Luxe life Featured

10:38am EDT February 28, 2006
Talk all you want about drivers tightening their belts amid $70 barrels of oil and $3 gallons of gas. There’s still a sizeable market for luxury cars and SUVs that push — and frequently cross — the $100,000 mark. And nowhere is that more evident than at auto shows, such as the current Greater Cleveland International Auto Show at the International Exposition Center. ' The Cleveland show comes hard on the heels of the granddaddy of them all, Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, held in January. The Detroit show featured the debut of more than 50 new cars, including enticing production models from luxury carmakers BMW, Lexus and Mercedes, as well as show-stopping concepts from ultra-premium marques Aston Martin and Lamborghini. ' We’ll take a look at some of the models you can expect to see at the Cleveland show, in showrooms later this year and, hopefully, in the future.

Luxury sedans
Believe it or not, the Lexus LS is about to embark on its fourth generation. The sedan that forever changed the luxury car market in North America gets major improvements from sheet metal to drivetrain to interiors.

As you will gather from its new moniker, the LS460 sports an even larger V-8 engine, displacing 4.6 liters while generating 380hp and 370 lb. ft. of torque, thanks in part to a duel fuel induction system that combines port and direct fuel injection. The larger engine is linked to a first-ever eight-speed automatic transmission; together, they get you from 0 to 60 in 5.5 seconds.

The list of special features on the LS460 is too long to print, but highlights include a 19-speaker Mark Levinson audio system with a hard drive that holds 4,000 digital songs, a hands-free parking system that requires minimal driver input and climate sensors that measure cabin and passenger body temperatures.

“I’ve been afraid to ask where that sensor goes,” quipped Toyota Motor Sales President Jim Press at the car’s debut.

The long wheelbase version — at 203 inches — comes with optional reclining rear seats with an ottoman with a built-in massager. All of this is wrapped in a new skin that is surprisingly daring for a Lexus-badged vehicle. No pricing has been set.

Mercedes-Benz also has overhauled its flagship sedan, the best-selling car in its class and the prototypical executive sedan. The ninth-generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class, unveiled in the latter half of last year, is a sensible evolution from the previous model, sporting a little more aggressive look, a slightly bigger size and a new entry-level model (the S350).

The first thing you will note about the new S-Class is the much-needed update in its exterior styling, giving it a sleeker look reminiscent of the gorgeous CLS-Class four-door coupe. But more notable is the upgrade under the hood.

While the new entry-level S350 will get the 3.5-liter, 268-hp V-6 from the SLK350, the S450 and S550 sport all-new V-8s. The S450 gets a 4.6-liter version pumping out 335 hp and 339 lb.-ft. of torque; the S550 lands a 5.5-liter version rated at 382 hp and 391 lb-ft.

For the executive in a hurry, the S600 boasts an improved 5.5-liter, twin-turbo V-12 generating a nifty 510 hp and 612 lb.-ft. of torque. The new V-8s are paired with an all-new seven-speed automatic transmission, while the S600 keeps a five-speed auto tranny.

The S550 will hit showrooms first, followed by the 350 and 600 models. MSRP is expected to range from about $75,000 to $130,000.

Luxury coupes
If two-door transportation is more to your liking, you are in luck this car-buying season. Two of Germany’s great performance automakers — Porsche and BMW — have seen fit to develop hard-hat versions of popular roadsters.

The Cayman S enters the Porsche line firmly between the Boxster S, which gave it birth, and the iconic 911, which gave it an engine. So what do you get when you cross a 911 with a Boxster?

Fifteen more horses, twice the stiffness and a base price of $59,695. That’s 10 grand cheaper than a 911, but nearly $6,000 more than the Boxster S.

With 11 fewer pounds than a Boxster, the Cayman S gets from 0 to 60 in 5.1 seconds in manual (a mere third of a second less than a base 911) and 5.8 with the Tiptronic automatic. In case you don’t have a calculator, that’s about $3,300 for each 10th of a second.

