As contrasts go, this one was a doozy. In the green corner was the Napa Valley Reserve, 80 acres of natural splendor that could convert an atheist into a creationist. In the not-so-eco-conscious corner was a group of 14 supercars, which collectively produce 7,270 hp. The two elements were as disparate as a California-cultivated Cabernet and a Nebraska-bred bovine, but just as that duo does, they formed an unadulterated delight when paired.
In early November, Robb Report’s Car of the Year competition returned to the property that has hosted it for the past four years: Napa Valley’s Meadowood resort in St. Helena, Calif., and the neighboring Reserve, a vineyard fractionally owned by its gentleman (and lady) farmer members. Waiting near the Resort’s main building, under a white tent, like a menagerie of exotic beasts beneath a circus big top, were the 14 contestants. All were vying for the attention and praise of our judges, who included Robb Report automotive editor Gregory Anderson, senior correspondent Paul Dean, myself (a first-time judge and a frequent contributing writer to the magazine), and about 40 invited guests. The guest judges were separated into two groups, each of which had the cars for an entire day. Beginning on page 94, the cars are presented in descending order of finish and with comments on each from Anderson, Dean, me, and some of the guests.
Any one of these automobiles would take top honors for looks, brains, and brawn when compared to the mass-market offerings. But setting the members of this group against each other is a wonderfully cruel exercise, like orchestrating a steel cage match between 14 Ultimate Fighting champions. Can you really pick a winner from a group that includes Mercedes-Benz’s $500,000 entry (its menacing SLR McLaren), Saleen’s 620 hp devil (at $84,000, the best horsepower-per-dollar deal here), and Ferrari’s $318,000 state-of-the-art (and long-ago sold-out) 599 GTB Fiorano? Actually, yes. In fact, not only can you crown a champ among these all-stars—and a surprise champ, at that—by staging such a competition, you also can generate searing debate during the glorious distillation process.
Following a dinner the previous night at Bennett Lane Winery (courtesy of owners and guest judges Randy and Lisa Lynch), which offered a quick indoctrination into the Napa Valley lifestyle, the first group of judges, roughly 20 of them, took in a breakfast presentation by Anderson. In his Car of the Year primer, he encouraged the crowd to “take advantage of the full range of the gas pedal,” which was his politic way of reminding folks that it was important to keep the machines, which average 500-plus hp, from going sideways on the winding, public—and police-monitored—roads that would serve as the test track.
Then they were off. The judges were paired up and given 30 minutes with each car, allowing them 15 minutes apiece behind the wheel. With the weather perfect and the local police scarce, wringing out the cars proved easy. (One guest was stopped almost immediately for speeding in the Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet, but he diplomatically and successfully explained the work at hand.)
The judges’ comments arrived fast and, if not furious, occasionally quite critical. Lamborghini’s LP640 Roadster, painted a gaudy Day-Glo orange, took some initial hits. “I feel like I could shift three times faster than this [paddle-shift] transmission,” said Randy Lynch, who, in addition to owning Bennett Lane Winery, founded the RW Lynch Co. advertising agency. “I couldn’t see anything behind me, and I think I got a rotator cuff injury from opening the [scissor] doors.”
The Lambo went on to garner mixed reviews, some equally critical but a good number lauding its outrageousness. “It’s not a classy drive, but it’s the most potent car in the bunch,” said Tom Gonzales, founder and chairman of the board of the boatbuilding firm Shadow Marine. The Lambo’s power and audacious orange paint job were appreciated by car collector and real estate developer Bruce Meyer, whose face-splitting grin spoke volumes as he parked the Lambo. “Phew!” he said after exiting the car. “[This is] Parnelli Jones’ Trans Am.”
Pulling in nearby was Maserati’s all-new, two-door, four-seat GranTurismo, which elicited two thumbs up from Dr. Kenneth Jung, an orthopedic surgeon. “As we always say in the operating room when everything goes well: smooth as buttaaaah,” said Jung. Not everyone agreed with that assessment. A number of judges noted that the Maserati’s shifting was sluggish when the car was not in sport mode. And while its retro snout received praise, the rear of the Maser looked too much like a Mazda’s for some of the drivers.
