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Driven to Distraction

The coolest cars on the road this summer give new meaning to the term autoerotic.

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These cars don't have much cargo room. There are no DVD entertainment systems to amuse your kids. In fact, there may not even be room for your closest pals. But so what? These cars aren't for anyone else but you. They're for the early-Friday summer getaway, for top-down (or at least window-down) motoring to the beach, for going across town by taking the Tappan Zee. They're not trying to be an extension of your living room or your office or your day-care center. They're simply cars, and when automakers get it right, as they have with these cool new machines, a car is one damn fine thing to be.

The Mini Cooper
Base price: $16,850.
Get-up-and-go: A zesty 115-hp 1.6-liter four-cylinder.
Pros: You get a whole lotta car for your money.
Cons: For weekend getaways, you'll have to choose between your golf clubs and your friends.

BMW could have played it safe. It could have merely capitalized on the charm and lore of the original Mini by aping its looks, painting it in flashy colors, and giving it a cheeky ad campaign. (That's pretty much what VW did with the New Beetle.) Instead, its designers have created the most dynamic and enjoyable new car for the money in recent memory. My parked Mini drew a crowd as I spied from my second-floor window: Young and old, male and female, car-geek and civilian alike were captivated. What I liked even more: the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission (automatic is an option), which make this car feel like a leashed puppy at a dog run that can't wait to just cut loose. Fortunately, the suspension is up to the task, keeping the Mini firmly planted when negotiating the twists and turns of the Taconic and while dodging a UPS truck on West End Avenue. From behind the wheel, the Mini doesn't even seem that mini. Well-proportioned dimensions keep three adults quite comfortable (four in a pinch), and the rear seat folds down when you require more cargo room. A bonus: cool retro touches like the center-mounted speedometer based on the 1959 original. The bad news? All this praise has leaked out, and buyers are looking at a six-month waiting list.

BMW M3 Cabriolet
Base price: $53,900.
Get-up-and-go:
A 3.2-liter in-line six that might be the best in the world.
Pros: Superman performance.
Cons: Clark Kent looks.

You know what I love about the M3? It looks like every other small BMW out there. Sure, BMW has made a regular 3-series Cabriolet for years, and its high-end hardtops are stealth sports cars, but never before has all that power been mixed with open-top motoring. You might notice the gargantuan front air intake under the bumper, or the extra vents on the front fenders, but basically the M3 Cabrio is a ringer for whatever's parked outside the Whole Foods in Greenwich. The beauty is that, unlike its merely mortal brethren, the M3 is actually a highly tuned, fire-breathing engineering marvel that could give a Porsche 911 a run for the money. Now they've gone and introduced an automatic convertible hardtop. There's also an optional new sequential-manual gearbox that does away with a clutch and lets you change gears by flicking little paddles behind the steering wheel (just like Formula 1 drivers do). Fortunately, the M3 doesn't sacrifice ride comfort; while it may be a little stiffer than that late-night Town Car you rode home from work in, it's still docile enough for city driving -- it'll just blow the doors off most anything on the highway when it needs to.

Mercedes-Benz SL 500
Base price: $86,655.
Get-up-and-go:A throaty 302-hp 5.0-liter V8.
Pros: Just about everything, really.
Cons: Hmmm . . . oh -- there's no in-dash CD changer. There.

I wanted to drive the new Mercedes-Benz SL to China. At 110 mph. The whole way. With the top down. Along the way, the SL could've given me directions, found stock quotes on the Internet, heated and cooled my butt, massaged my back, braked wheel-by-wheel so my turns would be crisper and my stops shorter, turned on the wipers and headlamps at the appropriate time, and kept me at a constant distance from the car in front of me. That's how monumentally capable this car is. The SL 500 is the most technologically advanced car on the road. Period. It's also the most versatile. With its ingenious folding steel roof, the SL automatically converts from a weatherproof hardtop into a tanning bed in sixteen seconds. Even better was the fact that while cruising at near-triple-digit speeds (okay, at triple-digit speeds) with the roof down, it was quieter than a Christian Science Reading Room. For that, you can credit the advanced aerodynamics, which also give the car its elegant profile. Chances are, this new classic will look as chic twenty years from now as it does today -- and technologically speaking, that should be about the time when all the other cars out there catch up.

Ford Thunderbird
Base price: $35,140.
Get-up-and-go:A mellifluous 252-hp 3.9-liter V8.
Pros: You wanted one as a kid; now it's yours.
Cons: Looks like a muscle car but doesn't quite drive like one.

"Here comes the king!" exclaimed one garbageman as I rolled by in the newest version of the Thunderbird. (One very important fact to consider when driving a convertible in NYC: You're open to comment and opinion at every stoplight.) The T-Bird has a hammerlock on America's automotive memories -- introduced as a chick's car, it transformed itself into a muscle car; now it's a retro roadster. As for its abilities as a machine, well, the Thunderbird is no Porsche: It's made for comfortable cruising, not for out-and-out performance. There's some nice acceleration thanks to the V8 under the hood, but the car feels heavy at times, and the suspension is best suited to driving the car at a speed that allows everyone a good long look. Which reminds me: I'd like to apologize to that schoolteacher who was trying to herd his class of junior-high students across Columbus Avenue at 77th Street -- had I known the car would cause such pandemonium, I would have taken another route.

Ferrari 360 Modena
Base price: $146,815.
Get-up-and-go: A 3.6-liter V8 that puts out an ungodly 400 hp.
Pros: Can outrace almost anything, but docile enough to pop into town for a bottle of Montrachet.
Cons: Do you like being the center of attention? You'd better.

There's a stereo in the 360's cockpit, but the real entertainment system here is the car's exhaust manifold: That's where you hear the symphonic brrrraaaappppp! that only a six-figure, Italian-bred engine can provide. Sure, a Ferrari is considered by some to be a sort of social cliché, but that doesn't change the fact that it remains one of the best-handling, best-accelerating cars in the world. It's inevitable to be scared of driving a Ferrari, particularly someone else's (like all the other cars in this story, mine was furnished by the manufacturer), but the amazing thing about the 360 is how -- and I mean this as a compliment -- ordinary the whole operation can be. On the highway, the 360 is the landlubber's Concorde, pushing you back into the seat as it accelerates from zero to 60 in four and half seconds -- but you expect that from a Ferrari. What you don't expect is a comfortable, manageable, stress-free ride across the minefield of pedestrians and construction that is Union Square. Some will scoff. They'll say the Ferrari beast has been tamed, that it's lost its soul. But in all likelihood, these people don't own a Ferrari. Older supercars used to be described as "uncompromising" -- meaning they were unreliable, temperamental, and difficult to drive. The 360 Modena is uncompromising in a completely different sense: It'll have you flying down the road at speeds that could land you in Rikers, without compromising your sanity in the process.


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