In 1976, country bard Tom T. Hall summarized the fundamental needs of men advancing into what is politely called middle age. The song was “Faster Horses,” and Hall’s refrain boiled life down to the four essentials of the slightly older guy:

“It’s faster horses, Younger women, Older whiskey, And more money.”

Hard to argue with that list, ain’t it, boys? But what’s the comparo connection? Just this. The contestants in this comparison seem the equivalent of the faster horses in Hall’s hedonistic lament. In this context, we’re talking faster than the rest of the herd, or at least most of it. The guys who pop for rides such as these aren’t necessarily interested in going faster down twisty lanes less traveled. The occasional joyous stab at the throttle, sure. The carefree draw on deep power reserves when some mouth breather just will not give up the left lane.

Beyond that, it’s the mere possession of a device that’s capable of pinning everyone against the seatbacks. High lateral g and brisk transient response are all very well, but what really matters is a herd of thoroughbred ponies -- faster ponies -- under the hood of an upscale sedan that looks like an upscale sedan. But not too upscale. None of that Benz S-class or BMW 7-series stuff, rides that make the stockholders nervous. We don’t want ostentation here, y’all. Just a little hedonism -- with enough juice under that right-foot faucet to make it interesting.

We found four horses that seem to answer this set of needs very well. They’re not sports sedans in the sense of the real tigers in this size class: the BMW M5, the Mercedes E63 AMG. But when you get into the $50K region, you know they’re far from ordinary. And three of them really are faster.

The BMW 550i, for example, got a new and more potent 4.8-liter V-8 for 2006. Shared with the 7-series sedan, it replaced the previously employed 4.4-liter in the 545i and bumps output from 325 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque to 360 in each power commodity (although the change hasn’t altered the arcane logic of BMW’s still-mystifying model designations).

The Mercedes E550 also enjoys a substantial power gain over its predecessor, the E500. Most of the ’07 updates to this bread-and-butter Benz family are understated, but there’s nothing subtle about the robust output of the E550’s new 5.5-liter V-8, which whomps up 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque, compared with 302 and 339 for the previous engine. And there’s a seven-speed automatic to make the most of the big power increase.

In contrast to its Germanic competitors, the Lexus GS450h is a faster horse of a different techno color, one that’s unique in this class and wasn’t even on the radar screen when Tom T. created his list of must-haves for life beyond 40-something. The little “h” stands for hybrid, an engineering realm where Lexus’s parent, Toyota, has scored big points with the green-minded, far and wide. Powered by a 3.5-liter gasoline V-6 with assist from a pair of DC electric motors, the 450h plays to the environmental nags and, at the same time, opens up new horizons in performance. Lexus presents this car as a sport model, and the basic theme is road burning with a clear conscience.

Although all the faces here are familiar, the only one that’s a real rerun is the Infiniti M45. As faster horses go, it’s essentially the same steed we tested in a May 2005 comparison [“Spoilsport Sedans”] that involved variants of all the cars assembled here, as well as four others. You might wonder why the M45 made the cut for this smaller field when it’s no faster or newer than our 2005 test car. Here’s the answer: The M45 emerged at the top of the charts in that ’05 showdown, and it returns to defend its title against even tougher competition.

Once our elite little herd was rounded up, we piled in and headed for the green hills of southeast Ohio. With daytime temperatures and humidity cooking near the 100 mark, we rode ’em hard. When we got back to Rancho Hogback and tallied up the score cards, there were some surprises, including a near photo finish. Also, pursuant to Mr. Hall’s advice concerning faster horses, we discovered one big truth: None of these cars will stem the advance of middle age. But any one of them will make the going a lot more pleasurable, some more than others. Which is which? Read on. As for the younger women, etc., we leave those to you.

Fourth Place: Lexus GS450h

In our May ’05 comparo, a Lexus GS430 finished third in an eight-car field, and here its more technically sophisticated stablemate is fourth of four. Qué pasa?

It’s certainly not a refinement issue. Like other Lexuses, this one features a beautifully finished interior enhanced by a touch-screen secondary-control collective that makes those of the other cars seem even more unnecessarily complicated. Touch-screen systems have the downside of messy fingerprint accumulation, which can be irritating for neatniks and also affect legibility in direct sunlight. But they’re infinitely simpler to use than BMW’s iDrive or the Mercedes COMAND system.

Typical of Lexus, the GS450h excels in small details. Damped lids ease open to reveal small nooks, hinged panels enhance the usefulness of door pockets, variable-transparency glass covers the instruments to keep them legible in all ambient light conditions, and a kilowatt meter replaces the tach -- not particularly useful, but along with the hybrid monitor’s graphic display in the center-dash screen, it undoubtedly reinforces the owner’s decision to go the gas-electric route.

Speaking of that, the system works well, lending electric-motor power when demand exceeds the 292-hp max of the 3.5-liter V-6. The transition from power assist to battery regeneration and back is totally transparent, with one caveat: Prolonged full-Monty draw on both power sources erodes max system output (339 horsepower), something we encountered during our test-track acceleration runs and in our blitzes around our 13.5-mile Hocking Hills driving loop.

However, when all the ponies and volts are online, the 450h is capable of respectable haste. Those electric motors and batteries add up at the scales -- at 4183 pounds, the Lexus was the heaviest in a hefty foursome, 303 pounds heavier than the GS430 we tested in May 2005 -- but for all that it sprinted to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 103 mph. This was a shade quicker than the M45, as well as the GS430, and more important, the 450h posted the best 30-to-50 and 50-to-70 times in the group, performance that made it impressive in back-road passing maneuvers. And reinforcing its hybridity, it rang up the best real-world fuel economy: 20 mpg over the course of our 650-mile ramble, 3 mpg better than the next-best BMW and Benz.

So what’s the problem? In a word, dynamics. Dismal dynamics. The GS450h’s logbook was full of praise for its smooth deportment and quiet cruising on freeway stretches. But on the Hocking Hills byways it was a different story. The total absence of feel in the electric power steering reminded one tester of an early-’80s Lincoln Town Car. In active driving, the continuously variable transmission never stopped hunting, and in league with the waxing and waning of the power system, it created a sonorous racket described by another chronicler as “somewhere between a gas turbine and a vacuum cleaner.”

The absence of steering feel made it tricky to position the Lexus for hard cornering, and its mass didn’t help, either in transient response or braking. The GS450h was only 101 pounds north of the M45, the next-heaviest car here, but it felt heavy, something reflected in the longest braking distances in this group.

In the end, the GS450h doesn’t strike us as a Tom T. Hall kind of faster horse. It’s smooth, it’s meticulously crafted, it’s packed with technology, and it may reflect the future of the automobile. But soul is conspicuous only by its absence here.

See the third place winner: Mercedes-Benz E550

See the second place winner: BMW 550i

See the first place winner: Infiniti M45 Sport



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