Those routine trips can become a bit more exciting and less tiresome with the right vehicle. While no single car is right for everyone, if you spend more money, you'll get more of just about everything -- more luxury, more performance, more durability, more enjoyment.
It comes down to preference. There is almost nothing to dislike about the autos herein; they are fast, comfortable drivers' cars. They can turn heads, but even when no one else is around, they just feel so doggone good when you're behind the wheel.
And you might want to consider the niceties that can come with them. Free regularly scheduled maintenance is virtually a given in this class of vehicle, and service should be impeccable. Some dealers will come pick up your car, and leave one for you to use while your baby is in the shop.
What the heck. Live a little.
Aston Martin Vantage
James Bond drove an Aston Martin, with its most notable appearance in the movie "Goldfinger."
His was equipped with goodies like machine guns, oil slick sprayers and a passenger ejection seat. The car I drove had none of those, but I never missed them. At 4,200 pounds, the Aston Martin DB7 Vantage roadster feels like a much larger car. As a point of reference, the Chevrolet Impala weighs just under 3,400 pounds.
The ride is firm but far from bone-jarring, transmitting the feel of the pavement to the padded leather-covered steering wheel to solicit the driver's command rather than demand attention. The steering is more responsive than drivers might be accustomed to, lacking the slushy feel that a lot of sedans provide, but don't expect to have to fight the wheel, either.
The power assist delivers a bigger boost as needed, like when making a tight turn at low speed, but provides more resistance and road feel at higher speeds.
"Surprisingly, they are very suitable for daily drivers," says Mark Harnden, Aston Martin specialist at Bobby Rahal Aston Martin in Wexford, one of just 17 Aston Martin dealers in the United States.
This car feels like it could easily double the legal speed limit anywhere, its 420-horsepower V-12 engine accelerating quickly and smoothly to 60 mph with plenty of pedal left. Machine guns and ejection seats excepted, an Aston Martin can be customized almost without limitation.
Hardman opens a case displaying dozens of paint, carpet and upholstery samples, ready to be assembled in any combination. If the customer wants a nonstandard color, Aston Martin will, at extra cost, attempt to locate the paint, carpet or leather specified.
All of this special attention will cost you. The Aston Martin lists at about $150,000, so it's not for the tight-fisted. But if you're looking to turn heads at the country club or your class reunion, and have the parking lot attendants tip you for a chance to get behind the wheel, it would be money well-spent to show that you have, without question, arrived.
BMW M Roadster
If you've grown weary of digital displays and passively waiting for automatic transmissions to lumber from one range to the next, you might be ready for the BMW M Roadster.
Analog gauges and clock are clustered on the dashboard. The crisply shifting five-speed transmission requires a short throw from gear to gear without a lot of hunting, and the clutch is firm but smooth.
The six-cylinder engine provides enough power to be forgiving if you've slipped into third gear too soon and coaxes you to stay in second and make it whine just a little more. But what the M Roadster does really well is turn curves into straight lines. The suspension and steering inspire confidence, gripping the road unrelentingly and without flinching.
And it offers lots of head, leg and shoulder room, even for a 6-footer. You get plenty of road feel, but it doesn't shake your teeth loose, and the shakes and rattles typical of lots of convertibles just aren't there.
Cost for this car is about $42,000.
Mercedes Benz SL 500
Newly redesigned for the first time in more than a decade, the SL 500 is powered by a 5.0-liter V-8 and epitomizes the sports luxury category. With gads of power, superb brakes and no sloppiness in turns, the SL inspires almost unyielding confidence in the driver.
Its automated retractable hardtop tucks away in 16 seconds and recovers in the same amount of time. As with the Aston Martin, there's little wind noise with the top rolled back.
The trunk is roomy enough for a large golf bag or $100 worth of groceries. Orders are backlogged for the 2003 model.
Expect to shell out about $89,000 for one of these beauties, and wait a year to get it.
If you like big, solid cars but don't want to sacrifice sporty character, the S-Type might fit your bill. Solid, powerful and nimble, it engages the driver without distracting.
The brawny suspension soaks up pavement bumps and holds the car on track, hardly leaning in turns. Just point it in the direction you want to head, and the S-Type does the rest.
If you're into the latest in automotive gadgetry, the $43,000 S-Type has plenty of that, too. It has a touch-sensitive screen that controls the on-board navigation system, sound system and climate control system, and height-adjustable pedals that allow shorter drivers to avoid having to hug the steering wheel to reach the foot controls.
It has automatic door locks that engage as you engage the transmission, and a parking brake that is applied automatically when the transmission is put into "Park" and releases automatically as you shift into gear.
This is the SUV with the features that make the class popular, without the typical drawbacks. Even with the standard six-cylinder engine, the vehicle has plenty of smooth power for quick acceleration.
