September 2, 2014

Gulfshore Drives

Years ago, John T. Malloy made a big deal-and a lot of money-by proclaiming that you "are what you wear." His statistically derived conclusion resulted in those best-selling "Dress for Success" books.

But back then, a man in a suit was successful; a man in bib coveralls was a worthless lout without a prospect in the world. Today, the man in coveralls has cows grazing on $20-an-acre greenbelt land worth millions for development and the man in the suit wants to sell you Amway products. And that guy in shorts and Birkenstocks? He bailed out of Enron just in time and bought a condo on Marco Island. Clothes, you see, no longer suffice as societal separators. John T. Malloy is as gone as Joe DiMaggio.

In the present casual dress climate, and especially in South Florida, clothing doesn't reveal the real you nearly as well as your vehicle.

Yes, your vehicle.

More than what you wear, your choice of vehicle bespeaks who you are. It defines you to those in the know, like me. I've spent more than a dozen years now test driving and reviewing almost every vehicle sold in the United States. I've drawn conclusions, and I can tell all sorts of things about you just by seeing the car you drive. Once I let you in on this treasure trove of valuable information, you will never approach vehicle buying the same way again.

Remember: You are not just buying a car. A minivan. A sport utility. A truck. You are buying a frame for your mobile persona. Those who see you pass may not hold up cards reading "10" or "6.5" at stoplights, but they are nonetheless judging you based on your chariot. Oh, yes.

The choices are many. The decision is yours. You are what you drive. Find yourself in our guide, and you'll have nothing to Saab about with your next vehicle. 

Patron of the Arts

A successful life has its rewards. Helping cultural organizations grow and prosper is all well and good, but it's OK to let the world see what artful taste you personally have-and what a work in progress your life still is. You can do that with the one vehicle brand that stands tallest among successful people-Mercedes-Benz.

Now, there are numerous truly impressive luxury cars. Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Cadillac, Lincoln, Jaguar, BMW, Audi. All excellent. Not one, however, conveys the instant status of a Mercedes-Benz.

Malloy might understand that a Mercedes-Benz-white, black or silver -is the navy blue suit of cars, albeit the finest navy blue suit money can buy. It will wear well on you no matter the destination.

But which Mercedes-Benz? There are many models, including a new small C-series coupe selling for under $30,000. But let's move on to where you belong, at the head of the class. You want an S-series.

You are not into open-air motoring. You bring friends along on many occasions, so a two-door model is inappropriate. You say "No, thank you" to sport utility and station wagon models. You want a car the valet always parks in the first row, out front. You want a rock-solid Mercedes-Benz S sedan. The best: the Mercedes-Benz S600.

It simply has everything in its favor: comfort, safety, performance, handling.

Consider safety first: The S600 has dual front air bags, side air bags, a window-bag head protection system that runs the length of the interior on both sides, anti-lock brakes, traction control, an electronic stability system that prevents skidding, and a unique feature called Teleaid. If the car is in an accident, an onboard computer system knows instantly and sends an SOS to a Mercedes call center. Using the satellite-assisted Global Positioning System, the call center knows exactly where you are- even if you're deep in the woods near your country home.

The call center operator will attempt to call you through the car's hands-free Nokia phone system. If you do not respond, emergency vehicles are ordered to the accident scene.

You, of course, will always know where you are and how to get anywhere, thanks to a sophisticated on-board navigation system. The system understands your voice commands, so you don't have to press buttons while driving. You can also voice-command the Bose audio system, among the finest in the world.

Mercedes is first to offer an automated cruise control system that varies car speed based on proximity to the car ahead. By itself, cruise control is wonderful, but what if the car ahead slows slightly? With all other cars, you must touch your brakes, disabling cruise control, then resume cruising speed when possible. In the S600, radar from the front of the car is used to measure the distance to the car ahead and a computer adjusts your vehicle speed as needed.

All of this has combined to make these Mercedes models the top choice of many auto writers. Several years ago, I wrote what I called the auto writer's prayer in connection with a test review of an M-B car: "Dear Lord, if I'm ever in an accident, let me be driving a Mercedes-Benz." I've received many e-mails saying someone bought a Mercedes model because of it.

