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A SNAZZY CROP OF DROP-TOPS

Spring, 1997, just might be a roadster-lover's nirvana: A trio of terrific new German two-seaters from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche, all close to $40,000, are arriving along with the first balmy breezes that inspire the yearning to flip back the top and go for a spin. Also making its debut is the much-pricier XK8 convertible, Jaguar's first new sports car in 21 years.

The XK8, with a base sticker of $70,480, along with the XK8 coupe, beginning at $65,480, belong to a more luxurious touring class than the new crop of spunky little roadsters. But all four drop-tops are solid driving machines, a far cry from the shake-and-rattle convertibles of the past.

LAUNCH. A few years ago, when BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche announced plans for the near-simultaneous launch of three new roadsters, skeptics wondered if the result would be a glut that would overwhelm demand in the waning segment. So far, though, all three are in high demand and are good enough to sustain the kind of long-lived enthusiasm for two-seaters that only the less expensive Mazda Miata has enjoyed in recent years.

The German luxury carmakers are also counting on the new models to bring younger customers into their showrooms for the first time. In hopes that those buyers will return for luxury sedans in future years, the manufacturers are leaning hard on dealers not to gouge customers by inflating prices while the new roadsters are in short supply.

The remarkably distinct personalities of the new entries have allayed any fears that the auto makers would end up fighting over the same customers. BMW's Z3, now available with a six-cylinder engine as well as the original four-banger, is likely to be the choice of the traditional roadster enthusiast. The Mercedes SLK is the classy one, with stylish lines and a technology-packed chassis that will attract newcomers to the segment. Porsche's Boxster marks the company's long-awaited return to this niche and is sure to delight sports-car purists.

The Boxster certainly scores highest on the adrenaline meter. It is quick and extremely responsive on sharp turns. Road & Track magazine rated it the fleetest of the three at 6.1 seconds, zero to 60. And at high RPMs, the engine emits a satisfyingly throaty growl.

Starting from scratch, Porsche designed the most innovative car. Its placement of the 2.5-liter, six-cylinder engine between the axles, just behind the seats, gives it race-car-like weight balance. The Boxster's interior features a triple cluster of black gauges, trimmed in shiny black plastic.

Unclip a safety latch, and the Porsche's softtop automatically retracts in 12 seconds. There's also an optional 55-pound, lift-off hardtop. And the mid-engine arrangement allows for two trunks--front and back--that provide 9.1 cubic feet of top-down space, considerably more than the capacity of its rivals.

TOGGLE. Porsche lovers will insist on the five-speed manual transmission. But those planning to use the Boxster to commute in stop-and-go traffic might prefer the Tiptronic automatic transmission, a $3,150 option that allows the driver to make manual shifts by toggling a switch on the steering wheel.

The fact that Mercedes is only offering the SLK with an automatic transmission is the first clue that this car is geared for a completely different customer than the Boxster. Its sleek wedge shape and creature comforts announce a sporty car for a luxury buyer. Inside, the retro instrument panel sports chrome-ringed gauges, and there's a snazzy, optional two-toned leather interior.

Mercedes has crammed the car with such technological innovations as an automatically retractable hardtop. One touch and, 25 seconds later, the top has folded itself into the trunk like a praying mantis. Best of all, with the hardtop up, the SLK is a solid, quiet coupe. With traction control and heated seats, the SLK can be driven all year round, although as a rear-wheel-drive model it won't perform well on the worst slick winter roads. You even get a glass rear window that folds down, too, instead of plastic that eventually cracks or goes cloudy.

SENSOR. One other new electronic advance solves the tricky problem of how to safely carry a child in a two-seater equipped with air bags. Mercedes, like Porsche, currently makes available a seat sensor system that automatically detects the presence of a child safety seat and deactivates the front air bag. The SLK requires a special $150 seat sold by the manufacturer. Mercedes' system also features a sensor that disables the front and side air bags when no passenger is in the seat.

For all its style and wizardry, Mercedes' SLK is no slouch on the open road, either. Its air-compressor supercharger gives the inline four-cylinder engine a surprising kick, and the car takes curves as though it were glued to the road.

The four-cylinder on BMW's original Z3 didn't crank out quite enough horsepower to live up to the sports-car image when launched in 1995

as James Bond's latest wheels. The new 2.8 Z3's inline six-cylinder delivers a satisfying 51 extra horses, for a total of 189. Even with the bigger engine, the BMW costs about $4,000 less than its rivals.

BMW is the holdout in offering only a manual ragtop. Unclamp two levers, give the Z3's top a gentle push, and the job is done. Snapping on the cover can be a bit of a struggle, though, and putting the top back up involves an awkward lean across the car to grab a center handle and hoist. But that's a quibble for those who scorn automatic tops. And the two-second top-down operation is speedier than any mechanical device--speedy enough to do at a stoplight.

The Z3's spare interior--matte black with a touch of wood on the console--is also aimed at those who disdain flash and frills. The trunk, though hardly capacious, will hold two pieces of luggage and a laptop computer.

With their colorful lineups of bright red, blue, and yellow two-seaters, the roadsters look like a spilled bag of M&Ms. By contrast, the sculpted lines of the Jaguar XK8 are drop-dead gorgeous. Inside, a vast expanse of gleaming burled walnut stretches across the dashboard and up the console. (The folks who build Jags in Coventry, England, are among the few who have learned to apply genuine wood so that it doesn't appear fake.)

The Jag XK8 is more than a pretty face. Powered by a new 4.0-liter, aluminum V-8 engine, it can deliver 290 horses. With its silky handling, smooth ride, and sense of barely leashed power, the Jag is a delight to drive.

QUIRKS. Still, it's a pity the car is marred by a few nagging defects. True, this Jag is a vast improvement over the trouble-plagued models of yore. But for around $70,000, one expects more attention to detail. The model I tested had an annoying rattle and squeak near the rear wheel. And neither of the two key fobs worked, rendering the alarm and automatic door and trunk locks useless.

Perhaps the loose wood panel on the dash could be chalked up to that endearing Jaguar quirkiness, for which some of the initially puzzling knobs (for door locks and the like) and controls certainly qualify. And as in most convertibles, headroom and legroom are limited.

But why quibble? No one buys a Jaguar for ergonomic practicality. The same is true for the new crop of little roadsters. They're about image and the joy of driving--and all four admirably live up to those ambitions.

Katie Kerwin
EDITED BY EDWARD C. BAIG



RELATED ITEMS

PHOTO: Porsche Boxster

PHOTO: Jaguar XK8

PHOTO: Mercedes-Benz SLK

PHOTO: BMW Z3

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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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