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Kicking Fuel Efficiency to the Curb

Detroit's newest sedans offer plenty of room and power

By ELLIOT CURRY
With gas prices spiking last summer, the hot word the last few quarters has been "hybrid". Whether motivated by seeing your favorite celebrity zipping on Ventura Boulevard in a Toyota Prius, the substantial government tax breaks or even the sheer economical and environmental efficiency of these vehicles, hybrids have become a very appealing option for the conscious consumer.

Taking all of these factors into account, it would be safe to assume car manufacturers might be looking at the Honda and Toyota hybrid business models to get some insight into how to lay out their 2007/2008 car lineup. But, having been proven wrong countless times in the past, there was no surprise about the route manufactures chose to take with their upcoming lineup. It seems oil dependency wasn't a main concern. Looking at the cars that are expected to be this year's leaders in the market, it's apparent that today's drivers are obsessed with speed. While SUVs appear to have transcended their glory days, lengthy sedans with engines that belong in jet fighters have filled their void.

One would think that the sale of some of these vehicles would make even Lee Raymond blush. Leading the way, BMW, Jaguar and Bentley are releasing sedans perfect for today's upscale soccer mom who not only has to squeeze six kids into the backseat, but also must get up to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds to make it to practice.

No doubt the car receiving much of the attention in the past few months is the Lexus LS 460L—not for its value, performance or any of the other usual comparative attributes—but for its unique parallel parking assistance. Using intricately placed sensors and cameras, Lexus has managed to produce a system that will guide your vehicle into a properly sized parking space. The space has to be ample, though, and unfortunately it offers no assistance with finding a parking spot, which is often the real issue.

While the parallel parking feature is unique to the LS 460L and LS 460, the other cars in this category are no slouches. Headlining Bentley's offerings this year is the Continental Flying Spur. Inspired by Bentley's R-Type Continental from 1952, this version offers the styling of the current GT Coupe with all of the craftsmanship that has made Bentley the pinnacle of excellence. In production since April 2005, the Flying Spur boasts a 6-liter, W12 twin turbocharged engine that packs an impressive 552 horsepower. Besides an engine that can get you from 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds and up to 195 mph, the Flying Spur offers an all-wheel drive system that can handle all weather conditions, as well as the largest brake system of any car in production.

With an interior that matches the beauty of the exterior, Bentley has pulled out all of the stops in an attempt to create an environment that matches the luxury of a five-star hotel. The interior leather, derived from 11 of the finest hides, can be dyed in up to 17 different shades of color, and the wood veneers display craftsmanship reserved for the finest pieces of furniture. Combined with a Bluetooth rSAP telephone system, the amenities suggest that this could be one of the finest cars ever produced. Offered in both four- and five-seat models, the Flying Spur offers ample leg space for even the tallest of passengers. Besides the supercar category, Bentley produces five other vehicles, including its flagship Arnage.

If the $117,000 base price for the Flying Spur is a bit above your price range, both Jaguar and BMW have offerings that are almost equally impressive. Although the 7 Series has been BMW's foundation for almost 40 years, BMW's new 750i departs from its predecessors with both innovative styling and electronics. Combining a 4.8-liter, V-8, 360 horsepower engine with one of the best handling suspensions in a production car, the 2007 750i boasts an impressive 0 to 60 in 5.8 seconds. Perhaps the greatest departure from past 750i series is the introduction of a simplified version of the iDrive software. What was first considered to be a debacle, due to the hindrance of its advanced level of complexity, the new version of iDrive uses a more intricate system of organization, thus making it easier to drive. The iDrive system is still a novel one in that the computer controls almost every function of the automobile and has yet to be replicated. The innovative iDrive system in conjunction with the impressive engineering and stylish exterior make BMW's 750i a great offering to the market.

With the introduction of the S-Type 3.0, Jaguar breaks into the sports sedan market. This vehicle not only performs equally to its competitors, but beats them on price. Available for a base $49,000, the S-Type 3.0 undercuts many of its closest competitors by nearly $30,000, yet contains all of the amenities that they offer. Included in the 3.0 model is a 3-liter, V-6, 235 bhp engine that can reach 121 mph. The interior of the 3.0 model is no less impressive with its fine leather upholstery and ingrained wood veneer. All in all, the S-Type is one of the best values in its category, and for those that prefer a little more speed, Jaguar offers a 4.2 and R model of the S-Type. With all of the upgrades, the S-Type offers up a 400 bhp engine that reaches speeds of 155 mph.

In the smaller, but equally powerful category, Infiniti unveils the revised G35. Although this model has been around for numerous years, the 2007 version of Infiniti's staple is a beefier and more robust vehicle than the G35 of the past. Integrating its new "Acceleration SWELL" technology, the G35 is the first of its kind to offer acceleration that is constant, as opposed to the traditional short bursts. Infiniti claims this acceleration not only produces a smoother ride, but a more seamless feeling while pressing the gas pedal down. Infiniti also placed a 3.5-liter, 305 horsepower, V-6 engine under the hood to help the all-wheel drive transmission race through any weather condition. All of the features of this automobile help Infiniti claim that the G35's handling is unsurpassed by any car in production. While not lacking any of the lavishness of a high-end luxury car, the interior is geared towards the racing enthusiast. In addition to fine- stitched leather and a premium audio system, the G35 offers a racing-styled dashboard and dials. For an even more complete racing feel, besides the traditional automatic transmission, the G35 allows the driver to switch to manual shift mode. All in all, Infiniti's G35 is designed for the driver who demands superb handling as well as a very sporty feel.

As a counter to the previously mentioned cars, Lotus has produced a vehicle that meets the needs of every speed demon on the road, yet neither adversely affects your wallet or the environment. Although production has been in full swing since 2000, the Lotus Exige seems to remain undiscovered by the American public. Guaranteed to turn heads with its radical design, the Exige departs from the typical formula for sports cars. Rather than throwing a V-12, 400 bhp engine into a hefty steel body, Lotus chose the more unconventional approach and used a 1.8-liter, 190 bhp Toyota engine inside a completely composite body.

Weighing a paltry 2,016 lbs, the Lotus Exige accelerates from 0 to 60 in 4.7 seconds and reaches a top speed of 147 mph. Although the Infiniti G35 is race-inspired, the Lotus Exige is an actual race car, down to its two racing seats, paddle gear shifts and racing suspension. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Exige is its fuel economy, 24 city/29 highway. Coming in at just around $50,000, the Exige is for the race enthusiast or for those of us who enjoy the thrill of speed.

Like every other year in car production history, car manufacturers are continuing to appeal to the inner desire in most of us to go fast and to look good while doing it. It seemed that 2006 was a diverging point in car production history. Those who were successful either appealed to our conscience and produced a fuel-efficient, minimalist people mover, or they took the alternate route and built a hypersonic, brawny war sedan, including technology that would make NASA jealous. With few exceptions, the vehicle of yesterday that could support this extreme dichotomy is long extinct.

Published: January 28, 2007
Issue: Winter 2007