December 30, 2008 7:00 PM | By Michael Bettencourt, MSN Autos

The year's high-performance pleasures

2009 Ferrari California (© Photo: Ferrari)

As long as there are cars, there will be performance cars for fans to drool over. But it’s hard not to get the sense that in these environmentally sensitive times, auto enthusiasts are faced with a downward slope when it comes to performance.

It's not quite to the level of the oil embargo days, where four-cylinder Mustangs were commonplace, but the situation is on a decline.

Sure, cars like the Tesla Roadster prove that being green doesn't have to mean driving dull. But most often, for cars we can actually buy in Canada, it does.

So the greener the future gets, the brighter 2008 will surely shine in my own personal rear-view mirror for its plethora of fast, sexy, high-dollar and eyeball-watering performance machines I was lucky enough to thrash about.

2009 Ferrari California

Michael Bettencourt with the 2009 Ferrari California (© Photo: Ferrari)

With a deep, American-like V8 rumble that turns into that rev-to-the-heavens trademark Ferrari shriek, the California is no 'baby' Ferrari in terms of thrills. It's my favourite drive of 2008.

Okay, having a chance to drive Ferrari's first hardtop convertible on its home turf also helped. Sicily was the chosen destination for the car's driving launch for one very good reason: "We wanted to allow the press to enjoy the car without having to worry about the police or tickets," said one company insider.

And in Italy, as Ferrari wishes, so it is done.

In addition to the car, it's also worth mentioning the trip ... the warm sun beaming down, the cool Mediterranean breezes, curve-ilicious roads, plus the town of Segesta's 2,400-year-old Greek temple and amphitheatre. It offered a fascinating walking tour, as well as suitably majestic photo opportunities.

All the blurry-eyed 2 a.m. writing marathons that led me to that US$200,000 or so driver's seat suddenly seemed worth it.

2009 Audi RS6 Sedan

2009 Audi RS6 Sedan (© Photo: Audi)

The BMW M5 has a monster rival in Europe that actually makes it look tame ... if that's possible for a 500-hp, V10-powered car. But after driving the Audi RS6 sedan in Germany this year, I know it is.

The Audi has its own massive 5.0L V10, but it packs two turbos, one for each bank of five cylinders, as well as grippy all-wheel drive. Plant your foot in it, and you'll have 580 horsepower worth of instant suction on the front headrests, which, luckily comes with whiplash-reducing technology. It actually feels faster than its 4.5 second 0-100 km/h time.

The €106,000 Audi RS6, sadly, is not available in North America, but a 20-minute blast in it is as memorable now as it was six months ago.

2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG

2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG (© Photo: Michael Bettencourt, MSN Autos)

Like many automakers, Mercedes-Benz likes to tag on a sample of its other performance machines onto preview events. So while we spent a full day driving the regular SLK around southern France, our time in the $84,800 supercharged SLK55 AMG was limited to a couple of laps around the block in Monaco.

Of course, that "block" in Monte Carlo just happened to coincide with the Formula One circuit of the Monaco Grand Prix, plus a couple extra thousand other cars, pedestrians and scooters along the route. Oh yes, and police, lots and lots of police.

We may have been far from the 270+ km/h speeds F1 cars achieve coming out of the famous tunnel, but the little roadster's plentiful torque and high revs made it feel at least somewhat comparable.

2008 Aston Martin DBS

2008 Aston Martin DBS (© Photo: Michael Bettencourt, MSN Autos)

Is it humanly possible to write an Aston Martin piece without using the word Bond? Apparently not, especially when the DBS is featured so prominently in not only the latest Bond flick, Quantum of Solace, but the previous film, Casino Royale.

The $290,000 DBS we drove around Dallas is so sensuously shaped, even the crystal-topped key fob drew whistles. It also drew out an interested NBA player to contemplate it, despite his relatively piddling (by NBA standards) US$700,000 salary that season.

But with more than US$137 million earned in his career, Juwan Howard could do worse than to splurge on Aston's 510-hp, V12 beast.

Goodyear Blimp

Michael Bettencourt with the Goodyear Blimp. (© Photo: Goodyear)

What the Corvette is to Chevrolet, the blimp is to Goodyear - you can't imagine one without the other. So when I had the chance to hop on for a ride in Goodyear's most famous model, I jumped at it.

There's a lot of jumping when it comes to the Goodyear blimp, whether it's the team that jumps to grab hold of the extremely light aircraft, or, jumping out of the way, as gusts of wind will easily push the blimp around.

Inside, the blimp's cockpit is surprisingly tight with room for about six average-sized folks behind the pilot and co-pilot. This particular half-hour flight was co-piloted by Cabbie from Cabbie on the Street fame. So you very well may have already seen the video of that flight around Toronto's waterfront on The Score.

It moved slowly, was noisier than any airplane, and the turning of its elevator wheel - a large, floor-mounted forward-moving wheel that pitches the blimp's nose up or down - did not prompt anything resembling a direct response.

But thinking about all the big sporting events, races and tournaments it has flown over, really, how cool is this ride? Even if, as Cabbie ascertained, it hadn't gotten the pilot into the mile-high club.

More best rides of 2008 articles

Best and worst used cars of the year
It's all in the details: Best auto features of 2008
Top cars worth celebrating
Top cars for the thrill of the ride
Top five of the year: A car for all budgets
The year's best vehicles - by continent
The biggest (and smallest) surprises of the year
Top picks for four-door family sedans
Six for the road: Driver delights

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