Chevrolet Corvette Convertible vs. Cadillac XLR-V

Few cars in this country ever have or ever will achieve the iconic status of the Chevrolet Corvette. And even though it's considered an aspirational item -- to say nothing of a performance icon -- the Corvette has always represented terrific bang for the buck. Never has that been truer than now.

Naturally, GM is proud that its latest and greatest Corvette, the C6, can accelerate to 60 mph in just over four seconds while retaining a base price of $46,950 for the coupe and $55,425 for the convertible.

But GM is quick to change the subject away from value when we bring up that other Corvette-based sports car. GM gave Cadillac the XLR to jazz up its image, but the car's smaller, less-powerful engine and $26,000-higher sticker (compared with the Corvette convertible) proved less effective in becoming a halo Caddy than in underscoring what a damn good bargain the Corvette still is. The value difference is even more vivid when the Corvette convertible is considered against the supercharged XLR-V, which makes a creditable 443 horsepower and 414 pound-feet of torque. But at an even 100 grand, the XLR-V costs just shy of twice as much as the Corvette, which, by the way, became even more powerful this year and now makes an obscene 436 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque.

To be fair to Cadillac, the XLR has a slick motorized hardtop and comes fully equipped. And in base or V trim, the XLR has an interior the Corvette's new-for-2008 optional interior package is only now beginning to approach for luxurious look and feel. Besides, the Caddy isn't alone here. There are few cars in the XLR-V's class, including the Porsche 911 Carrera S cabriolet, the Jaguar XKR, and the Mercedes-Benz SL550, that can even come close to matching the Corvette's combination of raw power, scintillating handling, reasonable space, and comfort.

BMW 535i vs. BMW 550i

We seldom describe BMWs as bargains, especially when they cost 50 grand or more. But when, say, one compares two Bimmers with the same body and the same basic amenities and one costs nearly 10 grand more than the other, one is ridiculously overpriced or the other is a steal. And since we value the engineering and dynamic brilliance of any BMW so much that even $59,275 for the V-8-powered 550i sedan seems reasonable, we suppose that makes the $50,175 535i, with its luscious twin-turbo, six-cylinder engine, a steal.

Okay, we must admit that $60,000 for a 550i -- before options -- is a bit steep, especially considering that, besides the additional two cylinders, all the extra $9100 adds to the 535i's list of features is leather seats and auto-dimming mirrors. To get those on a 535i, one must check a $2100 options box, but even then, the 535i represents a comparative bargain, as there are few needs for power and torque that can't be met -- with pleasure -- by the 535i's sweet 300-hp inline-six that produces 300 pound-feet of torque.

Recent acceleration tests confirm how closely matched -- and fast! -- these sedans actually are. In a November 2006 comparison of four luxury sedans, we hustled a 550i to 60 mph in a scant 5.2 seconds, a feat we accomplished exactly one year later in an all-wheel-drive 535xi in 5.4 seconds. With nearly 300 fewer pounds, we surmise that the rear-wheel-drive 535i would tie the V-8 model (which, by the way, isn't available with all-wheel drive) on the drag strip. The tie breaker? Fuel economy. At 17 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway, the manual-transmission 535i boasts a significant 2- and 4-mpg advantage, respectively, over the stick-shift 550i.

Otherwise, the two sedans are clones, from the still-controversial styling to interior fitments. And although we still aren't universally fond of BMW's infuriating iDrive infonavitainment system, which in one prior review was described by a C/D editor as "labyrinthine," we aren't so turned off by it that we wouldn't recommend the 535i to someone looking for a sports sedan that's not only a blast to drive but also well worth the money.

Audi S5 vs. Jaguar XK

Luxury coupes are distinctly personal automobiles. They live a charmed life, satisfying few needs aside from vanity, self-indulgence, and a sense of reward. What hardened fools must we be to apply such a pragmatic, left-brain concern as value to the coupe genre?

Well, like anyone with a wish list larger than his wallet, we work hard for such rewards, and when they come, they must compete for dollars with the occasional fancy meal, shiny jewelry, vacations, home-entertainment systems, and nonessentials that are nonetheless deemed necessary, if only to prevent our significant others from walking out on us. Thus, should a luxo-coupe exist that delivers just as much sex appeal and driving pleasure as, say, the stunning $75,500 Jaguar XK but with more than $24,000 cash in the glove box to spend on other goodies, might it end up on our wish list? You bet. Even better, that car actually exists: It's called the Audi S5.

Now, to be fair, no current Audi -- not even the spectacular R8 supercar -- can match the long-limbed sensuality with which the Ian Callum-designed XK mesmerizes its audience. But if the curvy XK is a slinky black dress, the square-jawed S5 is an Armani suit -- vastly different in appearance but plenty sexy to impress the minions at a star-studded movie premiere or swank cocktail party. Other advantages for the German include more straightforward ergonomics, a habitable rear seat, and industry-leading assembly quality.

More important, the Audi is faster. With 354 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque on tap from its 4.2-liter V-8, the S5 hits 60 mph in a mere 4.8 seconds, embarrassing the 300-hp XK, which requires another second to do the same deed. Both are brilliant handlers, with a lower driving position and rear-axle-only power delivery bestowing the Jaguar with a slightly more action-packed experience. But no matter how much more exotic the Jag might feel from behind the wheel, it would be hard to forget what's in the glove box. Or rather, what's not.

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