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Luxury wheels: What makes luxury cars so expensive?

Start with the engine when trying to explain high cost of luxury cars, and then throw in the handling, engineering and exclusivity.

Published October 9, 2012

So what makes luxury cars so expensive?

Looking at the 458 Italia, three words say it all: It’s a Ferrari.

At the risk of oversimplification, any car emerging from the Ferrari factory in Maranello carries the pedigree, exclusivity and, above all, engineering to ensure those “preferred” customers on the waiting list will not be bickering about the bottom line.

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That is not to say the Ferrari 458 Italia isn’t worth every penny of its $225,325 (U.S.) asking price. This aluminum wonder, crafted completely in-house, from the hand-stitched interior to its 4.5 L direct-injection V8, ends up being more than the sum of its parts. And the parts are damned impressive.

Ferrari claims the 562-hp dry-sump flat-crank V8 has the highest specific output of any naturally-aspirated production engine, at 125 hp and 89 lb.-ft. per litre. Look deep inside and you’ll find F1 technology: graphite-coated piston skirt, “diamond carbon-coated” tappets, three electric scavenge pumps for oil control, etc.

I have visited the ultra-modern Ferrari factory, and the pride and dedication of the workers is palpable. At one station, a craftsman withdraws the valve-guides from a liquid nitrogen bath and inserts them into the heads, where they expand to a secure fit.

In another section, where an army of women at sewing machines stitch the fine hides that swath the cabins, old traditions meet the new world.

At Ferrari, you are getting what you pay for.

With a price tag of $119,105, the Corvette ZR1 is expensive. But, in the big picture, this uber-Vette is an automotive performance bargain. A Nürburgring lap time of 7:19.63 and a top speed of 328 km/h say it all.

The heart of the matter is its 6.2 L Eaton-supercharged LS9 V8, which makes 638 hp at 6,500 r.p.m. and 604 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,800 r.p.m.

These engines are hand-built at GM’s Performance Build Centre in Wixom, Mich. The 100,000-square-foot plant employs about two-dozen highly skilled workers and, taking a cue from the AMG factory in Afalterbach, Germany, GM uses the “one man, one engine” approach. A single worker builds each engine from start to finish.

Other special hardware contributing to the ZR1’s hefty price are the carbon-fibre hood, roof, splitter and rocker panels, and the very same aluminum frame found in the Le Mans-winning C6 R race car.

Just like the Ferrari 458, the Corvette is fitted with pricey carbon-ceramic brakes and magnetically controlled adaptive dampers.

The current BMW M3, at $71,700, is based on the previous generation 3-Series and is about to be put out to pasture. If you’re a fan of the naturally-aspirated V8 engine, buy one now.

The upcoming M3, with its turbocharged V6, will have more power, more torque and put up better numbers, but it won’t have the whip-crack throttle response and sweet song of this car’s exquisite 4.0 L V8, which makes 414 hp and spins to a giddy 8,300 r.p.m. And we can only hope the new M3 retains this car’s balletic poise.

What makes the M3 so much more expensive than a garden-variety 3-Series (which start at $36,000)? Its small block “over square” V8 (its bore is bigger than its stroke) was built specifically for the E92 M3 and will see duty in no other vehicle. We’re not talking economics of scale here.

In fact, despite looking much like the 3-Series, 80 per cent of the M3’s components are new. It gets flared wheel arches, a vented aluminum hood, carbon-fibre roof, hollow ant-roll bars, adaptive limited slip differential and both front and rear suspensions are unique to the M3, being fashioned almost entirely from aluminum.

This is one of the best cars ever made. Buy one! Oh yeah, I already said that.

With the Porsche 911 transitioning from the outgoing 997-designation to the new 991, the track-focused rear-drive GT3 variant is discontinued. Rest assured: there is a new version in the works.

The 997 GT3 was a special creature, and the $211,100 price tag of the swan-song 500 hp 2011 GT3 4.0 (only 15 came to Canada) bought you the sharpest, purest 911 extant. Having driven the GT3 3.8 L ($138,100), I can attest that no 911 hardwired itself so immediately to your driving mojo — its instant and precise response to inputs seemed to anticipate your every intention.

And the sound from that flat-six! It all boils down to the engines. Seeing a pattern here?

Separating itself from every other 911 on the roster (and there were many) was the GT3’s dry-sump engine that traced its lineage back to the 1996 Porsche 911 GT1 racer.

This high-revving bespoke racing mill made no modern concessions to efficiency or emissions. There was no direct injection and only a close-ratio six-speed manual was offered. The PDK twin-clutch transmission was not engineered to fit this engine, and it was deemed too heavy anyway.

The GT3 also has lowered adaptive sports suspension, active engine mounts, ultra-light centre lock 19-inch alloys, a trick rear diff and go-fast body bits.

Although such piffle as sound insulation and rear seats were deleted, in true Porsche tradition, the base GT3 had a dizzying number of pricey options and upgrades (from $4,000 Riviera Blue paint to $12,000 carbon ceramic brakes) that would swell the bottom line in a big hurry.

Although British car maker Lotus has been in business for 60 years, it is still pretty much a cottage sports car manufacturer. As such, you would expect to pay a premium price for its flagship 345 hp Evora S, now about $90,000.

That doesn’t sound like a whole lot if you’re cross-shopping a Porsche 911 S, and the Lotus’ sublime steering and chassis are in a league of their own.

The issue here is build-quality, ergonomics and that supercharged Toyota 3.5 L V6, which certainly delivers the goods but is hardly the stuff exotic dreams are make of.

You’re buying this car totally with your heart, and that makes it expensive.

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