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It Was a Very Good Year

American Driver

Senior editor Eddie Alterman suggested that I write this column about some of the cars that I particularly enjoyed during the past year. Alterman being a trusted friend and confidant, I am leaping at his suggestion. I should begin with the four vehicles that I bought this year: One Cadillac Escalade ESV, one Chevrolet Silverado HD 1500 Crew Cab pickup, one Mazda MPV minivan, and one 1957 Alfa Romeo 1900 Super Berline. The Escalade ESV is the best new car I have ever owned, and the young people who seek me out to tell me how beautiful it is and how much they love it always seem to be a little puzzled by the fact that I'm the owner. I think they expect me to be an NBA player. The Chevrolet pickup is a 4x4 for our farm, and although it has only 1200 miles on the odometer, it promises to become a faithful friend and a hardworking companion. It has the regular-fuel version of the 6.0-liter Vortec V-8 engine that powers the ESV, a descendant of the engine that powers the Corvette, and that is a wonderful engine indeed. The MPV is J. L. K. Davis's dog hauler and grandchild transporter, and we both renew our affection for it each time we drive it.

The Alfa 1900 was purchased because the sale of the Fangio Chevy left me with some extra disposable income, and I had rediscovered the joys of driving Alfas in this year's California Mille, when I was fortunate enough to drive Martin Swig's 1957 1900 SS coupe. It was the best car I'd ever driven in that event, and I came to understand why Alfas are such a large part of each year's entry list. With the encouragement of Swig himself, and the irreplaceable assistance of retired racing driver Gino Munaron in Italy, I found a perfect 1900 at a price that I could afford. The coupes, custom-built by various Italian carrozzerie, sell for around 50,000 euros, but the sedans, built by the thousand on Alfa assembly lines, can be had for less than 20,000. Mine was one of these, original and beautifully maintained, owned by a ranking Italian enthusiast. My son Matt Davis, of AutoWeek, is taking care of it in Milan until we can arrange to ship it home for the 2004 California Mille, to be followed by a nice drive back from San Francisco to Ann Arbor.

I was very impressed by the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione show car that was the star of the Alfa display at Frankfurt. Design editor Robert Cumberford says that it has been kicking around for a while in Alfa's design studios, but it looked fresh and exciting, and it was a near-perfect evocation of the great racing Alfas of the '50s. It reminded me anew that Alfa Romeo's cars should be on sale here in America. Alfa marches to a different drummer, and its cars are built more for enthusiasts and romantics than for accountants and Wall Street analysts.

I have driven the new BMW 645Ci coupe, and it is fabulous. This will not come as a big shock to anyone, because we all know that each new BMW will be an extension and redefinition of "the ultimate driving machine," just as we all know that every Toyota will be at least as trustworthy as Lot's wife, of biblical fame. Imagine a close-coupled coupe, midway between a 540i Sport and a 745i, and you'll be closing in on it. It shares the 745i's fanny pack, but it's better executed here, better integrated into the overall shape. Even the iDrive seems to have been disabused of its notions that it might rule the world.

My own purchase of a new Cadillac is testament to my belief that Cadillac is very much back in the game. I did a 900-mile dawn-to-dark sprint from Camilla, Georgia, to my home in Ann Arbor in a Cadillac DTS (DeVille Touring Sedan) a couple of years ago, and that sort of prepared me for all of the progress that Cadillac has made since. My own ESV is a paragon, and the new CTS V is a world-class high-performance sport sedan. Even the standard CTS has become a very together transportation device in the months since its introduction. I, for one, am proud and pleased to see Cadillac easing back into the prestigious position it enjoyed when I was an adolescent.

The Jaguar XJ8 is a very sweet driver, reassuring proof that Jaguar tradition and Jaguar heritage have survived the Ford takeover with flying colors. The car has been improved in dozens of ways, even to the extent of entirely new all-aluminum body/chassis architecture, yet its straight-line performance and its athletic grace say "Jaguar" with each revolution of the wheels.

I love the Subaru WRX, and I tried to put together a deal for a MINI Cooper when it first appeared, but the car in this class that I really, truly covet on a continuing basis is the Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S. I love everything about that little rocket. I envision it with aftermarket wheels and a few other nods toward self-expression, and I could be a sublimely happy VW owner—again.

Finally, I can't close without mentioning the Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG, which may be the ultimate all-around high-roller enthusiast's car. If there is such a thing as one GT car that does everything, the SL55 is it. Much as I love Porsche, the SL55 AMG is the car that pressed all of my buttons in 2003.