The city center of Frankfurt is crammed with towering glass cubes built by the banks before Mr. Lehman fell ill and infected his brothers. In the early hours of the morning, the streets around the main station were still busy with amber taxis chasing late barflies, with blue-over-silver police cars on the prowl, and with two out-of-place supercoupes worth a combined $560,000. We were looking for bright neon lights, colorful cliques, and cheerful admirers for that final bit of metropolitan action. It didn't take more than a pair of open gull-wing doors and an impromptu V-10 concerto to draw a very mixed crowd of scantily dressed ladies and chain-smoking scarfaces who probably never remove their sunglasses or their shiny jewelry.
There wasn't an LFA customer in sight-they were presumably in a far less seedy part of town-because Lexus screened all interested parties before allowing them to sign a two-year lease contract. When the lease expires, the lucky 500 will be allowed to purchase the vehicles, a move that might delay gray-market action but won't prevent it. There might be the odd drug baron or the occasional Lolita merchant among the 500 or so SLS clients Mercedes intends to serve this year, but since the car is sold out globally deep into 2011, getting one quickly will likely cost you dearly.
Before we headed for the hotel at 4:30 in the morning, we took every opportunity to evaluate, test, savor, sample, and then decide. So, what would I buy if I had the means and the choice-the 553-hp Lexus or the 563-hp Mercedes?
The LFA is a limited-edition, high-tech item that is heart-stoppingly pretty and very nicely put together, a street racer for track days and early Sunday mornings. The SLS is a powerboat for the road, a mighty mauler that evokes fond memories of a brand's glorious past, a surprisingly practical and highly visible tool for the dedicated driver. Both cars are honest and straightforward, classy and competent, intriguing in the way they present themselves and perform, dynamically focused, and deeply rewarding. The final choice could come down to personal preferences, such as the more modern Lexus exterior and interior or the more practical packaging of the Mercedes.
But as should be the case when you compare two such evenly matched machines, the real deciding factor hides beneath the skin. The Lexus LFA is let down by its transmission, and it is, albeit to a lesser extent, handicapped by the need to rev its melodious engine to more attention-getting volumes than the more relaxed, bigger-bore V-8. In all other departments, it's a very close decision. I could quite easily live with the LFA's less compliant suspension, and if this was toy number six or seven, even the screaming engine wouldn't matter that much. But the clutch does, because it's at odds with what the halo car of the brand should deliver: ultimate quality in every respect. The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, on the other hand, establishes a credible link to its maker's F1 and DTM racing efforts. And it proves, fifty-six years after the original Gullwing and only weeks after the final production run of the SLR McLaren, that Mercedes still knows how to make a supercar.