2004 Audi A8L vs. BMW 745i, Jaguar XJ8, M-B S430, VW Phaeton

Comparison Tests

Let's just say that a guy who engineers for himself a $197.2 million retirement package as head of the New York Stock Exchange probably doesn't see himself in a Hyundai. So we're thinking large this month, inspired by the appetites of Dick Grasso. What's a good set of wheels for those make-do days when the chauffeur is off?

Has there ever been a better time to be a fat cat? At roughly 70 large, we have three all-new sedans for 2004, another that's been nicely upgraded, yet another that was so radically redesigned for 2003 we still haven't, uh, forgiven the maker, and finally, an aging S-class Mercedes-Benz. God knows Mercedes-Benzes don't have to be new to get respect.

Aluminum is fashionable this season—two of the new guys have light-alloy bodies. One of them even manages to be impressively light. The V-8 Jaguar XJ8 steps off the scale, fully dressed, at 3838 pounds. New money could pretend otherwise in this beauty; the look is an evolution of the svelte shape that's been winning admirers since it first appeared on the XJ6 in the late 1960s. We should all age so handsomely.

At first glance, you get more aluminum for your bucks in the Audi A8L, a hefty 4483 pounds' worth. In fact, you get more beef, too, some of it invested in the Quattro all-wheel drive, more in the 19-inch tires at each corner, and behold those brake rotors sized to cover manholes. Basic black sheetmetal never looked more potent. Imagine the Terminator in a tuxedo; the Dick would gain six inches putting on this one.

Another way of downplaying shiny new cash, at least in theory, is to drive a Volkswagen. With chrome VW emblems the size of salad plates on each end, the Phaeton feigns humility. Just don't let anyone near enough to see the opulent wood and leather lining of the passenger compartment. Yes, compartment is the right image, kind of the last step up before having your own private railroad car. Although prices have yet to be announced, VW spokesmen estimate $69,800 for the example we tested. And they're famous for their low-balls.

Over the years, BMWs have earned an impressive number of top spots in our comparison tests. But for its all-new 7-series last year, the Munich automaker abruptly changed its winning formula, away from endearing machinery toward an off-putting immersion in control knobbing. The 4.4-liter V-8 is stronger than ever, the chassis packs admirable refinements, but there's this interface problem. Still, we happily offer second and third chances to anything wearing a BMW label. Let's give forgiveness one more try.

Nobody, on the other hand, has ever been put off by a Lexus, except masochists. The LS430 treats everybody right. This carmaker puts its efforts into creature comforts and hides the technology behind sumptuous leather. Although this four-door has been around since 2001, upgrades for the new model year include a six-speed automatic, headlights that point where you steer, knee airbags for front occupants, and optional climate-controlled seats both front and back. For those times when Mr. Grasso chooses to be driven, there's an even better feature, the optional Ultra Luxury package, which elevates back-seat accommodations to the expectations of any Third World dictator. For only $11,320 extra, why not?

Of course, dictators are known to prefer Mercedes-Benzes. And the S430 has been pleasing princes, pashas, and potentates since late in the last century. Well, pleasing those willing to forgo the big-V-8 hustle of the S500 and S600, that is. Given Grasso's current employment status—call him hooted into retirement—we reckon he's in less of a hurry.
But the moderate engine is hardly matched by moderation in price—this Benz is the heavyweight of our bunch at $87,975.

Putting aside the public pickle he's been in recently, you could argue that Grasso is still one of the luckiest guys on the planet. This staff doesn't choose new cars for just any mega-mogul. But inquiring minds insist on knowing: What would Dick Grasso drive?

Very well. Let the auditions begin.