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RICHARD BLOOM

Saturday, October 16, 2004

TORONTO -- A London-based automotive executive was quoted recently as saying that "luxury is in the brand, not the price" and that owning a luxury car is "a matter of perception and of feeling, not of how much it costs."

Still, with the cars' price tags akin to those found in the real estate market, if you're looking at making a leap into luxury, get ready to open up your wallet -- or possibly take out a mortgage.

An informal survey of some of the world's major luxury car makers reveals that the 2005 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren sits atop the list of most expensive new cars available to Canadians -- coming in at a whopping $450,000 (U.S.) or about $563,000 (Canadian).

That's nearly 2.5 times the average cost of a home in this country. For that same amount, you can buy about 45 Kia Rios (one of the least expensive cars in Canada).

"The [SLR] is pure in every way: it's an unadulterated sports car. It's rough, it's ready, it's capable, it's hand built . . . it's just a legendary car," said Steven Kastner, personal liaison manager for the SLR. His job (quite possibly one of the greatest in the car business) is to know the SLR and Mercedes' sister line Maybach inside and out, and attend to the needs of those interested in purchasing one.

Mr. Kastner described the SLR as "a very streetable race car" -- and that's what makes it stand out in the eyes of buyers. "You can go to [Ontario racetrack] Mosport and lap with the car, then go to [tony upscale Toronto neighbourhood] Yorkville afterward."

He explained that for one customer, who received an SLR last week, owning the car has been an overwhelming experience. He said that after five years of reading about and seeing the SLR in magazines, the customer gets approached by curious car fanatics everywhere he goes.

"Honest to god, the guy was speechless. He didn't know how to verbalize what his feelings of the car were," Mr. Kastner said, adding that the new car owner was able to describe it as the "finest road machine" he's ever driven.

Coming in just a few thousand dollars cheaper -- at $440,000 (U.S.) or $551,000 (Canadian) -- is the Porsche Carrera GT. The sleek convertible claims to bring "the undiluted qualities of a genuine race car to provide an unprecedented driving experience on the road."

Now, if dropping the hammer in a souped-up sports car isn't your thing, perhaps the Rolls-Royce Phantom will pique your interest. With a price tag of $520,000, it comes complete with televisions in the back seat, a fridge in the trunk and room to seat five people comfortably.

"The Rolls-Royce is built for the driver," says William Hamilton, director of marketing for Toronto's Grand Touring Automobiles, He noted that some of the Phantom customers at his lot have been corporations and chief executive officers. "It's a great tool for them to show for clients."

Rounding out the top five luxury cars:

Lamborghini Murcielago Roadster: $450,000.

Ferrari 575 Maranello: $400,000.

"For some people [buying a Ferrari] is a reward. For some people it's a lifelong ambition," said Michael Ney, president of Montreal's Ferrari Quebec.

Still, the fact that you want an ultra-high luxury car doesn't mean you'll get one any time soon.

Many high-end car makers have long waiting lists for their top-of-the-line cars because the Canadian marketplace is usually allocated only a few of the cars each year.

For example, about 60 SLRs have been ordered in Canada -- but it will take years for those to be delivered, Mr. Kastner explained. In total, only 3,500 SLRs will ever be made (500 a year for seven years) before the model is discontinued.

Ferrari's Mr. Ney said he's taken six orders for the 575 Maranello, but will likely get only two or three over the next year:

"You can walk in and put your name down and a deposit down . . . will you be able to get one for next year? I'm not sure."

Michel Camilleri, sales manager at Lamborghini Toronto, said the eight 2005 Murcielago Roadsters that have been earmarked for Canada are already sold.

If money were no object...

A sampling of new models of some of the highest-priced automobiles available.

2005 SLR

Mercedes McLaren

Price: $563,000

Specs: V8; max speed: 330 km/h; 0-100 km/h: 4.2 secs.

Buzz: "Quite enjoyable, a tasty mélange of leather and aluminum with a hint of carbon fibre." (Road & Track)

Porsche Carrera GT

Price: $551,000

Specs: V10; max speed: 330 km/h; 0-100 km/h: 3.9 secs

Buzz: "This car is the epitome of engineering prowess, from a company known for its engineering prowess." (Fortune)

Roll-Royce Phantom

Price: $520,000

Specs: V12; max speed: 208 km/h; 0-100 km/h: 5.9 secs.

Buzz: "For all its regal bearing and luxurious appointments, (it) is a fun car to drive hard." (Motor Trend)

Lamborghini Murcielago

Price: $450,000

Specs: V12; Max speed: 320 km/h; 0-100 km/h: 3.8 secs

Buzz: "The alpha car of the crowd...an outrageous shape and impressive-looking engine." (The Wall Street Journal)

Ferrari 575 Maranello

Price: $400,000

Specs: V12; Max speed 323 km/h; 0-100 km/h: 4.2 secs

Buzz: "So much power that you feel more like you are on the bridge of a supertanker." (Daily Star - Britain)

Note: The Mercedes McLaren and Porsche Carrere GT prices are converted to Canadian dollars.

© The Globe and Mail