The contest’s American entries, the Saleen S302 Extreme and the Dodge Viper SRT10, collected the most barbs of the morning. While some judges enjoyed a giddy moment thanks to the Saleen’s rear-wheel-spinning horsepower (“It has the g-forces of the space shuttle,” marveled Lynch), most were unnerved by the car’s unpredictable handling. “It’s floaty, with light steering,” said investment analyst Karl Zeile, echoing the sentiment of many of his fellow panelists, “like my father’s Eldorado, but with 620 horsepower.”
The metallic green Viper was knocked for its build quality—parts literally fell off inside the car—and overall lack of sophistication. Driving the car reminded one judge of a certain movie. “Have you seen The Crying Game,” asked Scott Bodenweber, CFO of Hudson Capital Group, “where this guy gets all excited about something that isn’t what it seems to be?”
Robb Report’s Car of the Year draws a rough crowd. Or more to the point, its judges have little tolerance for BS. They differ from the cliques of automotive reporters who assemble to hand out other car-of-the-year honors, in that the journalists may be steeped in expertise, but not cash. These judges, on the other hand, not only have the means to purchase any of the competing cars, but often, after the event, they do buy a car or two that they found especially appealing. The judges can, and indeed do, place their money where their mouths are.
“This is truly a unique group of people, folks who are simply saying, ‘Which car would I consider adding to my collection?’ ” noted Bill Curtis, the event’s host and the chairman and CEO of Robb Report’s parent company, CurtCo Robb Media. “They bring to this judging both a collector’s sensibility and unlimited funds. This is truly a report to their constituents.”
That report became rosier for some marques as the day gave way to night and dinner at Staglin Family Vineyard, the nearby winery owned by guest judges Shari and Garen Staglin. Before the car talk began, however, Meyer received a roasting for inadvertently catching two of Paul Dean’s fingers in one of the SLR’s swing-wing doors and slicing them to the bone. Upon Dean, a native of England, Curtis bestowed the “stiff upper lip award” for enduring an emergency room visit.
Meyer had a chance to change the subject when asked about his favorite from among the Car of the Year contestants. He was most impressed with Bentley’s new Speed version of its Continental GT, a car that earned kudos from other judges for both its sumptuous, leather-lined interior and its power. “It has a substantial feel with genuine performance and is worth the embarrassment of driving a high-profile car,” said Meyer, an avowed muscle car fan.
Similar verbal bouquets were tossed at Rolls-Royce’s new Phantom Drophead Coupé. With its massive bulk (5,776 pounds), teak tonneau cover, and suicide doors (as well as a stereo system that rivals most high-end home setups), the Rolls seemed completely at home as it traveled the sun-dappled vineyard lanes. “What a perfect car this is for Napa,” said real estate developer Brandon Hudson. “It’s sexy and elegant, and loses nothing in terms of performance.”
Such compliments notwithstanding, the knives were out at dinner, and the Viper was a frequent target. “If a young man comes to pick up your daughter in this car, shoot him,” said John Taylor, president and CEO of the beer distributor J.J. Taylor Companies.
The SLR also did not go unscathed, as judges questioned whether the car’s merits justified its price. Some found the brake pedal too stiff, and others were appalled that a half-million-dollar car would leave its folding ragtop’s innards exposed. “I could have three great cars for the price of this one,” said Douglas Von Allmen, who recently sold his hair-care company to L’Oreal. “It’s got an unnecessary blower noise. It’s hard to get in and out of.”
The first day’s true darlings were the Audi R8, Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet, and Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano. “This is a great achievement for Audi,” raved Garen Staglin upon exiting the silver monster, which recalls the Audi TT but has a visible, midbody engine, like that of the Ferrari F430. “Wow, I should go drive one of the two R8s I own,” said Gonzales, explaining that all of the cars in his expansive collection have zero miles on their odometers.
The Porsche won acclaim for its all-around competence and its mix of sports car bravado and ease of use that tempts you to perform criminal maneuvers. “It’s very responsive,” noted Bob Elkins, chairman and CEO of Monarch Venture Group. “It’s like your first date in high school: You touch it anywhere, and it lights up.”