Handling is precise and nimble, exhibiting none of the body roll that a lot of SUVs tend to show. The $38,000 X5 handles and looks like a luxury sedan inside, and it ain't bad lookin' outside, either.
There are the typical BMW amenities, like leather seats, clear, straightforward dash controls and real wood interior trim. There's a fair amount of hauling capacity, especially with the rear seatbacks folded forward. Like all BMWs, there's no wind noise, and the car offers a firm but pleasant ride.
Mercedes-Benz ML 500
Mercedes-Benz builds its M series SUVs in the United States and exports them globally. In the land that made the SUV ubiquitous, the M 500 is at home.
More truck-like in feel than the BMW X5, the ML 500 no doubt could take all that a backwoods trail could dish out. But while it's surely capable, it's almost too pretty to take off-road.
Lacquered hardwood trim, leather seats and a dashboard packed with buttons, levers and knobs, and the sleek curves of the ML 500's sheet metal suggest the four-wheel drive is for snow and ice only, not for off-roading.
If spending $40,000 or more for a car is a little beyond your means or your notion of good sense, there's still hope.
If you always thought that owning a Jaguar was out of your reach, the Jaguar X-Type -- the line's sales leader -- will dissuade you of such notions. The X-Type is an unusually good bargain. At about $31,000, it's in the same price range as a lot of other American, Japanese and European luxury sedans.
The features that come standard are impressive. How about all-wheel drive?All of this and thoroughly modern styling that while retaining classic Jag lines that go back into the 1950s.
Five minutes behind the wheel of the X-Type and you feel as though you've been driving it for years. It's stone-cold predictable on the road, so drivers who don't like surprises or quirky handling characteristics will feel at home. It does exactly what you'd expect it to when you punch the throttle, turn the wheel or hit the brakes.
Quiet and solid at cruising speeds, it is just as mannerly and maneuverable at a slower pace.
Mercedes-Benz C 240/C 320
What differentiates the C 240 and the C 320, for the most part, are their engines. The C 240 sports a 2.6 liter V-6, the C 320 a 3.2 liter power plant.
Both are sporty and agile, with lots of the creature comforts Mercedes Benz is famous for and that turn up throughout its entire line -- pop-up cup holders, garage door controllers, automatic dimmers on rear view mirrors, seats and steering wheels that recall your individual settings via the "SmartKey" user recognition system and a digital key that remembers the settings of each key holder.
Mercedes-Benz's strongest points are its dealer network -- 310 in the United States -- its reputation for building safe, durable and comfortable cars and, more recently, an expansion of its line to include an almost dizzying assortment of models and variations. Four-wheel drive, for instance, is available on many models.
Tel Aid, a system that uses global positioning satellite technology to pinpoint your vehicle's location and a cellular link for a 24-hour link with Mercedes Benz for emergency aid is an option. Expect a price tag of $30,000 or so on the C 240, about $35,000 for the C 320.
BMW 3 Series
"Another reason people buy BMWs," says Nick Fairbanks, sales and leasing consultant at A&L Motors as he closes the door on a BMW 3 Series coupe.
If the "ka-chunk" doesn't leave the impression of a solidly built vehicle, a few miles behind the wheel of a 3 Series leave little doubt about this and all BMWs. This entry-level BMW has a sports car-like feel, a comfortable ride, a big trunk for a car in this class and lots of spirit.
BMWs feel, well, a little anxious to show you what they can do. Even a soft touch on the throttle pulls the car forward a little more quickly than you might expect, and the brakes bite quickly. But this car is no less fun to drive.
Like the bigger sedans, the 3 Series cars hug the road and smooth the bumps. And they can be easy on the wallet -- they start at about $27,000 and top out around $42,000.
Mercedes-Benz C 230 Kompressor Coupe
Mercedes-Benz is making a concerted effort to go after the young buyer, and this car is the bait. And tempting bait it is.
This 3,300- pound package is aimed directly at the upwardly mobile 20- and 30-somethings, the group Mercedes-Benz wants to imprint with its brand and hold onto as they mature and grow into larger, more expensive cars.
"What sets us apart are the people behind the star," says John Murphy, new car sales manager at Bobby Rahal Mercedes-Benz. "We try to establish a very long relationship with each client."
The C 230 is no kiddie car. A supercharged 2.3-liter four cylinder cranks out 192 horsepower, enough ponies to take the C 230 from zero to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. The standard transmission is a six-speed manual, and sport-tuned shock absorbers and a beefed-up front stabilizer bar help the C 230 tame curves and absorb the bumps.
To increase the appeal to younger buyers, the C 230 has an available power sun roof. All of this comes in a package for about $28,000.