Let's face it: Getting to the top in any field of endeavor entails stress. All those meetings. All those mine-is-bigger-than-yours power lunches. Allthose political-minefield boardroom conferences. Endless e-mails. Constant vigilance to avoid stepping on your, well, on your career.
It's clear that even young guys unmistakably anointed for the corporate fast track sometimes need to distance themselves from the daily in-fighting that goes with getting ahead and staying there. And aside from the rather remote possibility of getting lucky with, say, Shania Twain in a chance Saturday-night encounter, we can't think of a better stress antidote than massive jolts of self-administered adrenaline.
When it comes to massive adrenaline generation, it's hard to imagine a more reliable source than a member of this upscale trio. It's V-8 power in mid-size packages, and enough grunt to stretch the corners of the mouth, whether the owner of that mouth feels like grinning or not.
Of course, there's more involved here than mere straight-ahead thrust. There's the style issue, and sophistication. If it were just about speed, all these young-gun execs would be driving Mitsubishi Evos. But what does an Evo say to the beholder? Future CEO? Fortune 500 wannabe? Not exactly. A ride falling into the executive adrenalator class has to say, "I've made it," although it shouldn't make that statement too strongly—can't be upstaging the big guys in the top-floor corner offices, after all. That's why these three are essentially perfect. Not quite front-line execumissiles, à la BMW M5 or Audi RS 6. But your car-savvy contemporaries will still recognize that these aren't middle-class sedans. Not with prices straddling the 50K latitude.
This existential dilemma—sorting out the almost-supersedans—isn't new to us. In fact, what we have here is essentially a rematch, a sequel to a three-way showdown we held last year ["Compact Adrenaline-Delivery Systems," C/D, May 2003]. The defending champ—the Audi S4 Quattro—is back for its first title defense, but the challengers are new. Mercedes has replaced the C32 AMG with the more formidable C55, Cadillac has become a serious player with the CTS-V. And what's this? No BMW? Right. We included an M3 last time, but the M3 is a hard-edged sports coupe and this party is for four-doors.
The agenda was a little more demanding for our sequel event, beginning with a day of racetrack lapping at Nelson Ledges Road Course near Warren, Ohio. And we're pleased to report that this challenging course, which has suffered from years of neglect, is undergoing a revitalization that includes extensive (and much needed) repaving, as well as improvements to its facilities. It's a fast circuit that demands precision and a keen sense of how much speed is enough, as distinct from too much. We got a solid reminder of that distinction during our lapping—more on that later—as well as some other interesting results.
When the tires and the brakes had cooled, we moved on from Nelson Ledges to revisit some of our favorite back roads in southeast Ohio, then motored home to world HQ in Ann Arbor—600 miles, plus racetrack mileage, which was substantial.
Each element of our test program—track, back roads, freeways—seemed to bring a new favorite to the fore, and we can tell you that adrenaline was abundant, the voting was close, and the decision was not unanimous. For the rest, well, buckle up.
Mercedes-Benz C55 AMG
Judging by the new hot rods they seem to create about every 13.7 days, the guys at AMG must not require any sleep. The Mercedes-Benz high-performance division adds hot sauce to almost every vehicle in the company's lineup, and the C55 is just the latest in an ongoing series. But we don't mean to sound blasé. No, no. Replacing the C32, the C55 brings eight-cylinder power to the current-gen C-class, featuring a 5.4-liter, 24-valve V-8 in place of the C32's 3.2-liter supercharged and intercooled V-6.
That works out to a little more horsepower—362 versus the 3.2's 349—and a lot more torque—376 pound-feet versus 332. More grunt, allied with a slight reduction in mass—at 3588 pounds, the C55 was 63 pounds lighter than last year's C32, and by far the lightest car in this test group—inevitably gets the pilot from zero to ohmigawd in less time. The supercharged C32 ran to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds and turned the quarter-mile in 13.6 seconds at 106 mph. The C55 hit 60 in just 4.7 seconds and covered the quarter in 13.3 at 108 mph, figures that would have been best in test last time around and were neck and neck with the more powerful Caddy in this three-ring circus. The Benz was quickest to 60 and 100 mph, and it was only at higher speeds that the Cadillac's Corvette engine really asserted itself.
This made us wonder, as usual, what the C55 might have achieved had it been equipped with a manual transmission instead of a five-speed automatic, but since the automatic continues to be the only gearbox offered, we'll never know. On the other hand, the manumatic function of this particular automatic was better than others we've encountered from the same source—more responsive to driver commands and less inclined to upshift on its own initiative.
There was more to like than just straight-ahead urgency. Although none of these four-door marauders is guilty of excessive exterior embellishment, the C55 got high marks for its clean wedge shape and restrained AMG trim. One test driver thought the mesh of the lower grille looked like "something from a garage sale in Stuttgart," but the Benz was the styling champ, and its battleship-gray paint job was appreciated by those who value stealth in cars of this potential (clue: us).