The mid-engine layout eliminates the back seat, but Porsche says the hatchback will accommodate two golf bags, which is useful if you are late for your tee time.

Our second new coupe comes from BMW in the form of the Z4 Coupe concept, which debuted last fall in Frankfort but is quickly on its way to American showrooms, not only as a standard model but also — thank you, BMW — as an M Coupe.

The Z4 Coupe, which gains structural rigidity from the addition of a hard top, will get a new 3-liter, in-line six generating 261 hp and an anticipated dash to 60 in 5.7 seconds. The look is sleek: the A-pillar curves its way through the roof to the rear end, where it merges with a hatchback in place of the roadster’s trunk. No price is set.

For drivers who prefer a little wind in their hair, the Jaguar XK Convertible made its debut in January as well. While the XK Coupe made the rounds late last year, it’s the drop-top everyone has been looking for; its sales have consistently outsold the hardtop.

And with this convertible adding a mere 88 pounds to the equation, you can see why. It’s only a 10th of a second slower than the coupe while getting from 0 to 60 in six seconds flat thanks to an all-new 4.2-liter V-8 pulling 300 hp. Mercifully, the much maligned J-gate shifter is gone in favor of a new six-speed auto with Sequential Shift and paddle-shifters on the steering wheel.

MSRP is $75,500 for the coupe and $81,500 for the convertible.

Luxury SUVs
Just when you thought the SUV market couldn’t take any more competition, here come premium automakers with all-new models: Audi with the Q7 and Mercedes-Benz with the GL Class.

The Audi Q7 borrows the same platform as the successful Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg, but offers more of the right thing (space for seven) and less of the wrong (hundreds of pounds of weight). It also offers great Audi engines and the Quattro all-wheel drive system.

The first model rolling off production lines will feature a 4.2-liter V-8 FSI engine that uses, essentially, variable fuel injection to maximize performance and economy. A 3.6-liter V-6 model will follow and, possibly, a V-10.

Options include a three-panel panoramic roof, four-zone climate control and adaptive air suspension. MSRP starts at $49,900 for the 4.2 model.

Just when you thought the three-pointed star was ready to retire the boxy G-wagon, the carmaker changed its mind, making the Mercedes-Benz GL Class its third SUV — and first to offer optional seating for seven.

The GL450 should meet just about any family’s need, from standard Mercedes luxury inside to an optional — and serious — off-road package with low-range gear, locking center and rear differentials and larger tires. Power comes from a 325-hp, 4.7-liter V-8 matched to a seven-speed automatic with full-time all-wheel drive (4MATIC). No price has been set.

As long as we’re talking about giant SUVs, we should note that General Motors has seen fit to beef up the Cadillac Escalade, which now sports a 403-hp, 6.2-liter V-8, six-speed auto tranny, power lift gate and power running boards. ESV and EXT version will follow. No price set.

Luxury concepts
We would be remiss if we did not mention some of the stunning concept cars that have been recently unveiled.

Toping our list is the head-turning Rapide concept from Aston Martin. The odd name is the only thing amiss with this crowd-pleasing sedan, which draws strongly on the sleek lines of Aston Martin’s DB9 coupe. Skeptics may wonder why Aston Martin needs a four-door, but all you have to do is look as far as Porsche’s 2009-targeted Panamera concept and Maserati’s gorgeous (and successful) Quattroporte to find your answer.

An increasing number of high-end buyers want more room along with their luxury and performance. And they are more than willing to pay for it. In the case of the Aston Martin, a cool quarter of a million should do the job.

Further out on the horizon is an all-new Infiniti G35, which was presaged in the Infiniti Coupe Concept unveiled in Detroit. The current G35 was MotorTrend’s 2003 Car of the Year, so there’s a lot riding on the next incarnation. If the concept is any indication, you can expect a more muscular yet refined look riding on 20-inch tires.

The powertrain remains a mystery, but expect an improved version of Nissan’s already strong 3.5-liter V-6. Just don’t expect to find it in showrooms before 2007.