Secondhand Gems: Grand Touring, Three Ways

By Christopher Smith

November 15, 2011

We're going out on a limb here to assume that, as a Winding Road reader, you like to drive. (Bold, we know.) Let's try another tenuous branch and say that not all driving enthusiasts are always enthused about driving, especially those who are required by work or other circumstances to spend a significant amount of time behind the wheel. This may seem like a nonsensical statement, but ask any person who spends 30 or more weeks a year on the road what they would prefer for a company car. It probably won't be a Lotus Elise or even an exotic supercar like a Ferrari 458, and the same can be said for the average Joe who moved beyond the suburbs, choosing the country life and a 140-mile round trip commute to the office in downtown Metropolis, fighting belligerent traffic five or six days a week. Sure, we say our dream machine is a mid-engined, hardcore hypercar, but the truth is that, for anything more than fun jaunts around the neighborhood or occasional track days, living with such a machine every single day would be a disaster, even more so for the folks who see 40,000 miles of cratered asphalt a year trying to make a decent living.

The ideal solution would be a GT car, and by that we mean proper Grand Touring machines with big engines, comfortable two-plus-two accommodations, exotic good looks, and sizzling performance. The reality is that most road warriors are still working towards affording such excess, but for affluent travelers with an acute fear of flying, we'll include a sort-of GT machine we'd choose if individual credit limits were as meaningless as government budgets.

For the rest, we need vehicles no older than five years that deliver long-distance comfort first and foremost. Size also matters to this audience; when your car is a home away from home, you don't want to feel like you live in an Apollo spacecraft, and that also means we need machines with at least moderate levels of luxury. Sounds like we should just buy a used Lincoln Town Car and be done with it, but enthusiasts--even those numbed by endless hours of interstate travel--don't buy Town Cars. Performance is definitely a vital part of this equation. Here, then, are three inspiring machines that road warriors might consider at various price points. One is surprisingly affordable, one is surprisingly capable, and the other one isn't the least bit surprising. It's just bloody expensive, and worth every penny.

Unlimited: 2011 Aston Martin Rapide

Here's our sort-of GT machine, sort-of because the Rapide could technically be considered a five-door hatchback. It's true; behind the Rapide's second set of doors (which, like the front, open with a slight up angle to give the big Aston the appearance of a hawk prepping for takeoff) is what appears to be a small trunk, except that it lifts up with the smallish back window. So this begs the question--would we pay $170,000 for a used five-door hatchback?

Let's belay that question until we dispense with some need-to-know information. The Rapide essentially rides on a DB9 platform and uses a DB9 5.9-liter V-12, making 470 horsepower. That's all channeled to a pair of twenty-inch, twenty-spoke alloys via a rear-mounted six-speed automatic gearbox that also allows for manual cog swapping via paddle shift. All four wheels are supported by Aston's Adaptive Dampening System with multiple suspension settings available, delivering a properly firm ride and sorted handling when you want and comfortably isolated, composed motoring when you need. And then there's the exterior styling, which is considered pornography in several third-world countries and 24 US states.

Inside the Rapide, there exists a world made almost entirely of exquisite hand-stitched leather, interrupted occasionally by aluminum and wood bits that by themselves probably cost more than a Honda Fit. Interior space does feel a bit snug thanks to the Rapide's massive center console that bisects the entire passenger compartment, but wide front seats with exceptional support help erase that feeling as the miles pass by.

All four seats receive independent heat controls, front and rear passengers have independent climate controls, and if the DVD entertainment system isn't of interest to anyone, the 15-speaker, 1000-watt Bang & Olufsen BeoSound audio system can drown out the loudest of complaints. And oh yeah, it'll do 60 miles per hour in about five seconds and hit a buck-eighty flat out. The real question, then, isn't whether or not we'd pay $170,000 for a hatchback. The real question is how quick can we get the money? Anybody know what kidneys are selling for on the black market these days?

$30,000: 2008 Cadillac STS-V

After waxing poetic about the angelic Aston, switching gears to a big Cadillac might seem a bit like appreciating the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, then going back to the hotel to stare at a velvet Elvis. Odd appropriateness aside, there's actually a big surprise to be had with the STS-V, not the least of which is just how close it compares to the aforementioned Aston despite a $140,000 price difference.

