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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The 10 high-performance machines that shaped today's automotive landscape.

By Marc Lachapelle of MSN autos

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing Coupe (© Mercedes-Benz)

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing Coupe

Soon after the automobile was invented and its basic layout defined, engineers began refining it for high-performance thrill seekers — improving design, adding power and improving handling. For decades a chasm separated the high-performance racers from the road-going runabouts. Then in the '50s and '60s racing technology and performance entered the everyday realm, and soon the most audacious Grand Touring sports cars morphed into the first supercars. Today's supercars represent an automaker's pinnacle of style, technology and performance, but still they pay homage to the trailblazing steeds that have gone before them. Although it's always tough to narrow the field, we've put together a list of the 10 most charismatic and influential sports cars ever to grace asphalt.

1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, aka "The Gullwing"

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL was initially conceived as a race car, the W 194, as are most great sports cars. The German automaker had no plans to produce a street-legal version, but Maximilian Hoffman, the official importer of Mercedes-Benz cars into America at the time, lobbied for a sports car that he could sell to his upscale clientele. The W 194 fit the bill perfectly, so Mercedes greenlighted production. Thus the 300 SL (or W 198) was born. While they might look cool, the 300 SL's signature "Gullwing" doors are not just for show. They are actually a practical solution to an engineering problem. To enhance stability, the 300 SL's tubular frame rises far up the sides of the vehicle, making it impossible to fit conventional doors. So the Stuttgart-based automaker devised an upward-opening door; hence the wing-like appearance. Another special feature is the six-cylinder engine's direct injection system. The first of its kind, the system helped the 300 SL's 3.0-liter straight six develop 215 horsepower. The SL offered fast and precise cornering, exceptional acceleration and enough torque to ensure good pulling power at any speed.

1965 Shelby AC Cobra Mark III

In 1963 retired race car driver Carroll Shelby dropped a Ford small-block overhead valve V8 engine under the hood of a British-designed A.C. Ace roadster and made history. He called the concoction the Shelby A.C. Cobra Mark I. To accommodate the large 4.3-liter engine, Shelby engineers strengthened the Ace's tubular chassis, flared the fenders to accommodate wider tires and installed four-wheel disc brakes. They also upgraded the transmission to a Borg-Warner four-speed manual and added a limited-slip differential. About 75 Mark I Cobras were built before Shelby started arming the roadster with an even larger 4.7-liter V8. He introduced the Mark II version in 1963, adding rack-and-pinion steering. Then the tall Texan teamed up with Ford in 1965 to create the Cobra Mark III, the most famous Cobra of all. Built on a stronger tube chassis and running on a coil-spring rear suspension, the Mark III was powered by a thunderous 427 cubic-inch (7.0-liter) Ford V8 that produced 425 horsepower in standard form and 485 in racing trim. The latter had a top speed close to 190 mph, which was unheard of back then. The Shelby A.C. Cobra built up an enviable competition record, including a win over the perceived "invincible" Scuderia Ferrari at the 1965 World Manufacturers Championship for GT cars. Today, it is one of the most sought after collector cars, fetching more than seven figures at auction and from private collectors.

1966 Lamborghini Miura

Displeased with the customer service at Ferrari, successful Italian industrialist and tractor manufacturer Ferruccio Lamborghini decided to build his own sports cars. At the Geneva Motor Show in 1966 he introduced what was arguably his greatest creation to date: The sleek and stunningly beautiful Miura, named after a breed of fighting bull. Designed by Marcello Gandini, who is famous for building aggressive, imaginative and futuristic looking sports cars, the Miura was the first modern supercar. It featured a 4.0-liter 345-horsepower V12 engine mounted amidships and transversely behind the seats, and could go more than 170 mph. Off the line it accelerated from zero to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. Encouraged by the Miura's success, Lamborghini would launch an even more radical successor a few years later: the Countach, also styled by Gandini.

1986 Porsche 959

Twenty years after the launch of its seminal 911, Porsche wanted to see how far it could push the rear-engine architecture. The autobahn-ready version of the 959 was unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show in the fall of 1985. The styling was a forward-looking interpretation of the 911 with body panels made of composite materials. This kept the weight to less than 3,200 pounds in spite of the extra mass of the electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system, an unprecedented feature on a sports car of that period. The 959 was powered by a 2.85-liter 6-cylinder "boxer" engine with sequential turbochargers that developed close to 450 horsepower: enough for a 0-60 dash in 3.6 seconds and a peak velocity of 197 mph. The 959 inspired the subsequent evolution of the 911 Turbo and various all-wheel-drive applications. Less than 400 were built — all prized possessions nowadays.

1990 Acura NSX

Honda, Acura's parent company, built the NSX during the company's glory days in Formula One racing. The car showcased much of Honda's track technology, including an ultra-rigid, ultra-light aluminum monocoque chassis (the first ever in a production car), aluminum suspension, titanium connecting rods, forged pistons and high-revving capabilities. It was powered by a mid-mounted 3.0-liter V6 that produced 270 horsepower, providing enough get-up-and-go to take on any European exotic. The strong body and aluminum suspension components delivered a firm ride and superior handling. A bonus: The NSX was super reliable, with many going more than 100,000 miles. Today, the NSX is still considered to be the most reliable exotic car ever built.

