By LAWRENCE ULRICH
SINCE the automobile got its first taste of gasoline, drivers’ need for speed has often trumped other considerations, including money, safety and common sense. Over just five years from 1895 to 1900, ingenious racecar builders tripled top speeds from 15 miles an hour to a maniacal 50 m.p.h.
Today, safety is paramount. But money and sense can still get blown into the weeds by street-going supersedans that can exceed 180 or even 190 m.p.h. Such speeds are legal only on racetracks, of course.
With 400 or 500 horsepower — and more — these cars aren’t just fast by four-door standards. Some rank among the most formidable production cars in history.
With a four-decade edge in technology, these four-doors could embarrass any muscle car of the 1960s and ’70s. But like the fast cars of the previous golden era of speed, the latest versions could be rendered extinct by volatile fuel prices and tougher emissions controls — not to mention an economic climate in which frugality seems on the upswing. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine mainstream cars becoming much stronger unless they are driven by electricity, hydrogen or other gas alternatives.
These amped-up versions of everyday luxury sedans — with models from BMW, Cadillac, Jaguar, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and others — speak powerfully in English, German and Japanese. Audi’s entry, the S4, has been on hiatus this year, though a new version arrives this fall as a 2010 model.
Many historians trace the sport sedan’s roots to BMW, which at the urging of its American importer, Max Hoffman, brought over its tiny, squarish 2002 model — with a powerful 2-liter 4-cylinder engine — in 1968. By 1971, the 2002tii was producing 130 horsepower, and BMW began building its image as the king of performance sedans.
In 1986, BMW introduced the first M3, a 195-horsepower version of its 3 Series model. That 4-cylinder car breezed from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 7.5 seconds and reached a top speed of 146 m.p.h. The M3 became a street and road-racing legend, and painted a bull’s-eye on BMW’s back at which rivals still take aim.
Today, after escalating bouts of one-upmanship, 400 horsepower is the new minimum for membership in the club.
The Mercedes C63 AMG, with 451 horsepower, rockets to 60 m.p.h. in less than 4 seconds — roughly half the time of the original M3. To keep pace, even BMW has abandoned its three-decade-long reliance on in-line 6-cylinder engines; for the latest M3, it developed its own V-8.
Suffice to say when driven on public roads, these sedans push the limits of sanity with performance that scoffs at speed limits and social conventions — though some owners do explore the cars’ full performance potential by taking them to racetracks.
These cars also gobble as much fuel as two typical family sedans. In my testing of five performance sedans, the Cadillac CTS-V proved the thirstiest at 11 m.p.g., with the Mercedes just behind at 12 m.p.g. Among these cars, only the Jaguar XF Supercharged and Lexus IS-F avoid the federal gas-guzzler penalty.
Not only do they drink heavily, but each model demands premium fuel that, for a time last year, was selling for close to $5 a gallon.
Even with a respite in fuel prices, skeptics might ask why these sedans’ creators are partying as if it’s 1999.
First, these cars’ designs were set in motion years ago, before the current economic storms. Second, automakers and dealers still find a small but profitable niche in hopped-up sedans that command premiums of $20,000 to $40,000 over the price of mainstream versions of the same cars. (The exclusive $72,000 Audi RS4, not currently offered in the United States, was perhaps the most dubiously priced at more than double the A4’s base ticket.)
To the added benefit of dealers, many early buyers happily fork over $5,000 or much more above the sticker price to be the first on their block with a limited-production model.
Pressed on green responsibility, automakers respond that since they sell only a few thousand of each model, these cars’ environmental footprint is negligible. Yet it’s easy to see these g-force carnival rides being marginalized or legislated out of existence.
Affluent owners may not fret over fuel bills, but demands for higher mileage and lower carbon-dioxide emissions could spell the end anyway. (In recent years, automakers with a heavy concentration of high-performance models have countered corporate average fuel economy requirements by paying millions of dollars in penalties to the government.)
Looking ahead, if gas prices spike and the market continues to slump, these cars could become steals in the used market. Even in flush times, some of Mercedes’s high-performance AMG models have become notorious for their weak resale values. The market for used — and sometimes abused — luxury supersedans is limited. (And it is largely confined to men; sales data suggest that many women scoff at such over-the-top machines.)
But for those who can still afford the payments, it’s possible to live fast even in a slowing economy. Owners of these powerful sedans can scribble the checks, fill ’em up and duke it out. Our own tests of the BMW M3, Cadillac CTS-V, Jaguar XF Supercharged, Lexus IS-F and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG were like a bacchanal in Las Vegas: when you’re having so much fun, guilt and consequences seem a million miles away.