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.