2011 Aston Martin Vantage S

The Geneva Motor Show is over, but the craptastic weather's following the whiny, overly privileged herd of automotive journos stampeding south for assorted first drives. Porsche's Cayman R drive meets up with pouring rain in Mallorca; by the time we're in the Canary Islands for a two-parter with the new Mercedes C-Class and SLK, it's frigid and windy.

The skies are going an even deeper shade of grey as I rebound once more off the Malaga airport, to southern Spain, for a first drive in the Aston Martin Vantage S and one in their all-new offering, the Virage. (More on that on March 21st.)

Then it hails. And then, it snows.

On paper, I clearly shivered more energy away than I could possibly pump through my veins in the form of caffeine, but it didn't matter once we pulled up in a fleet of black minivans to the gate at Ascari, a kind of adult Disneyland for speed addicts of the socially acceptable kind. Aston rolled open the paddock doors, and fired up the Vantage S' impeccably accented exhaust note. And damn if I didn't wake right up, brushing off epic jetlag to pile into a right-hand-drive roadster for my open-track laps.

The proper name is Ascari Race Resort, by the way, but in this tight-knit, well-heeled community it goes by its first name only. Drawing near its 10th anniversary, Ascari's a privateer track with slate-floored showers, a pretty fabulous restaurant, and staggering views of the mountains near Ronda, the town that gave birth to the bullfight. This isn't Nelson Ledges, or worse, if worse exists.

The track's a keen exercise for even the most talented. Ascari's a 3.5-mile-long, greatest-hits compilation of torturous esses, blurred-out straightaways that all but dead-end into 90-degree turns, and downhill grades that flip-flop between camber changes. In the lingo, it's a "technical" track--in the way neuroendocrinology is a technical expertise.

You can look very stupid here, very easily, but the Vantage S does its best to dust off your driving skills and showcase them in a most favorable, LED-intense light. The S slots above the V8 Vantage, what with its subtle tweaks and automated-manual transmission, but below its truly track-ready cousin, the GT4, and the monster V12 Vantage.

It has a name in common, and it also does what just about every other Aston Martin does with effortlessness. It soaks up attention with precise and exquisite details. It colors its grand-touring presentation with vivid, phenomenal roadgoing poise. And to a one, it makes Spain's aging sidewalk quarterbacks yell out: camio de Bond!

It's totally worth rolling top-down, even with blustery wind sawing at your eardrums, to hear those words. Worth sweating out equal amounts of cured ham and rioja, yet a week later. Worth a coach trip on Irish metal to Britain's least-sexy airport, to sleep in your clothes in a freezing room for six hours before you get on another plane bound for the busiest airport in the world. Read More......

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG First Drive

It was nearly eighty degrees when I stepped out of the airport into the January San Diego sun. The comely AMG-branded blonde greeter immediately engaged me in lively superficial chit-chat as a black Mercedes S400 Hybrid was waved around to ferry me to the Rancho Valencia. The lifestyle immersion process of the AMG brand had already begun.

But it was just the beginning. Arriving at the resort hotel, shuttled to my room on a waiting golf cart, luggage in tow, I was dropped at the door to a private villa stocked with AMG promotional materials: my residence for the next several days.

With the Robin Leach treatment, you might think the car I was there to test--the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG--would be little more than a bit player, a bedtime mint on the pillow. It's anything but.

The Benevolent Dictator
Slip into the new CLS63 and get your driving position set, then stick the fob into the dash and give it a twist (yes, you have to--no pocketing the fob and pushing a button here), and the new 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8 gently burbles to life, resolving to a low murmur at idle. Spin a few knobs and press a button or two and you're in M (manual) mode for the seven-speed single-clutch planetary-gear transmission, the firmest setting for the dynamic dampers, and, if desired, completely unhindered by traction control. Ready to roll.

And roll it does. Like a runaway train off the edge of a cliff once you apply a little boot to the fast pedal. Despite the elemental, force-of-nature wall of power, our observed fuel economy over more than 100 miles of highly spirited driving was a computer-reported 20.2 mpg.

Should you choose to leave some of the electronic nannies on--it is a roughly $100,000 car, after all, and initially unfamiliar at that--you'll find your play reined in only when you get seriously out of hand. Hustle the car smoothly and well, and you'll notice only tiny dabs of the brakes on individual wheels if you notice it at all. This car's computer is speed's friend, not its enemy.

According to director of vehicle development and AMG board member Tobias Moers, himself a skilled high-performance driver, the lap times of AMG's hottest shoes were the same whether ESP and traction control were engaged or not, and after driving it, we tend to believe him. That's high praise for the systems, and a welcome change from the lawyer-induced lackadaisicality common to the electronic minders of much of the 500-plus horsepower club. The Nordschleife time of the new 2012 CLS63 AMG? No one would give me a straight answer, but Moers did say it's in the "very, very low eight minute range."

Float Like a Feather
At 4,270 pounds, the 2012 CLS63 AMG is well into the heavyweight category for high-performance cars, but you'd never guess it from behind the wheel. Nimble isn't a word you'd typically apply to a two-ton, 113.2-inch wheelbase four-door, but it fits here. Nimble like Muhammad Ali, with just as powerful a punch.

The perception of nimbleness comes as much from the feedback you get from the steering wheel as it does from the well-tuned if a bit brusque-in-the-bumps suspension. The CLS63 sports AMG's first electrically-assisted power steering system, and according to Moers, that system alone took weeks of intense development and revision to perfect. The end result is indeed very near to perfection, or at least as close as we've experienced in such a large, heavy car.

A constant 14:1 ratio strips the vagueness and unpredictability of variable-ratio steering from the mix, leaving behind a direct, communicative, wiggle-free tiller that serves as much as a Human-Machine Interface (HMI) as the COMAND multimedia system does, and much more intuitive to use. Read More......

Mercedes-Benz SL 65 AMG Black Series

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Fifth Gear - Brabus Rocket CLS

Jason Plato puts his foot to the floor when he takes the Brabus Rocket, the world's fastest four-door saloon, to the German Autobahn to try and top 200mph. Read More......