But the Ferrari, for reasons tangible and emotional, ruled the roost, leaving a number of judges scheming about how they might circumvent the multiyear-long waiting list and immediately acquire the company’s Enzo engine–powered road warrior. “It’s amazing, so responsive, great visibility, incredible power, wow,” said insurance magnate Bruce Gendelman. “It’s also a very, very sexy car. Look, it’s so hot it even comes with its own fire extinguisher.” (The fire extinguisher is a $574 option.)
The Ferrari had claimed a field-leading 10 first-place votes when the second group, of 16 guest judges, was briefed over dinner at Darioush, a winery owned by grocery tycoon and guest judge Darioush Khaledi.
Day two of the competition produced a raft of comments similar to those from the first day of driving. The Lamborghini continued to seduce with its outrageousness: Said David Hubbard, vice president of AIG Private Client Group, after returning from his romp, “I need a cigarette.” The Rolls remained a favorite of drivers who prefer luxury over brute power: “We’re going to Palm Beach and not coming back,” announced Khaledi. And the Saleen took more beatings: “It handles about as well as the president has handled the war in Iraq,” said real estate developer Scott Kotick.
Meanwhile, praise for the previous day’s top three cars kept rolling in. The Porsche was deemed “way too perfect” by H. William Harlan, cofounder and chairman of the Pacific Union real estate development firm and owner of Meadowood resort and the Harlan Estate winery. “[It] handles, brakes, and accelerates flawlessly.” The Audi continued dishing out hot laps without a peep from the car’s mechanicals. But the Ferrari 599 once again was poised to claim the 2008 crown. “If this car were a woman,” said Scott Libertore, CEO of Financial Insurance Management Corp., “you’d marry her.”
But then the honeymoon came to an abrupt end. The 599’s clutch gave out before four of the judges had a chance to drive the car.
The Ferrari’s demise heightened the tension as the group headed for a decision-making dinner at Colgin Cellars, owned by Sotheby’s wine consultant Ann Colgin and her husband, Joe Wender, a former partner with Goldman Sachs. Both were guest judges.
At dinner, more scorn was heaped on the Viper: “Not getting lucky on prom night wasn’t as disappointing as [driving] that car,” said Paul Huston, a founder of Hudson Ferry Capital. And on the Maserati: “The blind spots were so bad I needed a Seeing Eye dog,” noted veteran Hollywood producer Burt Sugarman.
Most of the plaudits were reserved for the Audi, Ferrari, and Porsche, the latter of which the majority of judges indicated they would purchase over any other vehicle in the group. But for the Prancing Horse’s unfortunate hobbling, it might have taken the prize. Instead, the Audi nudged out the Ferrari.
The Ferrari is difficult to resist, with its elegantly creased lines, the sonorous grunt of its exhaust, and its ability to coddle driver and passenger in cocoonlike comfort. But the R8 won the competition, and deservedly so, because the car marks the fulfillment of Audi’s long-held promise to produce a vehicle that combines the design triumph of the TT with the Le Mans success of the company’s R8 and R10 TDI racers. The Audi is a pairing of style and speed that is a delight.
Robb Report Ratings Explained
The Car of the Year ballots require our judges to rate each vehicle, on a scale of 1 to 5, on 15 different—and entirely subjective—criteria, including design, ergonomics, and performance. The scoring system is intended to separate the wheat from the chaff. However, this year’s harvest yielded a lot of wheat. After the ballots were tallied, the results were so close that we decided to devise a rating system that would better contextualize the range from first to 14th place.
The numerical rating is a percentage. The winning car, the Audi R8, was given a rating of 100, and each of the other cars’ ratings represents the percentage of points it received in relation to the winner’s point total. For example, the third-place Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet posted a point total that equaled 98.1 percent of the winner’s tally—an incredibly close score that would be within the margin of error of most polls—while the 14th-place Dodge Viper achieved less than half as many points as the Audi R8 did. Take the ratings with a grain of salt, or wheat, as the case may be. —Gregory Anderson
1. Audi R8
11. Lexus LS600h L