Like a vehicle model that remains in production for 11 years, Robb Report’s “Car of the Year” feature has evolved considerably since its debut in 1994. While remaining inclusive—a Subaru was among this year’s 12 finalists—the field of competitors has also become more exclusive—we judged a BMW 6 Series this year, not the 5 or 3 Series as we did a decade ago.
More significantly, during the mid-1990s, exotics were not included in the competition. They were judged in a separate feature, the “Exotic Car of the Year,” which ran in May 1995 and May 1997. Both times, Italian machines were the unanimous winners. The Ferrari 456 GT, a sleek machine remarkable for its hefty $207,000 price tag and its ferocity, garnered the top honors in 1995. In celebrating the merits of the 456 GT, our judges raved, “Now you can have all the blistering performance for which Ferrari is famous in a dramatic package that encourages fast motoring, with a bonus—there’s room for four lucky people.” The car’s 12-year production run came to an end in January 2004, when Ferrari unveiled its successor at the North American Auto Show in Detroit: the 612 Scaglietti. Priced at $256,000 and named for 1950s Ferrari designer Sergio Scaglietti, it will go on sale this summer.
The second and final “Exotic Car of the Year” was the 1997 Lamborghini Diablo VT Roadster, a $249,000, V-12, soft-top beast. With this car, we see a clear distinction between our judging criteria then and now. Robb Report Editor at Large Paul Dean, who has served as a judge for most of the “Car of the Year” and both of the “Exotic Car of the Year” features, says that today’s criteria would exclude the Lamborghini from consideration. The VT Roadster was not a significant variation on the Diablo VT, which had been an “Exotic Car of the Year” runner-up in 1995. “That’s grounds for dismissal this year,” says Dean, explaining that candidates must offer more than simple, cosmetic twists on a familiar design.
Today some would say that our panelists engage in the automotive equivalent of comparing apples to oranges when they judge a Morgan or a Lamborghini against a Maybach or a Bentley, as they did for Robb Report’s “Car of the Year 2004” (page 60). Yet the judges’ guiding principle addresses this conundrum, assuming it exists. This principle is “design purpose,” says Dean. “What is the car designed to do, and does it meet those standards? That eases the pain of comparing an SUV to a sedan.”
But this is just the point. The reason one feature became extinct as the other evolved is that the lines between sport, exotic, and luxury grew increasingly blurred. Indeed, such lines may have been completely erased. Finding common ground between a Cayenne—an SUV with a remarkably smooth ride and features that include a spacious leather-lined interior, automatic climate controls, and a surround-sound audio system—and a Jaguar XJR is not such a painful exercise. With a top speed of 165 mph and a zero-to-62 time of 5.6 seconds, the Cayenne Turbo offers performance that is comparable to that of most coupes and some sports cars.
“There’s been a quantum leap in the last 10 years,” adds Dean. “Now, a big, lumbering Bentley can do 200 mph with four people in it.” And what, we ask, could be more exotic than that?