's shoulders), it would weigh only slightly more than the BMW. With every corner, every stop, every change of momentum, the BMW drags around its 1080-pound handicap. Even the aluminum-intensive Jag weighs about 600 pounds more than the Porsche.
Every year, cars get bigger and heavier, but Porsche has resisted that trend with the 911. Thanks to the Boxster, we tend to view the 911 cabriolet as a porky GT car for successful dentists. It's only when you drive it next to its competitors that you realize what a scalpel this car is, a minimalist device designed to provide uncut driving pleasure.
The car industry is something like the music industry--there are a lot of one-hit wonders, but true staying power is a rarity. The 911 is like a band that keeps pumping out hits year after year. Don't be fooled: it takes a lot of work to make it look easy.