BMW couldn't have imagined the branding gem it had when it launched the BMW M1 back in 1978. Built as a low-production race car to meet homologation requirements, the Lamborghini-produced supercar eventually paved way for more affordable M cars such as the M3 and M635 CSi. Today, BMW slaps the red and blue stripes on most of its line-up, from the superb 1M to the superfluous X6 M.
That lucrative niche hasn't been lost on other automakers, and nowadays nearly every company has followed suit with its own take on a luxury performance nameplate. Audi offers two grades with the S and RS, with the latter being more aggressively tuned. Infiniti and Volvo are relative newcomers with the IPL and R-Design lines, respectively, and both focus on subtler performance upgrades. Mercedes-Benz's AMG has evolved over the years from the detached Autobahn tourers of the 80s to hard-edged track machines with the Black Series today. Even Cadillac quickly established itself as capable of taking on the Bavarian big shots with its V-Series CTS sedan and coupe. And although not a dedicated luxury sub-brand, Chrysler has branched off its high-performance cars with a separate SRT badge, which include the Viper and 300.
Here are 8 noteworthy 2012 and 2013 models from their respective carmakers.
Much like popped-collar shirts, five-door hatchbacks have been popular in Europe but not in the United States. Audi bucks that styling trend with the handsome A7, and for 2013 it has upgraded the S7 with a turbo V-8. Although down 15 horsepower from the previous Lamborghini-sourced V-10, the 420-hp turbo V-8 is nearly 90 pounds lighter and features an unobtrusive cylinder deactivation technology, leading to a 25% improvement in fuel efficiency to 17/26 mpg. With Quattro AWD and beefy tires, it's not a car you'll go sideways in, but with its sultry ride, you wouldn't want to.
With the redesigned 3 Series, the M3 is due for an all-new model in 2014. But the current M3—which comes in coupe, sedan or convertible form—is still the gold standard for luxury sports cars. Naturally aspirated M cars are a dying breed (rumors are the next-gen gets a turbo inline six), so enjoy the melodic wail of an 8500 rpm redline, 414-horsepower V-8 while you can. Moreover, the communicative hydraulic steering is legendary—you'd have to drag your hand along the asphalt for more direct road feedback.
Coming from a company known for land barges that induce sea sickness around corners, Cadillac likely surprised BMW with the CTS-V, a car that can keep up—and even trump the M5. Granted, BMW recently released an all-new version of its super sedan that's quicker, but M5 sales have temporarily halted due to a faulty oil pump, whereas the V sedan has withstood the test of time. The CTS-V drives like a Corvette in sedan form, using a similar Magnetic Ride Control for suspension and a supercharged V-8 good for 556 hp. Although not as compliant as an M5, it's also more than $20,000 cheaper, making it a relative performance bargain.
It may sound like an Oracle developer tool, but IPL stands for Infiniti Performance Line, and so far has two models—the G37 coupe and convertible—in its lineup. More akin to Audi's S models than BMW's M, the IPL G37 offers mild yet well-refined upgrades to the stock G, boosting horsepower to 348 and stiffening the suspension by 10-20%. Some of the center dash trim still looks pulled out of an SUV, but the firmly bolstered, crimson-red seats ooze class.
For decades, burnouts in a four-door tank like the LS seemed unthinkable. But with Akio Toyoda at the helm, the fun-adverse culture of Lexus has gradually been changing, as seen with the Lexus 460 F Sport. The upcoming high-performance LS gets more grunt from a 4.6 liter V-8 (or 5.7-liter hybrid V-8), sits 0.4 inches lower, but still hustles along with the silence of being in solitary confinement. Predator-alien-inspired front facelift aside, the soul is still undeniably Lexus.
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Black Series
What can make a standard AMG feel like a plush Buick? The nail-biting C63 AMG Black Series. Similar to the BMW M3 GTS, AMG took the "regular" C63 AMG coupe, borrowed supercar internals to bump up the horsepower to 510, and then widened the car for a menacing stance. Rocketing from 0-60 in less than four seconds and hitting the quarter mile in less than 12, it has the performance to match the ostentatious aero kit. But if you have $120,000 to spare, you're out of luck—all 800 units have already been accounted for, and Mercedes-Benz isn't planning on making more.
Although the previous Viper had racing cred with the ACR, its lumpy styling, Dodge Neon-grade interior and rear-tire-shredding dynamics meant it lacked the prestige of high-end sports cars like a Porsche or Aston Martin. Not anymore. Spawned under the SRT brand, the new Viper is crisply styled with sleek curves and a leather-stitched dash fitting for its $97,395 price tag. Weighing 3,143 lbs and making 640 horsepower from its massive 8.4-liter V-10, the SRT Viper boasts a better power-to-weight ratio than the Lamborghini Aventador, Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 and Porsche 911 Turbo.
Volvo XC60 R-Design
Volvo has built its reputation on cars that can fall off a cliff with the passenger compartment intact. So it comes as a surprise that they've not only created a performance division with R-Design, but also used that sub-brand on a crossover SUV. This suburban tourer is nothing like your Aunt's boxy 240 wagon; tuned by Polestar and making 300 horsepower, its grippy tires, sharp handling and serene ride quality make the Swedish cruiser an ideal alternative to the harsher BMW X3.