The generally high level of appreciation continues within. The simple, well-placed controls are familiar, the sloping hood and the low cowl allow excellent forward sightlines, the V-8 infuses the interior with a seductive growl when the driver dials up haste, and the nicely bolstered leather seats keep driver and front-seat passenger firmly anchored when the road gets kinky.
So why is this improved C-rod third of three? Quick though it is, the C55 wound up with a number of debits on its dynamic score sheet. Ride quality came in for considerable carping. The C32 fared well in this department, but that test was conducted on smooth Arizona highways, in contrast to the frost-fractured pavement of the heartland, where impact harshness on sharp bumps was high.
You might expect this stiff ride quality to equate with crisp racetrack handling, but that was not the case. There was a surprising amount of up-and-down motion in the suspension, accompanied by relentless understeer, which was aggravated by high steering effort at almost any speed. Mercedes seems to be making the old GM mistake of confusing effort with feel, and in this case it has created an exaggerated sense of mass, even though the Benz was the lightest car in the group.
Even with the ESP switched off, the C55's stability system still asserts itself to some degree, contributing to understeer. (It can be totally deactivated, but this is intended for dyno testing.) We also noted a deterioration in the Benz's braking prowess during lapping at Nelson Ledges. Although the C55 posted the shortest stopping distance in our instrumented testing—a commendable 165 feet from 70 mph—the pedal quickly became spongy on the track, even though Nelson Ledges isn't particularly hard on brakes. Spongy brakes will certainly stimulate the old adrenal gland, but that's not our idea of a desirable way to get the adrenaline flowing.
The upshot of the foregoing was the slowest lap times at the racetrack—a best of 1:21.12, or 88.8 mph—and third-of-three scores for steering feel, handling, and fun to drive. And with the highest prices in the trio—base and as-tested—it also drew an indifferent score for value. As a consequence, the C55 finished behind the CTS-V by one point. We can only hope this doesn't provoke any arrests in Stuttgart.
Highs: Understated good looks, abundant power, best Benz manumatic we've encountered.
Lows: Fork-lift steering effort at freeway speeds, harsh ride on lumpy pavement, still needs a manual-gearbox option.
The Verdict: An outlaw in a Hugo Boss suit.
At a glance, the Cadillac looks out of place here, like a junior-high kid elbowing his way into the kindergarten sandbox. There's no denying the dimensional differences. The upstart Detroit sports sedan is longer, wider, taller, and heavier than either of its German opponents. It's also substantially more powerful, with 400 horsepower and 395 pound-feet of torque on tap from its 5.7-liter pushrod V-8, an engine that also sees service in Corvettes.
On the other hand, its pricing is right in step with die Deutschen, and so is its straight-line performance, despite a substantial edge in engine output. Thanks to its relative heft, at 4.8 seconds the Caddy was a 10th slower to 60 mph than the bad-boy Benz and nudged the Mercedes by a mere bumper in the quarter-mile: 13.2 seconds at 109 mph. However, these numbers are substantially better than the ones we recorded for a very early production CTS-V last March. Although rear-wheel hop is still a problem in all-out launches, it was easier to manage in this car, knocking 0.4 second off the 0-to-60 time and a half-second off the quarter-mile performance. Cadillac ads claim 4.6 seconds to 60, but this is the best we've managed so far.
There were some other welcome improvements over that first test car. For example, Cadillac finally has the calibration squared away on the car's oil-temperature gauge, a source of erroneously high readings in early cars. Even more welcome, the programming for the stability-control system isn't as intrusive as it was in our first test, and we also know the secret of shutting it off completely: Hold down the control switch for five seconds. However, another anomaly prevented us from comparing on-and-off performance at the track. We recorded a series of laps with the system on and were pleasantly surprised to find that the stability control allows the driver some liberties—a little oversteer mitigated by a nice sense of balance. But by the time we got around to trying some laps with the system switched off, we were plagued by an engine stumble exiting Nelson's carousel turn, a very long right-hander with a decreasing radius preceding the exit. The stumble showed up in our first traction-off lap, got much worse in the second lap, and the engine quit altogether in the third, whereupon we coasted all the way back to the pits. After sitting for a minute, it started right up, but our hot lapping was over.
With the gas gauge reporting just under a half-tank, we found it hard to believe that fuel starvation could be the culprit, but this was indeed the case, something confirmed by one of the CTS-V owners who experienced the same problem during this year's One Lap of America track events.
Nevertheless, fuel stumble and all, the Cadillac's first traction-off lap—1:20.52, 89.4 mph—was a 10th quicker than the best with the system on, and also the best of the day. What was left on the table is something we'll explore some other time. Still, we emerged with a unanimous sense of the CTS-V as the road-course champ. There was a little more vertical motion in the suspension than expected, the shifting of the six-speed gearbox wasn't as crisp as the Audi's, and the oversize bucket seat won't keep the driver centered behind the wheel, but for all that, the Caddy's Nürburgring racetrack development showed through.