I'm convinced that Mercedes-Benz will someday offer a car that a blind person can drive. M-B's radar systems, on-board computers, navigation system and voice commands will come together so that anyone can get behind the wheel, command a destination, and the car will travel there. Such aids will also allow a driver to sleep, watch television, use a computer, read a book, all while en route to a vacation destination. Unnerving to think about, perhaps, but it will become possible. And you can bet that when it is possible, Mercedes-Benz will offer it first.

YOUNG DOCTOR (RETIRED EARLY) MALONE

You could buy a "Bond, James Bond" Aston Martin. You could buy a Mercedes-Benz 600SL. You could buy an "I'm-in-a-mid-life-crisis" Corvette. But you're not Bond; you're not ready for Just for Men Dark Brown; and you would prefer not to advertise to the world that you're reliving an adolescent speed fantasy in a car you can't even enter or exit gracefully.

We have just the piece of vehicular body armor for you. The Porsche Boxster S.

The Boxster S is all the car anyone will ever need, unless he is going for another doctorate, this time at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. (Why do I use the masculine pronoun here? Because Porsche has the highest percentage of male buyers on earth. A Porsche is overwhelmingly-more than 90 percent-a male purchase.)

First there was the Boxster, a splendidly designed retro two-seater that conjured up visions of James Dean's Porsche Spyder cruising down a lonely California highway on Sept. 30, 1955. With the Boxster, you almost became James Dean. Almost.

But the base Boxster was as underpowered by today's standards as that Spyder of Dean's. The Porsche Spyder, speedy for its day, did 0-to-60 in about 8.4 seconds. Today, a lot of sedans are quicker. The Boxster needed a boost. Thus we now have the Boxster S, which you could say stands for sport or speed, take your pick.

I can tell you from experience that if I'm driving a Jaguar, other Jaguar drivers who pass me will look away. They refuse to recognize my existence or that we both bought and are driving the same expensive car. It's like two women at the ball wearing the same exclusive designer gown. Omigod.

Not Porsche drivers.

Porsche drivers have arrived. They know it. You know it. They have joined the fraternity of Ima Gotta Mine. And they will recognize you, fellow frat brother, with a wave. Not since the days of the early VW Beetles have drivers saluted each other this way. Testing a Porsche is a joy. Other Porsche drivers assume I'm a doctor, lawyer or Merrill Lynch advisor who got out before the bubble burst, and they greet me as one of them. I'm always reluctant to tell them I test-drive cars for a living. It's such a letdown. If I just had my own TV show, maybe then...

There's nothing to complain about with the Boxster S. The seats fit your bottom like a hand in a driving glove, the controls are all at hand, and it doesn't overwhelm with gizmos or heavy-duty clutches and two-handed gear shifters. It's just a joy to be behind the wheel, anywhere, anytime. And when the weather is nice, drop the ragtop. Find a tree-canopied road. Feel the wind caress your face, listen to the harmony of the exhaust note, take in the stroboscopic light show as you pass beneath arching branches.

If there is a better time on four wheels than time spent in a Porsche, I've yet to discover it.

JUST DON'T CALL ME A TROPHY WIFE, PLEASE

Some nights, as you lie awake late with excitement-induced insomnia, you can almost hear Mama's tired voice speaking to you in the darkness. She's gone, of course, worn out early from rearing seven children and performing more daily housework than a team of Best Western maids.

"It's just as easy," she would tell you repeatedly as you grew toward womanhood, "to love a rich man as a poor man."

Mama was right.

If only she could ride with you today, cruising Fifth Avenue South, reflecting in the patterned panes of McCabe's Irish Pub, turning heads with your Jaguar XK-8. Or, if the weather turns nasty, you'll opt for your all-wheel-drive Audi TT.

For black-tie galas or the Phil, though, you'll take the Jaguar XK-8, perhaps the perfect car for Miss Most Likely to Succeed in yesteryear's yearbook. You don't worry about fuel efficiency from the V-8 Jaguar engine; and you take comfort in knowing that Ford has really, really boosted the British maker's reliability scores since purchasing Jaguar a decade ago. Jaguars today are good.

