In an automotive marketplace shaken to its very roots during 2008, the variety of responses by automakers has ranged from whistling-past- the-graveyard insouciance to ambitious graspings at opportunity. But, said F. Scott Fitzgerald, "let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." So are their cars, as it turns out; and no mere global financial meltdown will ever come between a top- hat swell and his drophead coupe.
Measuring almost 19 feet long by 7 feet wide, the world's newest Rolls-Royce is anything but a Phantom. There is no question of it being a masterpiece, however; yet its $407,000 price tag will ensure that this sumptuous cabriolet remains largely invisible to all but the fortunate few.
Under a massive hood resembling a yacht's prow reposes a 6.7-liter V12 engine producing 453 horsepower enough, in other words to launch the three-and-a-half-ton Phantom Drophead from zero-to-60 miles-per- hour in under six seconds. The elegant interior provides seating for four amidst a wealth of creature comforts: some two dozen skins are required for the upholstery; hand-rubbed burls and polished metals surround occupants with princely refinement. The "drophead" roof boasts five layers of sound- and weather-isolating textiles, one of which happens to be cashmere.
Unique amongst the chauffeur-driven set, the Phantom Drophead Coupe is intended as a driver's car. Accordingly, it is remarkably agile and spry despite its gargantuan proportions and 21-inch wheels. Extraordinary rear-hinged doors invite a mere quartet of occupants into this convertible's cozy embrace; yet the conspicuous majesty of Rolls-Royce's open-air Phantom invites sighs of admiration from all who catch sight of her.
For 2009, the Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed casts down its gauntlet as the most powerful four-door saloon ever produced by a British automaker. A 6.0-liter twin-turbocharged 12-cylinder engine, featuring an exotic "W"-pattern layout, produces 600 horsepower and 553 foot-pounds of torque. Accordingly, this stately British saloon-car is capable of sprinting zero-to-60 in under five seconds on the way to 100 miles-per-hour in under 12.
The all-wheel-drive powertrain provides the foundation for this Bentley's unflappable aplomb and its unimpeachable command of the road. Within its cocoon-like interior, the world's madding crowds are but an afterthought; and comfort reigns preeminent. Although a price for the new Flying Spur Speed is unannounced at this writing, its $172,000 sibling the 552-hp Flying Spur suggests a reasonable starting point. But an opportunity to enjoy the muscular and commodious calm of a Flying Spur at Speed must surely rank as one of life's special indulgences.
Granted, it's going to take a while to get used to the idea of the fabled British Jaguar playing the role of house pet at the Indian concern Tata Motors. But at least the feline sultriness of the new Jaguar XF touring sedan renders it all too likely that "Ta-da!" is what one hears as the XF slinks down the driveway towards the gatehouse.
With a 4.2-liter, 300-horsepower V8 underhood, the XF "Premium Luxury" model is deceptively fierce. Svelte, gentle bodycurves suggest a languid personality, like smoke curling upwards from Greta Garbo's cigarette holder. But at full throttle, this Jaguar will roar; and its classic layout of rear-wheel-drive and fully independent suspension create a vivid sense of sport-touring in the grand tradition of Jags of yore.
The XF is easily the most "modern" Jaguar ever produced. Not because it's a 2009 model, mind you, but because in terms of interior features, telematics, iPod- and Bluetooth-compatible sound system and auto climate controls, the XF is ahead of the curve instead of merely chasing its rivals' coattails. Take, for example, the stage-management of the start-up routine. Thanks to the wireless keyfob, there's no need to insert a key into the ignition. A light touch on the starter button fires the engine, of course; but it also sets into motion a brief choreography in which portals on the dash swivel to reveal climate-control vents while a small cylindrical tower elevates out of the console. With a gentle click-click-click twist of the cylinder, the transmission migrates from "Park" to "Drive, and the XF is ready for take-off.
Priced just a whisker under $60,000, as-tested, the XF resides in that border country where near and real luxury meet. (An optional 420- hp supercharged V8 hikes the price to $63,700.) Certainly, the interior ambience of the car exudes leathery comfort, and rear seating is ample for two although a squeeze for three adults. Still, some details suggest that a bit of anguished economizing has taken place. With the moonroof shade drawn back, for example, the headliner developed a slight rattle that was as visible as it was audible.
But if the XF is Ford's swan song, it is also Tata's Kohinoor Diamond; and Jaguar's essential, delightful Britishness remains remarkably intact for yet another generation to come.
Gems by nature are small and brilliant, which describes the cachet of the smart fortwo microcar right from the start. Intended simply as a maneuverable and fuel-efficient urban commuter, the fortwo will startle occupants and onlookers alike with its cabochon-like daintiness.
Available as either a coupe or a cabriolet, the fortwo ranges in price from a mere $11,590 to $16,590. A three-cylinder engine displacing 1.0-liter produces just 71 horsepower while delivering fuel economy on the order of 33 mpg/city, 41 mpg/highway (should a driver be bold enough to venture onto a highway, that is). An innovative "automanual" transmission requires gear-shifts, albeit without a clutch, and its acceptance amongst automotive traditionalists isn't universal. A fully automatic gearbox provides an alternative, yet it penalizes already scanty performance.
For the smart set with their weekday pieds-a-terre apartments in the city center and their weekend villas in the countryside, the innovative smart fortwo commuter coupe could hardly be more aptly aimed and named.