The real world is not a racetrack, though, and on public roads, the Cadillac's logbook began accumulating black marks. The absence of a telescoping feature for the steering column, for example, makes it hard for tall testers to find an optimal driving position. A high cowl reduces forward sightlines. Clutch effort became tedious in stop-and-go traffic. A power point—for radar detectors, etc.—interfered with shifting into fifth or reverse.
The dashboard's discordant festival of textures, angles, and contours was a turnoff to some, and for all its size, the Caddy's rear seats didn't offer any roominess edge. We were particularly surprised at the limited headroom back there, since the Caddy's roofline, at apogee, is 1.1 inches higher than the Audi's and 1.7 inches taller than that of the Benz. And we still haven't learned to love this car's angular styling.
Although the CTS-V's value rating was strong, it fared worse in areas related to refinement: driver comfort, ergonomics, and engine noise, vibration, and harshness. It was by far the noisiest at wide-open throttle, prompting one tester to write that it came across as "the muscle car of the group," which in this case is a tepid accolade.
Highs: Muscle-car throttle response, sure-footed in agility events, roomy up front.
Lows: Reluctant shifting, noisy at wide-open throttle, relaxed-fit bucket seats, hard-to-love styling.
The Verdict: A linebacker among running backs: longer on muscle than on grace.
Audi S4 Quattro
A racetrack is the ideal environment for establishing a car's absolute limits. It eliminates potentially problematic encounters with civilian traffic and/or lame explanations to law-enforcement types. But it would be a mistake to base a verdict solely on a car's track performance.
The S4 makes an excellent case in point on this score. Although it posted the second-best lap time (1:20.60, 89.3 mph), it was achieved at the expense of severe punishment to the left-front tire and one hair-raising 120-mph off-track experience at Nelson's famous kink, a right-hand turn that can be taken flat-out in some cars, and in others not. The Audi was one of the nots, as your narrator learned in a lengthy slide for life that was a consequence of overconfidence and no fault of the Audi.
Like most all-wheel-drive cars on dry pavement, the S4's defining dynamic trait is understeer. In addition to the limits imposed by all-wheel drive, the S4 is held back by a hefty curb weight—3837 pounds, just 70 pounds less than the much bigger Cadillac—and a pronounced forward weight bias: 61.9 percent of the mass is on the front wheels.
In addition to retarding progress around a road circuit, the S4's mass also held it back in straight-ahead sprints. The willingness of the Audi's 4.2-liter aluminum V-8 is a treat, but at 340 horsepower and 302 pound-feet of torque, it yields the least advantageous power-to-weight ratio in this group, which adds up to the slowest acceleration times: 0-to-60 in 5.1 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.7 seconds at 102 mph. It was also slowest in our lane-change test and posted the longest stopping distance from 70 mph—177 feet, 10 feet longer than the Cadillac, 12 more than the Benz.
However, all these small numeric deficits are race- and test-track data and don't reflect what this car is like to live with in the real world. Put the S4 on a wandering back road, and its statistical shortfalls become nonissues. The seductive baritone of the V-8, the superb fit of the beautifully bolstered leather bucket seats, the sweet precision of the six-speed gearbox, the absolute certainty that goes with every move—the Audi satisfies all the driver's senses.
And that includes the senses that trigger the adrenal gland. Yes, the S4 was a half-step slow at the test track versus its competition, but 5.1 seconds to 60 is brisk by most standards, and the V-8 delivers more than enough punch to make short work of passing in tight situations. Similarly, the Audi's persistent understeer translates as unflappable poise in decreasing-radius turns and the other little surprises that make southeast Ohio highways so entertaining.
As with any car, there are small irritations. The S4's styling distinctions include brightwork on the side mirrors and peculiar ground-effects strakes along the lower body-side panels. Both touches seem out of place on this otherwise clean shape. The rear seats were the tightest in this trio, although quite tolerable for two adults; the climate controls are hard to see through sunglasses; the foot-pedal arrangement doesn't lend itself to heel-and-toeing as well as the Cadillac's layout; and at least one test driver was outraged at the absence of a nav system in a car with a price of 50 grand.
Still, we saw the Audi's value quotient about the same as the Caddy's, and the S4 drew winning marks in major scoring areas such as driver comfort, ride quality, and steering feel—categories that say a lot about what a car will be like to live with day in, day out, all roads, all traffic situations.
In the same vein, the Audi dominated our two distinct subjective categories—fun to drive and gotta have it, first in the former, tied with the C55 in the latter.
In our 2003 comparo, we called the S4 "a rising star." This time around it seems clear that the new star has fully risen. As one logbook writer observed, the S4 is "a thoroughly lovable sports sedan. How often do we get to say that?" Not often enough.
Highs: V-8 audio, V-8 flexibility, world-class shifting, unswervingly user-friendly, all-day comfort.
Lows: Quirky exterior styling details, heft-to-size ratio needs work, snug back seat, no nav system for $50,000 price.
The Verdict: Just your humble little everyday Olympic gold medalist.