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.