400 Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Meet the powerful new breed of sport sedans.
The accelerator goes down. The tires light up. And barely four seconds later the 451-horsepower sports car I’m piloting is saying hello-and-goodbye to 60 mph. I then check the rearview mirror and get a load of the back seat, and I remember: This isn’t a sports car at all. It’s a Mercedes sedan, for gosh sakes — a plush family ride transformed into a four-door Frankenstein.
That bolt-necked monster is the Mercedes C63 AMG, a limited-production $55,000 version of Mercedes’ most affordable car, the C-Class sedan that starts at just under $32,000. And the Benz is just one suspect in a whole lineup of violently powered, vaguely anti-social sport sedans. In other words, the kind of car that any driving enthusiast dreams of partying with.
Since when did sedans get this fun?
In the past year, I’ve driven a quartet of models that recall the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: The Mercedes, the BMW M3, the Audi RS 4 and the Lexus IS F. Maybe the Four Hundred Horsemen is more like it. Each of those cars has an explosive V8 engine with well over 400 horsepower.
Seeing Lexus — the solid citizen of luxury brands — getting into this high-wire act shows that there are still buyers willing to burn gas if they can also burn rubber.
At first, these beefcake sedans recall the muscle cars of the ’60s, which also started as family cars with big engines lurking below their hoods. But with lousy handling and even worse brakes, those classic machines could be a one-way ticket to the morgue in anything but a straight-shooting drag race.
The modern muscle sedan is like a Formula 1 car in comparison. With massive tires and brakes, high-tech suspensions and the latest stability and safety gizmos, these models can carve up a racetrack or mountain road. They can whip that young hooligan in the Mustang at the stoplight, and still haul groceries and chauffeur the kids.
Until the ’70s, believe it or not, many coupes routinely outsold their sedan versions. People loved the sporty two-door style. Now it’s just the opposite. Given a choice, today’s practical buyers want more doors. Coupes such as the Honda Accord or Nissan Altima sell a fraction of the numbers of their sedan counterparts.
Two-seat sports cars are an even tougher sell. People might fantasize about that little red Corvette, but when it comes time to buy, most families get real and opt for a car with a useful back seat. Given the market, it’s not surprising to see automakers combining the best of both worlds, with Transformers-type sedans that go about their family business but can instantly switch to battle mode.
Now I know what some of you are thinking: What about gas mileage? Well, it’s pretty bad, naturally. I saw 15 mpg over a week in the BMW and Benz, closer to 17 in the Audi. Some sport sedans do worse, as low as 12 mpg. Automakers have become a bit defensive about this stuff, and have assembled suspiciously similar talking points. These are all extremely low-production cars, they say, a drop in the sales bucket, and so have little effect on overall corporate mileage or pollution. And many owners use these cars as weekend toys — the second or third car that doesn’t see a lot of miles.
But green concerns aside, how do the luxury sport sedans stack up?
BMW, of course, has owned the sport-sedan crown, and it’s not ready to give it up. So it’s not surprising that the new M3 is the slickest all-around performer, with the power and looks of a body builder but the reflexes of an Olympic skier. The only thing leaving a bad taste on the M3 is the rapacity of some dealers, who are marking up the $56,000 BMW by tens of thousands of dollars because of scarce supply.
But I simply can’t recall four compact sport sedans that are so closely matched and compelling in their own ways. People who prefer the Mercedes, Lexus or Audi won’t feel shortchanged. All four cars are attractive, capable and insanely fast. All four will make you feel like a kid at the amusement park every time you take the wheel.
For buyers who want thrills on a tighter budget, there’s the $40,000 Dodge Challenger SRT-8. (Yes, technically a two-door, but essentially a modified version of the four-door Dodge Charger). A HEMI-powered homage to the 1970 original, the 425-horsepower Challenger looks like it stepped out of a Quentin Tarantino movie.
When I rumbled the bright orange Challenger through Brooklyn, the only thing that slowed it down was having to stop every two blocks to field questions from onlookers. One guy actually chased me down the street on foot and knocked on the Dodge’s window to have a chat. Few cars I’ve driven lately have attracted more attention and compliments.
Finally, there’s the new Pontiac G8, a 362-horsepower V8 sedan from the land Down Under, based on the Holden Commodore from GM’s Australian division. Compared to the brawny Challenger, the G8 looks tame, but it’s a sweet piece that sells for under 32 grand. And compared to higher-priced, higher-profile models, the Pontiac’s low-key style brings an advantage: The G8 is an ideal stealth car for people who want to make time without attracting attention from Johnny Law.
Lawrence Ulrich lives in Brooklyn and writes about cars. His reviews and features appear regularly in The New York Times, Popular Science, Men's Vogue and Travel + Leisure Golf.
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