Both big sedans use a front-engine, rear-drive architecture sending power through a six-speed automatic gearbox with manual controls. Both cars ride on wheelbases within an inch of each other. The STS-V's cabin is awash with its own set of stitched leather, trimmed with real wood and aluminum that, while not as supple or as visually stunning as the Aston, nevertheless creates a very serene, luxurious atmosphere that's worlds away from the pitiful GM interiors of old, and the STS-V also happens to be far more spacious for passengers and cargo. Both cars smother occupants with options, and both offer some measure of exclusivity for owners; very few STS-Vs were built over its five-year production run, and actually, at the time of this writing, the Rapide outnumbered STS-Vs on eBay Motors. The real shocker, however, is the STS-V's 4.4-liter, quad-cam Northstar V-8 that's supercharged to 469 horsepower. Remedial math tells us that's just one pony shy of the Aston, and since both machines have a curb weight in the just-over-two-ton range, that means performance is virtually identical as well. That is, at least in a straight line.

The Aston tends to dispense with corners a tad better than the Cad, which ditches the magnetic ride from the standard STS for a fixed, sport tuned arrangement that mildly stiffens the motions but still errs comfortably on the side of comfort. As a result, the STS-V is most at home on the open road or long, sweeping switchbacks, effortlessly eating the miles while driver and passengers enjoy a quiet cabin, a cushioned ride, and a ludicrous amount of power. Just the sort of things road warriors want.

We don't presume to place the STS-V in the same category as the Rapide, but the similarities between them despite a $140,000 difference in price are simply mind-blowing. Chalk it up to GM depreciation, because the Caddy began life as an $80,000 machine, making it a direct competitor to the BMW M5 and Mercedes E63 AMG. Those cars are still selling well north of $40,000, however, and while they might be marginally better than the STS-V, that margin simply isn't enough to warrant the extra greenbacks. We can't help but think that, somewhere, Elvis is smiling.

$15,000: 2007 Chrysler 300C
For about the same price as a brand new, reasonably optioned Nissan Versa hatchback, you can have arguably the coolest American sedan to come out of Detroit in decades, and you don't even have to settle for the wimpy 2.7-liter V-6. Slap the go pedal on the 300C, and its 340-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 snarls with classic muscle-car authority. Select D on the five-speed Mercedes-sourced automatic transmission, and that same throttle kick will send the hefty 300C to 60 in just under six seconds. And it's only $15,000? Well, maybe $15,500 for a lightly optioned 300C, but yeah, they're out there. You probably already know about this car, because this particular iteration of the 300C was the talk of the automotive landscape when it hit the roads back in 2005. Its high beltline, narrow windows and broad front clip screamed retro, but the designers at Chrysler still blended the styling cues well with modern trends. They did such a good job that the car still receives plenty of attention--scratch that--demands attention, several years on.

And that big, blocky styling translates to big interior space as well, easily enough for five adults to travel in comfort, or for one adult on a 1300-mile trip to think nothing of driving the whole stint straight through. The 300's supportive seats, simple-yet-elegant instrumentation arrangement, and modestly handsome materials make for pleasant driving, and the assortment of luxury bits like the easy-to-use factory navigation system will help you on the journey. Dropping a bitchin' V-8 into a big sedan has long been the American way, but wrapping it all up with a measure of poise and refinement is something typically associated with the Germans. The 300C isn't set up to carve corners, but there exists beneath the sheet metal a fully independent multi-link suspension that wipes out all the bob-and-weave long associated with American iron.

Of course, the 300 does borrow heavily from the Mercedes parts bin, and the result is a mildly firm, controlled ride that eats potholes and manages body roll in all but the most extreme cornering loads. It's not quite as refined or as balanced as a BMW 5-Series or an Audi A6, but it is taut and confidence-inspiring should the desire to dance strike in mid-commute. There are all kinds of comfortable choices to be had for $15,000, and many of them can be rather fun to drive as well. But when it comes to this kind of style, comfort, poise, and power in a five-year-old full-size sedan, there's nothing else at the $15,000 mark to compare with the 300C. For some enthusiasts, the road can become a long, dark obstacle keeping them from home. On those long drives when the miles never seem to end, having the right traveling companion can keep you sane, keep you safe, and brighten the journey.