M, RS, V, F, AMG. The alpha alphabet represents five manufacturers’ best efforts to create something unique, exciting and memorable from their more prosaic mainstream motors. The resulting “performance tuned” sports sedans are so powerful, so capable, so versatile, that they’re the ground based equivalent of the all-weather fighter jets that battle for control of the skies. While the shibboleth “there’s no such thing as a bad car” applies here, there are always going to be winners and losers. And it’s our job to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Each car symbolizes the corporate culture that crafted it. Each car possesses a unique personality. And each vehicle has a clear mission profile. BMW’s M3 seeks to defend and extend proven road-going superiority through maximum thrust and maneuverability. Audi’s RS4 sets out to shoot down the BMW. Mercedes’ C63 AMG embarks on a low-level bombing run. Cadillac’s CTS-V simply wants to defend its home airspace. And the Lexus IS-F tries to prove it can create the world’s fastest luxury jet.
I was privileged to drive these cars. Despite the universal G-inspired facial rictus, I walked away liking some of these uber sedans more than others. In the final analysis, my preferences stem as much from my own personality as they do from each car’s aesthetics, ergonomics and driving dynamics. I’m a Type-A aviator that breaks things for a living and abhors mediocrity. Mea culpa. So what follows is Capt. Mike’s ultimate guide to $60K super sedans. Nothing more. Nothing less.
5th Place — Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG
If you think it’s OK to buy a car for its engine, the C63 is a highly defensible choice. The AMG-fettled V8 generates 451 bhp @ 6,800 rpm. Even in this highly-horsed company, that’s an awful lot of thrust. There’s nothing wrong with the way the mighty Mercedes mill propels pistonheads towards perdition. Equally important, the C63’s sonic signature is the best of our fearsome five. It bellows and roars with the best of them. In fact, it IS the best of them, if unbridled aural sex is your thing.
Did I mention the C63’s deeply contoured Recaro seats, or an automatic transmission that snaps off gearshifts like a high-speed Nikon camera changes frames? Unfortunately, the C63’s interior falls well short of its natural competitors’ cabins. The C63’s plastics are top notch and the switch actions are sublime. But something’s missing. Some sign that the librarian is about to take off her cheap plastic glasses, shake loose her hair and muss yours.
You really lose faith when you steer the car; the C63 AMG doesn’t mask its weight like the others super sedans. The helm precision delivered by every other car in the comparo is notably absent in the C63 AMG. Sure, you can throw this bad boy around. And it’s easy enough to hang the tail out in clouds of tire smoke. But the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG feels a bit like the world’s fastest, best-handling Mustang.
Theme song: “Deuces Wild” by Link Wray
4th Place — Lexus IS-F
The Lexus IS-F lacks a manual transmission, looks odd and offers less badge appeal than a Trans Am. However, focusing on these elements detracts from the IS-F’s amazing accomplishment: straight out of the box, the Japanese luxury brand’s first F is the fastest AND most comfortable sports sedan money can buy.
All the other cars in this comparison seek that hard edge, that extreme sportiness that proclaims them the King of the ’Ring. The Lexus just sits back quietly and invites you to enjoy a surround-sound journey into the world of 416 hp (@ 6,600 rpm).
Around town, the IS-F’s V8 remains hushed and tranquil. Slam down the pedal, crest 3,000 rpm and the exhaust baffles open. All Heaven breaks loose. Although the Lexus IS-F is every bit as capable in the corners as, gulp, the BMW M3, the smooth ride remains.
In this group, the IS-F is the car you’d choose to drive from say, Atlanta to Providence, RI. But it’s not the car that would whisper in your ear, “Before we park up, there’s this nice little twisty road out by the reservoir . . . .”
Theme song: “Don’t Touch my Hat” by Lyle Lovett
3rd Place — Audi RS4
The Audi RS4 is the oldest car here. Not that you’d not know from looking at it. The RS4’s creases, gigantic snout and look-at me-bulges are all of a piece, but it’s increasingly difficult to decide what whole the parts are supposed to form. The RS4’s cabin holds the top slot for fit and finish. Sad to say (and see), the RS4’s omnipresent grays lack the Caddy’s joie de vivre and the BMW’s technologie mach frei.
Fire it up, push the RS4’s “S” button and it’s like you’ve poked a dozing tiger with a pointy stick. It’s ferociously pissed and it’s not even awake yet. When Ingolsdtadt’s 420 hp (@ 7,500 rpmm) V8 rouses from its slumber, you’ve got the proverbial tiger by an unwagging tail. And it’s got you by the balls. There may be a harsher riding sports sedans (cough, GT-R, cough), but it’s not in this group.
Yes, the RS4 has genuine steering feel. Yes, you can drive it like a Porsche C4S: just point and shoot. But there’s no excuse for a $60K German luxury carmaker’s sports sedan to offer so little luxury.
Theme song: “Hurts So Good” by Herr John Cougar Mellencamp
2nd Place — BMW M3
The BMW M3 was pipped to the post by the Cadillac CTS-V for one main reason: too much technology. I’m a man whose world is defined by acronyms, who depends on computers to keep me alive. Yet I got lost in the e-gadgetry foisted upon the Bimmer’s 414 hp (@ 8,300 rpm) V8 chassis. iDrive, MDrive, handling nannies, traction nannies and an ECU smart enough to clone dinosaurs on its own—the Bimmer’s brain created a corner carving concert that made it a the consummate sports sedan. But somewhere along the line it lost some it its character.
No question: that spark of genius remains buried deep within the M3’s box of tricks; the spirit of the original E30 M3 struggles to get out. When I stopped fiddling with all the gadgets, set everything to automatic and let loose the dogs of war, I could just about recapture those glory days, glory days, glory days.
Which is a bit like complaining that watching “Battlestar Gallactica” is never as good as it was the first time. The BMW M3 was, is, and most likely will be the most feelsome sports sedan in the world. Those who prefer finesse to raw thrills are free to transpose my top two choices without any debate. Well, from me.
Theme song: I take Beethoven’s fifth.
1st Place — Cadillac CTS-V (Manual)
The other mad machines in this comparo made the sheetmetal leap from mainstream to insanestream via louvers, brake ducts, spoilers, exhaust pipes and more exhaust pipes. The Cadillac CTS-V simply adds some chrome to the aggressive original (v. 2) design and meshes around with the front end. Inside, the Caddy proves once and for all (unfortunately) that General Motors can make a class-leading interior. Taken as a whole, the Cadillac CTS-V comes across as the brash American, fitness-trained by Hollywood’s best, wearing a perfectly tailored who’s-the-[Hugo]-boss suit.
When the pinks are on the line, the ultimate Caddy delivers the goods. At our 60 large price point, the Cadillac CTS-V has 100 bhp worth of extra Bimmer-bashing oomph under the bonnet. The 556 hp (@ 6,100 rpm) rip out of the back wheels, while the engine snarls with enough ferocity to send the Germans to the local tuning shop for some fortifying kaffe und kuchen.
But it doesn’t stop there and neither do you. The CTS-V’s gearbox (automatic or manual), suspension and brakes may lack the M3’s delicacy of touch, but they work with equal harmony and precision. This is one of those rare cars that creates confidence even as it unleashes accelerative and lateral mayhem.
Theme song: anything by Stevie Ray Vaughan.