Cars: Road Rockets For The Jaded

You know who you are: Mr. Finicky, Ms. Never-Quite-Satisfied. You're a car nut, and lots of exotic autos have graced your garage. But have you attained automotive nirvana? Nope. Ferraris leave you flat. Vipers seem vapid. What you want is a sports car that puts the "limited" back in limited production--something unique, something that Harry in Accounting would never dream of owning. But what kind of vehicle might that be?

Perhaps you should consider one of the boutique sports cars that are produced in tiny numbers for well-heeled collectors: cars like the Raptor, a coupe made by Florida hedge fund manager Warren Mosler. Or maybe you would prefer the Shelby, which was created by former racer Carroll Shelby for a select few enthusiasts. Then there's the Panoz AIV, built by pharmaceutical tycoon Donald Panoz and his son, Daniel. Chances of seeing your neighbor in one are nil--only a few hundred AIVs are made per year (table).

BIKE FENDERS. Let's start with the Panoz, since, at a selling price just under $60,000, it's the most affordable. The two-seater is built in Braselton, Ga., close to the Road Atlanta racetrack that is the core of the Panoz racing empire. The AIV is sold by 21 outlets nationwide and can be serviced at any local Ford dealer. The car comes with a three-year, 30,000-mile warranty.

The little runabout's bicycle fenders stir memories of such classic 1950s race cars as the Allard and Bristol. But those throwback looks are deceptive. Underneath its composite skin, the car is 70% aluminum, the chassis supertaut and strong. Suspension is independent, and power comes from a 4.6-liter, 305-horsepower Ford V-8. Put that engine in the 2,595-lB. Panoz, and you have a rocket. "The AIV has charm, but it's also an excellent performance car," says Danny Panoz. "Think of it as a four-wheeled motorcycle."

I gave Panoz' creation the ultimate torture test: a sprint up Manhattan's West Side Highway. Straight-line performance was sizzling. But the stiffly sprung AIV was easily unsettled over bumps, and it had a tendency to jump sideways. The steering felt twitchy. And pedal placement seemed odd: The clutch is too far to the left and too high off the floor. I found myself driving with my left leg cocked awkwardly.

Conclusion: A distinctive, well-crafted sports car that's nicely finished, the AIV is better suited for stately jaunts to the country than for high-speed touring. But what other car could you drive that leads jaded New Yorkers to wave madly and moved one cabbie to shout "God bless you, sir"?

If you crave more performance, Carroll Shelby has the answer in his new Series I roadster. The Texan's legendary Cobras ruled the racetracks in the mid-1960s. Some of the kids who lusted after them back then have since prospered in business and have the means to buy a piece of their dream. Trouble is, a vintage Cobra can cost $300,000 and is a beast to handle. So Shelby has built a new car that embodies the Cobra's mystique in an up-to-date package.

QUICK PICKUP. Still, the freshly minted Series I is too big for my taste. And the retro design, which borrows heavily from Shelby's world-beating Daytona coupe, seems fussy. Everything else about the car is high-tech, from the aluminum space frame to the competition-style double-wishbone suspension and the slick carbon-fiber body. The Shelby weighs just 2,600 lbs. and is powered by a 4-liter, 325-horsepower Oldsmobile Aurora V-8.

In a test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the Shelby was impressive. The acceleration was smooth and immediate, and the big 12-inch brakes and six-speed transmission felt solid. The handling was out of this world: The car's advanced suspension permits it to corner nearly flat, and yet the ride doesn't feel harsh.

The overall finish of the car was good. Since production will come to an end after 500 of the vehicles are sold, the Shelby should hold its value. Available through 17 Oldsmobile dealers, the Shelby costs $106,975.

"BUCKET OF BOLTS." You could buy 2 1/2 Corvettes for that much money. But to aficionados such as Ira Epstein, vice-president of Michael Lewis Co., a family-run food-service distributor near Chicago, it's worth it. "Ever since the '60s, I've wanted a Cobra," says Epstein, 54. "I owned a replica and got tired of the bucket-of-bolts ride. This car has a classic look, but it's for the age we live in now."

Shelbys are selling briskly: In Vegas, I met one high roller who has bought five of them for resale. But they're still available. You can take the car to any Oldsmobile dealer to get warranty work. Shelby is serious about the limited edition of 500 cars. "When I'm done, there ain't gonna be no more," he drawls. And to show he's a sport, he'll throw in an embossed leather jacket that'll make you the envy of the hot-rod set. You also get flown to the Las Vegas race track for driver training--which is highly recommended in a car that goes from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds.

Both the Panoz and the Shelby are fairly civilized cars that balance speed with comfort. But if you want to motor far--really far--from the madding crowd, give Warren Mosler a call. He has poured millions into his passion: producing superfast, uncompromising sports cars that are just a heartbeat away from purebred racers.

Like their creator, Moslers are quirky. Think kit-car quality. Think dune-buggy panels. Think parts that go thunk in the night. When Mosler picked me up at the West Palm Beach (Fla.) airport in one of his earlier cars, the Intruder, a misfire was evident. A later model Mosler that I drove was fast but lacked the smoothness of competitors.

SLEEK AS A SQUID. A former amateur road racer, Mosler began making composite-bodied cars back in 1986. Today, his Riviera Beach plant in Florida is all set to launch the $149,000 Raptor as a '99 model. Low and sleek as a squid, it comes with a lusty 450-horsepower Corvette V-8 engine that is mounted behind the driver. At 2,400 lbs., the Raptor should eat other cars for lunch. "I sell to doctors, lawyers, and Wall Street types," says Mosler. "These people all want the ultimate performance experience."

Maybe they're also mechanically inclined, because I suspect that the Raptor may take more than the usual tinkering to keep it humming. "This is a piece of weaponry, like an SR-71 [spy plane]," says the affable Mosler. "People that fly one of those don't say: `Oh, it leaks."' Maybe. But if you buy the car, a Pentagon-size maintenance budget wouldn't hurt.

Would any of these specialty cars lead me to dump my Porsche, which is still my idea of the benchmark '90s sports car? Hardly. I'm hooked on Teutonic perfection and a zero-tolerance repair budget. But if, like Ira Epstein, you've driven just about everything else and don't care about having air bags, then one of them might be for you. He says that as soon as his new Shelby is delivered next spring, his '97 Porsche Carrera is going to get the boot.