1994 McLaren F1

After winning 15 out 16 Formula One races in 1988, McLaren Cars decided to expand its operation by building a no-compromise, street-legal supercar. The idea was to build a car that had a high power-to-weight ratio, yet be usable for everyday driving. Gordan Murray, the South African automaker's technical director, and stylist Peter Stevens decided to make a small car using lightweight components and a large, normally aspirated V12 engine. Like a race car, Murray placed the driver's seat in the center of the F1 to provide the best possible view of the road. Additionally, the F1 didn't have any driving aids — no traction control, ABS, power brakes, power steering, nothing. Thanks to a carbon fiber monocoque chassis and body, this land rocket weighed only 2,500 pounds — about the same as a Mazda Miata. Unlike the Miata, however, the F1 was powered by a 6.1-liter engine custom designed by BMW that developed 627 horsepower, enough to gallop from 0 to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds and through the quarter mile in 11.6 seconds. The F1's top speed of 231 mph has yet to be matched by any normally aspirated production car.

2003 Ferrari Enzo

To celebrate its first Formula One World Championship of the new millennium, Ferrari decided to build an all-new supercar that incorporated some of the racing technologies that made Michael Schumacher, the Italian stallion's F1 driver, a five-time world champion. Ferrari is well known for building some of the most refined, fastest vehicles on the planet. But this one was special, featuring a carbon-fiber body, sequential shift transmission and carbon-ceramic brake discs. It also featured active aerodynamics and traction control. Power was supplied by a 6.0-liter 660-horsepower V12. The Enzo, named after the automaker's founder, could reach 230 mph, accelerate to 60 mph in about 3.15 seconds and travel the quarter mile 11 seconds. A total of 399 cars were built. A 400th was built later and auctioned off for more than $1.3 million to help survivors of the 2004 tsunami.

2006 Bugatti 16.4 Veyron

This Bugatti is all about excess, as most are. As promised by then Volkswagen Group chairman Ferdinand Piëch (VW owns the Bugatti brand), the 16.4 Veyron has indeed become the fastest, most powerful and priciest production car in history. This sizable coupe is powered by a 16-cylinder 8.0-liter engine force-fed by four turbochargers. It has a maximum output of 987 horsepower. Coupled to a 7-speed, double-clutch sequential gearbox with four-wheel drive, it vaults to 60 mph in less than 2.5 seconds, blasts through the quarter mile in just over 10 seconds and reaches a top speed of 253 mph. Thankfully, it has carbon brakes with eight titanium pistons in front and six at the rear to slow a mass of more than two tons (4,160 lb). Oh, and it also consumes more fuel than any other car, with an EPA fuel economy rating of 7 mpg in the city and 10 in highway driving. If you can find one (they are all sold out), the Veyron will probably run you just over $2 million.

2008 Audi R8

The R8 is Audi's brilliant first effort at building a true sports car. Named after the German carmaker's fabulously successful prototype racer, the R8 has sleek aluminum body work stretched over an aluminum space frame with a mid-mounted 4.2-liter 420-horsepower V8 displayed under a glass hatch. It accelerates to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds and travels the quarter mile in 12.75 seconds, with standard quattro all-wheel drive and either a manual or optional automatic-clutch 6-speed gearbox. Yet its greatness is not achieved through numbers but rather an outstanding blend of exotic-level handling, engine sound and exceptional levels of ride, comfort and build-quality. And it does all that at a price that radically undercuts current exotics. The R8 is sold out through 2009, but Audi is currently developing an R8 roadster and more powerful versions with either a gasoline V10 or a diesel V12.

2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

The newest Corvette might not have the blue-blood breeding of European exotic peers, but man does it have the power, performance, handling, braking and refinement to compete with the best of the breed — and it hasn't even gone into full production yet. Under its carbon-fiber hood sits the new LS9 engine: a supercharged 6.2-liter version of the legendary Chevy "small-block" that produces 638 horsepower. The ZR1's chassis combines aluminum and magnesium for strength and to reduce weight. To further slim it out, body panels are made from both polymer and carbon fiber. Standard "Magnetic Selective Ride" shocks make it impressively refined and quiet on the road, and it comes with fantastic carbon-ceramic brakes developed by Brembo that will stop the ZR1 on a dime. Chevrolet says the ZR1 will accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds, run the quarter mile in 11.3-seconds and achieve a top speed of 205 mph. Supercar performance indeed, at an amazingly affordable base price of $103,000.

Other honorable mentions — notable for significance, pure fun and sheer beauty — include:

1961 Jaguar E-Type
1966 Ferrari 275 GTB/4
1972 BMW 2002tii
1980 Audi quattro
1965 Lotus Seven Series II
1973 Lancia Stratos HF
1992 Dodge Viper
2009 Nissan GT-R

A professional auto journalist for more than 25 years and the founding editor of Sympatico / MSN Autos, Marc Lachapelle is a two-time winner of the Canadian Journalist of the Year award from the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, an accomplished photographer and licensed racer.