After spending time winding along California’s Highway 1 in the spartan Japanese road rocket that is the Nissan GT-R, luxuriating in the Teutonic splendor of the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster was heaven, and surely nothing like the rough beast up next, Lamborghini’s race-ready Performante.
Now, the next sentence here should read: and then I woke up.
But this was no dream. Rather, I tagged along on a one-day mad dash from Napa Valley to Santa Monica in seven supercars organized by Driving Xllence, one of a growing number of companies catering to folks who like their five-star vacations to include road time in some of the world’s finest automobiles.
Judging from the dozen clients on this abridged version of the company’s standard two-day California drive, which runs between $6,500 and $7,500 per couple with three nights lodging, customers range from those who have exotics in their garages but want to try other marques, to those who earn enough to sample the dream but not own it.
“The driving experience has to be in line with the product being driven” says Driving Xllence CEO Jean Paul Libert. “If you’re going to spend good money to drive supercars, that time should be as unforgettable as possible, organized by people who really appreciate motoring. Not just a few hours on a track, but real driving adventures with like-minded enthusiasts.”
Libert’s background is in both the commercial and driving sides of racing. He spent years negotiating corporate sponsorships in Formula One as well as racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which led to a friendship with endurance driving veteran Didier Theys, who serves as Driving Xllence’s director of driving.
The big day dawned rainy in Napa, causing the parade of absurdly competent automobiles - which also included the Lamborghini Aventador, Audi R8 Spyder, Ferrari 458 Italia and McLaren MP4-12C - to crawl across the Golden Gate Bridge. Somewhere around Monterey the clouds parted and the speeds picked up. On the snaking coastal route by Big Sur, gaps between tourist rental cars were exploited with neck-snapping glee. Only a few times did Theys’ voice squawk to life on the walkie-talkie he wielded inside his Chrysler 300 pace car, warning of highway patrolmen lying in wait.
Decades ago, hopping in a car with 500 or 600 horsepower would have demanded an FIA license and a lack of sanity. Today, with automatic transmissions and NASA-like safety features, the only way to really get in trouble is to forget you’re not Didier Theys and start taking turns way too fast. That’s a long drop to the ocean.
Owning even one Ferrari would be a thrill, but flogging seven state-of-the-art machines without worrying about whether you’ll need new tires or a five-figure tune-up is wildly liberating. Some impressions from behind the wheel, in the order I drove them:
6.5-liter V12, 700 horsepower, 11/17 miles per gallon city/highway; $376,000
There are lots of ways to describe “crushing disappointment,” but heading my list of late is drawing this top-of-the-line Lambo out of the gate, in time for a painfully dull, rain-snared plod through San Francisco traffic. Nonetheless, there is lots to enjoy even at slow speeds. An evolution of the Murcielago, the Aventador boasts an even more alien-craft shape that’s just this side of Transformers. Inside, the virtual dash is dominated by the tach, actual speed relegated to a small digital readout. The car’s F1-derived suspension and carbon fiber monocoque combine to make steering inputs immediate, while the seven-speed single-clutch transmission - in auto mode - kicks down with satisfying throttle blips each time your foot grazes the brake pedal. Given some open, dry road and this could have been an encounter for the ages.
Pro: Nothing quite as beastly on the road today
Con: A daily driver only if you live on a racetrack
3.8-liter V6, 530 hp, 16/23 mpg; $89,950
Go from the most expensive car in this group to the least and you’re bound to suffer some culture shock. But once you get over the pedestrian interior, the Nissan’s purpose makes itself clear with one look at the 220-mph speedo. It’s both comfortable and screamingly fast, which is likely why a number of folks on this trip announced that at home they proudly park one next to their less street-worthy exotic. The recently tweaked GT-R now features revised engine mapping and a new exhaust that account for the car’s 450 lb-ft of torque. And there’s something delicious about how the mighty Nissan can run with these exotics while saving enough to buy a nice house in the Midwest.
