Aimless Rider in Topless Car

Our neighborhood garage attendants thought we were drug lords. Week in and week out, we’d roll in with some ridiculously stylish convertible – no explanation, just a great big smile on our faces. We had a stable of five cars, each selected for its quality, styling, and (most important) ability to cause people on the street to stop in their tracks and shout “Damn!” (this happened even more than expected). Some onlookers gazed with loving admiration; others shot us malicious glares that clearly suggested our unworthiness to be behind the wheel of such superlative ragtops: “What IPO were you in on?” In spite of these hardships, we pressed on, dutifully piloting our cars around the streets of Manhattan and the highways to the hinterland. On the way, we learned a couple of things: (1) A city as vertically inclined as ours really deserves to be viewed in an open-top car (Times Square in particular becomes IMAX-sized when you’re driving without a roof); (2) Rutt’s Hut off New Jersey’s Route 21 may give Gray’s Papaya a run for its money; and (3) should you find yourself blocking the crosswalk at a red light in a conspicuously expensive car with the top down, be prepared to hear about it – up close and personal.

Sinking into the rather low bucket seats of the Jaguar XK8, you get the feeling that the lads in England designed this car with one particular individual in mind: someone British, yet well traveled; someone superlatively elegant, yet capable of great feats of daring; someone who, say, prefers his martini shaken – not stirred. If ever a car captured the Bond aesthetic (other than the Aston Martin the superagent actually drove), it’s this one. The only feature missing from the burled-walnut and Connolly leather interior to complete the espionage motif is an ejector button for the passenger seat. The swoopy, curvaceous-almost-to-the-point-of-being-pornographic body caused the heads of even the most sophisticated New Yorkers to swivel. That, of course, and the snarl of its four-liter V8, which is capable of great feats of daring indeed. Tap on the accelerator, and 290 horses pull the car forward, eager to put you in traffic school for the rest of your life. While the XK8 is a sybaritic luxo-convertible, it’s no barge, instead dashing into corners and growling down straights.

The car provides equal satisfaction when it’s immobile, as we learned when we parked the Jag in front of Sal’s Pizzeria in Cobble Hill (a location curiously absent from the Bond movies), scarfing down slices at a curbside table while we watched a steady stream of passers-by ogle and point at the car. Of all the cars in our fleet, this one grabbed the most attention at intersections, gas stations, and red lights. For $70,750, is it worth it? Hey, you only live once. Or was that twice, Mr. Bond?

After the sensual and crowd-pleasing Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz’s SL500 initially struck us as shockingly sedate. Where the Jaguar seduces you with its styling, and continues to show off while you’re behind the wheel, the SL is more the strong, silent type. It’s kind of like restaurants: Balthazar (the Jaguar) is a fairly flawless update on a classic theme, awash in excitement and buzz, while The Four Seasons (the Mercedes), supremely confident in its ability to satisfy your every whim, provides a buttoned-down but deeply pleasurable experience. Driving topless over the George Washington Bridge, we weren’t sure which was more thrilling: the skyline of the city, the majesty of the bridge, or the car itself. Though the 10-year-old design is lacking in some modern touches (no steering-wheel buttons for the radio, no glove box, and hey, for $81,100 can we get a glass rear window instead of that plastic one that looks like it was lifted from an old Miata?), there’s an overwhelming sense of solidity that was unmatched by any of the other convertibles. “This is a car I could drive every day,” remarked one ragtop devotee who had experienced our entire test fleet. The five-liter V8 made excellent use of its 302 horsepower, responding to our requests for acceleration and speed with a simple “Jawohl.Danke, Mercedes.

Back in 1964, Ford Motor Company changed teenagers’ lives forever when the first Mustang rolled off the Detroit assembly line. Rebellious kids from Teaneck, New Jersey, to Gary, Indiana, could tear up the parking lots with the ultimate muscle car. With the signature chrome pony emblazoned on the grille and a vrooming six-cylinder engine, it was an instant classic; the most envied girl in school had a pink Mustang, compliments of Daddy, on display in the parking lot. The Mustang was so cool that in 1966, Wilson Pickett climbed the charts with “Mustang Sally,” a tribute to the beloved wheels of steel.