One suggestion: To personalize your XK-8, to make it instantly recognizable as Cindy's car, put wire wheels on it. They look terrific and you'll stand apart even from other Jaguars. Buy them.

If the streets turn slick, however, you want the added security of the Audi's all-wheel-drive. Only a few manufacturers offer all-wheel-drive cars-Subaru, a few from Volvo, but mostly Audis. Audis are just excellent-the entire model lineup. But they top the competition with their Quattro drive system that sends power to all four wheels.

What this system does is optimize traction. Coupled with anti-lock brakes, all-wheel-drive means you can be confident while accelerating or stopping on rain-slick streets (or snow-covered Aspen roads during ski season).

Not only will you have all-wheel-drive, you'll have one of the most striking cars on the planet. The Audi TT is drop-dead gorgeous (like you), with a shiny aluminum skin and baseball-stitched leather upholstery. It's powerful, with its turbo charged four-cylinder power plant, but not difficult to drive, as some sports cars are. The TT will coddle you, forgive your driving errors, and put that Mona Lisa smile on your lovely face. This is a red-dress car in a sea of black-dress transport mobiles.

Hip, Hot Restaurateur

Hard to believe, isn't it, that if someone eats in your new Bonita Springs restaurant just one night each week, they'll drop more than enough money each month to make the payment on your Infiniti Q45.

But that's a fact. You're hip and you're hot and your restaurant attracts a clientele that doesn't pull out a tip card to determine what they'll leave behind.

With your choice of vehicle, you want something that is top-of-the-line but not over-the-top. You want to appear successful, yes, but never to outclass those whose cars your valets park out front. You want something like your restaurant-a solid performer with unexpected rewards.

Enter the new Infiniti Q45, just about as fine a car as money can buy. And seriously underrated.

First off, you need to know this: Infiniti is the luxury division of Nissan, and few companies have put more effort into racing, and reaped more racing-derived benefits for street vehicles, than Nissan. Nissan, to those in the know, means fast.

The Q is that. Zero to 60 miles per hour in 5.8 seconds! It's a smooth fast, but a kind of fast very few tire-spinners can match. Press the accelerator on the big, powerful Q and you are gone. Passing power is immediate and immense. But the Q45 is so very much more. It has become a benchmark car. It is a technological leader.

It's the first car to offer a rear-view, televised, live image whenever the gear selector goes into reverse. Under the trunk, in back, is a small, built-in lipstick video camera. It sees a wide area behind the car and shows the driver what's behind on the Q45's navigation screen. In color. It's a marvelous safety device that will soon be standard on all luxury vehicles.

But there's more that should appeal to you. If you have someone drive you periodically, you'll really appreciate the back seats. You can journey over to South Beach, clandestinely pocket a rival's menu and read it as you travel back to your restaurant. Get this: the Q45's rear seats recline. At the press of a button, the seat base slides forward and the seating angle is changed. The rear seats are also heated, for those rare chilly Florida days. You are thus supremely comfortable as you chuckle over the new menu additions you'll match by this evening.

Every safety feature imaginable is included in the Q45, and it possesses the finest headlights in all autodom. These seven-projector, Gatling-gun units light every square inch of road and side area with daylight-quality blue-white light. They have no equal.

And, check this, Mr. Restaurateur, you can voice-command almost every feature of the Q45. Change radio stations. Change air conditioning settings. Change navigation screen map display. Just press a button on the steering wheel and speak your command. A nice female voice I have dubbed Buffy will execute the command and verify it.

The interior is rich with leather and real wood, quietly distinguished. For fun, you can move the shifter for the automatic transmission to one side and manually change gears.

There is nothing this Q45 doesn't do well. At its $60,000 price, the only real competition is the Lexus LS430. Take the Q. Like you, it's hip.

***

THE SNOWBIRD FROM MICHIGAN

This may come as a shock, but not everyone comes here by private jet. Some ... no, most ... drove here. I know, I know. Why would anyone do that? But they do. They drive a thousand miles or more just to wear golfing shorts in winter sun.