Pro: A genuine wolf in sheep’s sheetmetal
Con: Many prefer looking like a wolf
Ferrari 458 Italia
4.5-liter V8, 570 hp, 12/18 mpg; $230,275
Having recently spent a track day driving the 458 Italia, I was fully aware of this car’s handling prowess going into the drive. Much has been written about how the 458 is a quantum leap from the already terrific F430, all of it on target. What this run showed was that the Prancing Horse commands attention in the most mundane places standing still. Crowds flocked to our car in small California hamlets even though it was painted an unglamorous white. On the road, the delightful cacophony of burbles from the exhaust made a stereo moot.
Pros: The status and performance bred into every Maranello steed
Cons: The knowledge that the next model will be better than yours
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster
6.3-liter V8, 563 hp, 14/20 mpg; $196,100
This AMG machine is a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Fearsome looks, especially cloaked in black over black leather and carbon. Brutal acceleration, with a soundtrack of Wagnerian ambition. Seductive interior, ranging from jewel-like gauges to a solid headliner that shuts out all road noise. More than any car in this bunch, the big Merc offered up a split personality, from posh cruiser to autobahn-stormer at the flick of an ankle. Not that it isn’t without flaws, notably the uneasy feeling you get when charging into a turn with a 3,661-pound sled. But that queasy feeling could be kept at bay with some seat time in this car, feeling out its seemingly limitless envelope. And best of all, squint and you swear it’s Sir Stirling Moss’ epic 300SLR lurking before you.
Pro: Spare no expense luxury meets performance
Cons: Ragtops are nice, but the coupe’s gullwing doors are missed
5.2-liter V10, 570 hp, 12/20 mpg; $248,000
The Performante name is Lambo’s twist on Ferrari’s Scuderia line, and in this instance it refers to the track-focused convertible made from an otherwise civilized Gallardo coupe. The boy racer stripes and fixed wing set the tone, which is seconded by an interior awash in alcantara and carbon fiber (stealing a page from Porsche, the door pulls are mere loops fashioned out of rubber). Coming out of the SLS, the Performante requires a radical shift in focus. Paddle shifts are efficient if raw, and braking requires quadricep-straining determination. There’s no taking a Bluetooth call or even considering twiddling with the Audi-sourced audio system while on the road. But the reward is scalpel-like turn-ins, a menacing yowl from the exhaust and the knowledge that you may be getting the most looks of the septet.
Pros: Radical, intimidating looks bested only by the Aventador
Cons: Palatable only in small doses
Audi R8 Spyder
5.2-liter V10, 525 hp, 13/19 mpg; $171,800
The Audi R8 is one of the most exciting track cars to come from Audi’s stables in years. So it’s saying something that rotating into it from the Performante felt like leaving the bodybuilding section of Gold’s Gym and hitting the spa. With its comparatively soft ride, easy brakes and elegant rumble, the R8 Spyder proves to be the choice for those who can only afford one supercar. This model’s R-Tronic transmission was happy to zip the Spyder through Highway 1’s curves in full auto mode with no great loss in feel, though manual shifting was more fun. Visually, this car benefits from the deletion of the coupe’s massive side blades, giving it a low-slung vibe. If it weren’t for the car ahead in line, few would have gotten out of the R8.
Pros: Everyday-driver functionality masking an inner demon
Cons: The mighty Merc cabrio taunts from just $25,000 away
3.8-liter twin-turbo V8, 592 hp, 15/22 mpg; $229,000
Fitting that the new supercar from McLaren was last on my list as the caravan hammered its way into Los Angeles. It was the car I was most curious about, and as such, I could write volumes. Negatives first. The styling is a bit all over the place. The doors - which open up, then out - could be more functional. And … we’ll that’s about it. What the car does exude is profound sense of thoughtfulness and quality (the clean interior feels like it was made by the folks at Bang & Olufsen), supreme stability and nimbleness (thanks to a carbon monocoque tub that keeps weight down to an impressive 2,800 pounds), and a point-and-shoot purposefulness often lacking when a car tries to be all things to all people. What’s more, Sir Ron Dennis and his elves have managed to build a race car for the street that doesn’t beat you up. Now, if only I could have turned around and driven it back to Napa.
Pros: New kid on the block exclusivity
Cons: An exterior that isn’t as beautiful as the sum of the parts beneath