By the mid-eighties, the ‘stang had lost its sheen and been co-opted by the metal-heads and demolition-derbyists. Ford did a sorely needed redesign in 1994, and in the summer of 1999, as we slid behind the wheel of the latest convertible model (starts at $21,595), a candy-apple-red version, we felt the requisite retro cool. Cruising in Manhattan, we didn’t cause any serious rubbernecking with our mean machine, but once we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, the magic carpet ride began. The local kids on the stoop, the same ones who taunt us when we’re rushing to the subway, waved furiously. They begged us to slow down so they could marvel at the steel pony. “Sweet car,” they shouted. It was as if we were tooling around in a spaceship on Atlantic Avenue. As for us, we’re not crazy about the rear spoiler or the honeycomb grille, which gives the car a tinny feel. Inside, however, it’s quite swank – one-touch power everything, refined steering. And when we press on the gas pedal and we hug the corner at breakneck speeds (the V8 engine has a new all-speed traction control), we’re feeling invincible. We might even have to hang the fuzzy die from the rearview mirror and blast some AC/DC.

Sweden is not necessarily a nation of convertible enthusiasts. So when we jumped into Saab’s 9-3 SE convertible (starts at $43,995) we couldn’t help wondering where the ski rack fit on the ragtop. The vehicle feels more family sedan than sports car. It’s ideal for the Sunday drive: The 2.4 kids can bicker amicably in the backseat, even with a passel of Jack Russell terriers thrown in, and the sizable trunk offers plenty of room for the golf clubs.

But as footloose and fancy-free single drivers navigating city streets, we felt oddly conspicuous. We turned the radio down to a sensible volume and began to use the turn signals obsessively. And despite the turbo four-cylinder engine hulking beneath the hood, we hewed cautiously to the speed limit, which turned out to be practical because when this puppy cranks up to a conservative 55 mph on the West Side Highway, any precious cargo in the rear could be sacrificed to summer winds.

Although the handling seemed a bit shaky and the four-speed automatic transmission was a bit indecisive at times, the interior felt like a cockpit (those eco-loving Swedes adore ergonomics). The “Night Panel” dashboard illuminates information on a need-to-know basis (yes, your son is trying to push his little sister out the window), and the driver’s seat includes a cushy armrest for gridlock moments. The ingenious anti-theft system is sophisticated enough that we had trouble unlocking the car door without triggering a series of alarming beeps that irked our neighbors, who’d rather have seen us park our Scandinavian two-door back at the ski lodge.

You can’t help humming Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” when driving the Porsche 911 Carrera 4 (starts at $83,340) – it’s so magnificently powerful, so absolutely surefooted, that you feel like you are the master of the road beneath you (because in this car, you are). Notions of supremacy extend to the car’s appearance: The way the body looks as if it was stretched tightly over the frame, the brushed-aluminum gearshift knob, and the exposed brake rotors and calipers all reflect the car’s mission – to go like stink and look fantastic while doing so.

Of course, this latest incarnation of the venerable model incorporates some truly Futurama features that mitigated our initial trepidation. From the all-wheel-drive system to the Porsche Stability Management wizardry, our Porsche calmly snaked through corners at speeds twice as fast as we would be willing to try in other cars. The Tiptronic S transmission was also a joy – the gearshift can be left in the d position like a regular automatic transmission (something purists will scoff at, though, alas, there are no purists in the Midtown Tunnel) or be switched into the m slot, where two steering-wheel-mounted buttons allow you to clutchlessly up- and downshift the car in a matter of milliseconds.

This feature becomes all the more enjoyable when you’re screaming down the Taconic at speeds of biblical proportions. You see, at 40 mph, the Carrera is not unlike ordinary mortals – er, cars – at least good ones. It’s not an uncomfortable ride, and it has the expected creature comforts, like air-conditioning powerful enough to keep you cool even with the top down, an in-dash CD player, and divine leather seats. The only indication of the ability to leap tall buildings in a single shift is a wonderfully aeronautic turbinelike sound from the engine that’s over your shoulder. Then you get on the highway and stab the accelerator.

Oh, sweet Jesus. Before you’re aware of what you just did, you’re blazing down the highway, the speedometer needle moving upward faster than the needle on Pavarotti’s scale. Points that were far in the distance are suddenly in your rear-view mirror. Are you ready for this? Can you handle it? the car asks you – because the car has already answered for itself, and the answer is always Yes.

Aimless Rider in Topless Car