Listen, you think it's easy driving down I-75 from somewhere in Michigan? You think our tropical shirt-wearing snowbirds didn't pull into rest stops, exit their vehicles and grab their lower backs every hour? You think it was all Cracker Barrels and Residence Inns?

Wrong. For many a tourist, getting to our paradise meant going through hell. Blame a bad vehicle. For those back-grabbers, we have a suitable vehicle now: the Cadillac Deville DTS.

Few cars try as hard to please. I mean, just look at this technological wonder. It has every gizmo GM's Detroit dreamers could conceive. And many of those gizmos are aimed at comfort, that all-important factor for the long journey South.

Begin with the one feature our back-grabber will like best. The Deville DTS has programmable front seats that can massage your back every 10 minutes. At preset regular intervals, you feel the seat start to move up and down your spine. Sure, it's alarming at first, having a seat play touchy-feely with such an intimate area as your lower back. But then you settle in and enjoy it.

Naturally, the seats can recline. They're also heated, just in case it's snowy as one departs Michigan. They are full leather, adjust 12 ways, and move out of the way on entry or exit, returning to a preset position as the key is inserted. The rear bench seat is large enough for your kids' spring break party.

Speed is set by cruise control, the headlights magically come on at dusk, the windshield wipers spring to life if a drop of water hits the glass, and a Night Vision system sees that cow in the middle of I-75 long before the Xenon headlights pick it up. The cow is displayed in a black-and-white image projected onto the windshield in front of our driver.

When our snowbirds put the car in reverse (not to return to Michigan, but just to back up), a rear bumper-mounted ultrasonic system will measure the distance to any object behind the car and beep just before they strike or run over that object.

The Northstar drivetrain, with a 300-horsepower V8 engine and four-speed automatic transmission, is a world-class combination. But just in case there is trouble of any kind, the Deville DTS has the OnStar system, where a touch of a button brings a real human on the other end of a communications connection, willing to give directions, make reservations or read e-mail.

* * *

RICH REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER

The Gold Rush heydays of displacing alligators in the Everglades may be over, but the new Florida land rush has been good to you. Waterfront condos and gated communities from Cape Coral to Marco Island testify to your vision-and growing net worth.

Now you need to define your success with your vehicle choice. What kind of developer would drive a Ford Focus, a Toyota Corolla, a Chevy Impala? Please. You need to look as splendidly successful as you are, so you must drive a vehicle suited to your bold and adventuresome spirit.

You need to go North. North to the Yukon.

Only a few years ago, I hated this vehicle. It was truck-like, which meant it brutalized anyone unlucky enough to be inside while traveling over all but the smoothest pavement. Then General Motors finally got around to civilizing its truck fleet, and the Yukon benefited from improvements made to the Silverado series. Benefited? The Yukon became a luxury vehicle.

It's big, it's powerful, and it will leave deep ruts in the worst muck. You're a match for any Explorer, and can drive American while sneering at Sequoias, Pathfinders and Range Rovers. Next year comes a long-needed Range Rover revolution. But that's next year. Yukon has a terrific sport utility today. (Though it may soon face stiff competition from the Cayenne, the first-ever Porsche sport utility vehicle, due shortly.)

Inside, the top Yukon has leather of a quality normally found only in luxury sedans. The ride is neither stiff, like too many trucks, nor mushy, like too many luxury cars. The seating position is high- commanding, in fact. Power assist makes steering and braking easy. And in any accident, the heft of the Yukon assures you'll come out on top.

One caveat: Make sure the doors on the model you want are metal. Otherwise, your magnetic business sign won't attach as you pull past the guard gate each morning.

The only drawback to the Yukon is fuel inefficiency. It comes with the size. Maybe you should buy a few shares of Chevron. Hey, there's always money to be made.

Robert Bowden, an auto editor for the St. Petersburg Times and The Tampa Tribune since 1995, has produced The Car Place (www.thecarplace.com), named a Forbes magazine "Best of the Web" site. 

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