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A $380,000 car you can drive every day

Makers of exotic cars -- some costing well over $300,000 -- are trying to lure buyers by insisting the vehicles are not too precious to be used on the daily commute.
Image: CORRECTION NAME- Lamborghini Aventador L
Lamborghini’s Aventador is displayed at the 2011 Geneva motor show. Despite the supercar's six-figure price tag, it is designed “for everyday use,” the company says.FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP - Getty Images

Pumping 700 horsepower through a Formula One-style gearbox, the new Lamborghini Aventador is not just the Italian carmaker’s most powerful model, it’s also the fastest. It's capable of launching from 0 to 60 mph in just 2.9 seconds, “equal to what you do when you go bungee jumping or skydiving,” according to the company’s CEO Stephan Winkelmann.

But don’t let that stop you from thinking about this new supercar for your daily commute, assuming you can handle the expected $380,000 price tag.

Unlike the brand’s traditional extreme machines, the Aventador — like so many Lamborghinis, named after a legendary fighting bull — is designed “for everyday use,” Winkelmann insists.

It’s a common refrain these days from the most exotic of luxury car makers, including Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin, among others. Porsche is even launching a new ad campaign designed to convince potential buyers that its line of high-performance products can be driven every day, rather than reserved for special occasions.

Despite an automotive arms race that has made 400-horsepower exotics seem almost wimpy, and top speeds of 200 mph nearly the norm, manufacturers recognize that “buyers also want to know they can take cars to work every day, and not just pull them out of the garage every other weekend,” said Rob Allen, U.S. product planner for Fiat’s Maserati brand.

Indeed, earlier Lamborghini models, such as the legendary Countach, were finicky beasts generally expected to clock, at most, just a few thousand miles of driving annually, and even then requiring extensive — read costly — maintenance.

But automakers are taking steps to improve the reliability and ease of use of vehicles like the Aventador, which among other things features a hydraulic lifting system that can add two extra inches of ground clearance for the front end, a definite relief to owners of older Lambos who have scraped their front spoilers going over speed bumps and parking ramps.

With the introduction of the California roadster in 2009, Ferrari addressed one of the most frustrating issues for owners of high-line luxury makers — maintenance. The Italian automaker slashed the required maintenance to about 11 hours of labor during the first 50,000 miles. That still isn’t cheap, of course, considering labor rates for mechanics specializing in exotics, but it’s not all that much more time in the shop than you might expect for a Ford Mustang GT, whose top speed is a good 50 mph slower.

Ferrari, meanwhile, shocked purists this month by lifting the covers on the all-new FF, which CEO Luca di Montezemolo describes as a “daily driver” despite its estimated $359,000 price tag.

That’s not the most sacrilegious part, however. What really shocked Ferrari traditionalists is the idea of a hatchback wearing the brand’s familiar “prancing pony” logo. The design, the carmaker insists, “represents not so much an evolution as a revolution.”

To its credit, Ferrari didn’t go back on its long-standing promise never to build a four-door, but the “bubble-butt” design is definitely not what one would have expected from the Modena-based maker. It provides plenty of room for two rear passengers — unlike the cramped California — and is roomy enough to hold luggage for a long weekend trip.

Of course, Ferrari insists that the car comes without sacrifice — the 651-horsepower FF is capable of racing to 208 mph in case you’re late for work.

Adding more room is something most exotic luxury carmakers have been addressing. And no wonder. Purists lamented the launch of the Porsche Cayenne, the carmaker’s first sport-utility vehicle, but it’s now the dominant model in the German carmaker’s lineup. That engendered the Panamera, Porsche’s first four-door, which also handily outsells traditional sports car models like the flagship 911.

Aston Martin has also weighed in with the sleek Rapide five-door (about $200,000) — as stunning a shift in strategy as Porsche’s Panamera ($74,000 and up) or the Ferrari FF. But Aston has gone even further and will soon launch production of the Cygnet, a luxury microcar it developed as part of a joint venture with the decidedly mainstream Toyota. The tiny Cygnet is expected to sell for the equivalent of $35,000 to $40,000 in Europe.

Even the most elite brands have to acknowledge the forces and trends reshaping the global auto industry, including demands for better fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions, it seems. At the recent Geneva Motor Show, Rolls-Royce unveiled a battery-powered concept version of its big Phantom sedan.

While there are no plans to put the car into production, industry observers say the automaker may have no choice but to embrace “electrification” if it hopes to keep marketing its massive models.

Mercedes-Benz will introduce a battery-electric version of its gull-winged SLS supercar in 2013, and Audi is working up a similar concept, the eTron.

Porsche recently set a price tag of $845,000 for its upcoming 918 Spyder, a 2-seater that can generate a total of 718 horsepower out of its V8, which is paired with two electric motors. The plug-in hybrid supercar will be able to get as much as 16 miles per charge in pure electric mode, and it is estimated to get about 78 mpg in hybrid mode — about the same as the $42,000 Chevrolet Volt.

For someone driving the typical 15,000 miles a year, that could save perhaps 800 gallons a year compared to a sports car of similar performance — that’s about $3,000 annually as gas prices nudge $4. Of course, the “payback period” for that plug-in system would still be measured in the centuries.

But the 918 Spyder, like the Lambo Aventador, Ferrari FF and Aston Rapide underscore that even the most exotic of today’s automobiles are now expected to match some of the more mundane duties of mainstream vehicles.