Without question, we live in the golden age of automobiles right now. Every single car in a show room in the US is a good car, from the 'lowly' Nissan Versa on up. Subcompacts like the Ford Fiesta, Chevy Spark, and Kia Rio manifest comfort and features that would be unheard of in a luxury car as recent as the mid-80's. The ridiculous gains in fuel economy without sacrificing a shred of performance is staggering.
The poster child of the heady automotive times we live in , as usual, is a BMW. The new 328i gets up to 34 miles to the gallon - the same as a 2009 Chevy Aveo! This is a car with not much less interior space as the last generation 5 series and can get 0-60 in 5.5 seconds - just a third of a second slower than that beast of a sports car-cum-object d'art, the Ferrari Testarossa (posters of it adorned the bedrooms of many of my friends growing up). Yes, this is the golden age.
And what better subject to discuss during the automotive golden age than Gran Turismo? No, I don't mean the great video game series. I mean the apotheosis of the automobile enjoyment: Gran Turismo, or Grand Tourer.
To properly understand Grand Tourers, we must first understand its namesake, the Grand Tour. Historically, Grand Tours were undertaken by European noble young men (and eventually women), who went on a long tour, which often lasted longer than a year, of the various important cities of Europe. Paris, Rome, Milan, Geneva, Munich, London: the idle rich would take up long term residence in each city, capitalize on the hospitality of various other nobility, further their education, and hopefully become 'worldly.' Sure, they would be expected to come back with innumerable stories about their travels, and certainly an insufferable air with which to tell their stories: "You know, the Swiss call it 'Wein,' not Vienna…"
Several centuries later and the invention of new forms of travel (planes, trains, and automobiles, namely), came the Grand Tourer: cars that could be used as the main form of transit on a Grand Tour. What qualities were necessary? First, it had to be fast enough to get around the rolling chicanes that others on the road were, and reasonably entertain thoughts of chasing down the horizon. Second, it had to comfortable enough to be an amiable companion for day-long stints at the wheel, day after day. Third, it had to be an entertaining drive: it had bend willingly into corners, straighten twisty mountain roads with reasonable efficacy, and make choosing the long way a reasonable choice. Fourth, they had to have enough cargo space for the driver and his companion, their luggage, and whatever baubles they might acquire on the trip. Fifth, it can't be the practical choice, however. Going with a Grand Tourer is not the conservative choice: it must betray a sense of adventure and panache. And finally, it had to be pretty: one who was on a Grand Tour wanted to be noticed when he arrived wherever he was going.
Historically, these strictures rendered a number of types of cars of inadequate for the job. Sports cars were too hard edged to be comfortable and lacked in the cargo arena. Sedans weren't pretty, fast, or fun enough, and they are too safe of a choice. And these cars would be expensive: after all, it wouldn't be cheap to build cars so capable.
Always up to a challenge, the alchemists at Maserati, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Mercedes Benz, and a number of other manufacturers met this need with aplomb. The king of the breed, of course, is the Ferrari Daytona. Built from 1968 until 1973, the Daytona was and is a desperately pretty, capable car. Top Gear demonstrated just how amazing the car is even today when it had Richard Hammond race in one against James May in a carbon fiber racing boat from Portofino to St. Tropez a couple of years ago. Even now, the car just looks right on a road trip along the Italian-French Riviera.
In my book (and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the one that matters, heh), the other great grand touring cars from the golden age of grand touring include the original Mercedes SL, Lamborghini Espada, Maserati Sebring and Mistral, Aston Martin DB4 (and DB5 and DB6), Jaguar E-Type, and pretty much everything that Ferrari produced that preceded the Daytona
Today, the traditional Grand Tourer class is full of amazing cars. Ferrari has three cars that qualify: the FF, the F12, and the California can all be considered proper Grand Tourers (even though the latter is a convertible, it still works perfectly as a Grand Tourer) . The Bentley Continental GT might be the current paragon of the species, unless the achingly gorgeous Maserati Gran Turismo is (my money is on the Maser). Pretty much every Aston Martin is a Grand Tourer, too. Stepping down from that rarified air into, well, slightly less rarified air, the BMW 6 series, Jaguar XK, and Mercedes SLS and CL are all amazing Grand Tourers in the traditional mold: they look the part and drive accordingly. The Porsche 911 could theoretically be included now, but I think it's still a bit too much sports car to fit in with this lot.
However, the ability for cars even further down market to fulfill the central core mission of a Grand Tourer is legitimately broadening the term to encompass cars that certainly wouldn't have qualified even a decade ago. Reasonably attainable cars like the Audi A5, BMW 3 series coupe (which will soon be called the 4 series), Mercedes E Coupe and C Coupe, and Infiniti G37 coupe would all make fantastic long distance companions, have plenty of power, are fun to drive, have good cargo room, and look great.
If the A5 is horizontally stretching the bounds of the Grand Tourer downward, new vehicles are stretching the genus horizontally. Want a great vehicle for a Grand Tour, but don't really like coupes, or perhaps you have friends in that city 600 miles away that you want to take out to dinner? A veritable fleet of choices await you. The Mercedes CLS, BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe, Audi A7, Porsche Panamera, and Aston Martin Rapide all are certainly capable of filling the Gran Tourer mission. Want something a bit taller? Go with a BMW X6. Okay, so the X6 (and Panamera, for that matter) is not exactly pretty, but it is certainly striking and will absolutely make a statement and an entrance.
Sure, the CLS can be largely labeled as a warmed over E-Class with worse accommodations for rear passengers, and less practicality. The same charges can be leveled at the X6 in reference to the X5, the A7 in reference to the A6, and so on and so forth. Those sacrifices in the name of style – even if the style doesn’t appeal to you – are what make the CLS, A7, and their ilk grand tourers, while the E-Class, A6, et al are just great luxury cars. Grand tourers reveal a sense of mischief, a willingness to prize aesthetics, style, and fun at the expense of practicality. These alternative grand touring cars all demonstrate that perfectly.
In that spirit, given that the Grand Tourer gestalt has become a bigger tent, I think I should mention another car that most wouldn't think of as a Grand Tourer, but I think fits perfectly as one: the Land Rover Range Rover Evoque. By all reports, it's a very fun drive - both on and off road - has enough grunt to be swift on the open road, and has quite a good ride. It is reasonably commodious for up to 4 and their cargo, yet isn't' quite as cargo-oriented as its platform sibling, the LR2 or anything else in its class. And perhaps most importantly, it's very pretty. Quite frankly, it might be one of the best looking cars on the road that can be bought for under $80,000. And I don't even like SUV's - in fact, I usually refer to them as FUV's (hat tip to Peter Sagal for that one)
314That is how good of a time we live in: Land Rover can build a car that fulfills the mission of a Grand Tourer, and still gets 27 miles to the gallon. Crazy and great times indeed. Long Live the Grand Tourer.