The French seem to have a minister for everything. Should we ever emulate their example here in America, I'd nominate Claus Ettensberger as Exalted High Minister of Car Culture. During the last decade, Claus and Jessica Ettensberger have amassed under one roof what are arguably the largest, finest and most exclusive collections of European designer brands in the automotive industry. A!AvantGarde, Antera, AC Schnitzer, AZEV, Lorinser, Oettinger, Pantera, Remus, TechArt and Valbrem--if you want this type of gear for your European Car, it's coming through CEC's network. "Exclusivity is important to our customers," said Ettensberger. "They don't like driving stock-looking cars--they want something different, something personalized."

And while futzing with a perfectly fine car is, at times, a difficult proposition, CEC's attention to quality products means there's little compromise to driveability, an area most CEC clients are unwilling to sacrifice.

"Everything CEC carries must pass TUeV certification, Germany's equivalent of the U.S. DOT," said Ettensberger.

Before any wheel, wing, exhaust or airdam is okayed for use on Germany's roads, it must be TUeV certified, a rigorous and not inexpensive testing process. Although most U.S. vehicles rarely exceed 90 mph, it is not uncommon to cruise the autobahn at 120 mph--for extended periods! It doesn't take an engineer to realize the stress that places on components--something to think sbout before purchasing those "AC Schnitzel" or "Panther" wheels (particularly vile Taiwanese knock-offs of AC Schnitzer and Pantera).

Since Claus and Jessica took leave of the TransEuro group (their first automotive venture), CEC has grown considerably. Its cavernous warehouse in Gardena joins a smaller facility in New Jersey and a stylish new showroom in Beverly Hills, Calif., frequented by Hollywood types (Will Smith, Jean-Claude Van Damme, et al.) and L.A.'s assorted professional athletes.

I managed to corner Claus just as he was making a double espresso--exactly what Ettensberger doesn't need given his boundless, kid-on-sugar energy. I asked him to put some cars together for a test drive, maybe snap a few pictures. "I have 12 cars...right now...ready to go!" shouted Claus.

Although he wanted to bring everything in CEC's arsenal--it was way too many--I chose four stellar tuned cars sitting in the CEC showroom: Oettinger's 1.8t Jetta, TechArt's 996 Cabrio and two representatives from Lorinser--a C- and S-Class.

Oettinger
In VW circles, the name Oettinger is spoken with hushed reverence. Think Cosworth and Ford or Steinmetz and Opel. An elite member of VW/Audi's inner circle, Oettinger is privy to factory hardware before it hits showroom floors, which gives it time to develop and refine its products.

Kathleen Fischer, CEC's marketing manager, said, "Rather than focusing on power alone, Oettinger puts the driving experience at the center of its development--that means its products are designed to work as systems."

Last year, European Car tested Oettinger's 1.8t GTI, and it remains one of the best examples I've driven to date (though, to be fair, the car did not have the new drive-by-wire throttle, a burden now faced by VW tuners). Oettinger's software was brilliant, and it helped the slightly larger K04 turbocharger realize its full potential. Although tuners have gotten close at producing the same power, the delivery has been less than satisfactory, an all-or-nothing situation.

2000 Oettinger Jetta
Of all the cars on the hill, the Oettinger Jetta was most at home, cutting through the spectacularly twisted pavement with unrivaled ease--even the more powerful Porsche had trouble keeping up. On tight roads like this, you've got to love a front hooker. Oettinger's special blend of suspension bits made for an excellent ride, better even than VW's sport package. Oettinger's body kit augments the factory sheetmetal, a nice bit of work that includes front and rear bumper covers, side skirts, mirrors and a wing. Oettinger RZ wheels measure 8x19 and carry 225/35ZR-19 rubber--and if there was any harshness, it was because of this huge running gear.

Oettinger's interior program is very nice, sporting a not-too-intrusive motorsport look. This car featured its steering wheel, shift knob, pedals and mats.

Unfortunately, this Jetta was born with VW's lackluster 2.0L, though it still pulled like a big dog, the only mod being an Oettinger exhaust. Although the additional 5 to 7 bhp was not enough to boost the car's performance appreciably, the system's tone was good and certainly didn't detract from the car's core values.

Which is exactly how Oettinger wants it.

Lorinser
In the 1970s, Manfred Lorinser started customizing Mercedes-Benz vehicles upon request of his clients--drivers wanted vehicles to be tailored to their specific wishes.

In 1981 Sportservice Lorinser was founded to exclusively focus on developing complete tuning solutions for Mercedes-Benz automobiles. While extensive conversions are offered, all work done is in keeping with the inherent style, design, look and feel of the original vehicle. From A- to S-Class Mercedes, Lorinser has a program designed to enhance the performance and looks.

2001 Lorinser Mercedes-Benz S-Class K50
Somebody once said you don't go to a gunfight packing a knife. In the case of this burly Lorinser S-Class, it's like going to a gunfight with a Howitzer. Sure, it'll blow the competition to shreds--just hope you're not in close quarters when it all goes down.

Despite being the most powerful, well-appointed member of our group, this car was left in the dust by its lighter colleagues. Tipping the scales at over 4,100 lb, the Lorinser S-Class looked like a suit-clad linebacker on the uneven parallel bars. It just couldn't wait to get out of there and into its element--a lonely stretch of autobahn would do just fine.

Lorinser's K50 program for the Mercedes-Benz S-Class adds a centrifugal-type supercharger to its V8, good for a claimed 387 bhp at 5700 rpm and 427 lb-ft of torque at 3900. Boost is a modest 6 psi, meaning the engine's internals can be left alone. Lorinser's engine gnomes added a magnetic clutch to the blower (a heavily modified Vortech piece), which activates the unit under load. During relaxed cruising or coasting, the supercharger "runs free," reducing pumping losses. However, there was little of that action this day as the K50 worked extra hard keeping up.

The S-Class' handsome looks are the result of Lorinser's "CL" conversion, featuring a "DTM" front bumper/spoiler with integrated fog lights, a European impact strip (eliminates side markers), side skirts, rear bumper spoiler, rear wing and roof wing. Lorinser's dual exhaust features an exit on each side and looks especially mean. Ultimately, Lorinser's cosmetics manage to make a very big car look more compact, athletic.

The S-Class had no problem swallowing Lorinser's 9x20-in. LM5 wheels, carrying 245/35ZR-20 Dunlop SP9000s in front, and 10x20 LM5s with 285/30ZR-20 SP meats behind. The beast is suspended with Lorinser bits, including its electronic lowering module that allows even more drop.

The Lorinser S Class has those jaw-dropping looks that stop traffic...too bad they can't see inside. The interior was amazing, featuring the same Nogaro-blue leather that Audi's style-meisters use, accented with Cobalt-blue birds-eye maple paneling--even the roof was recovered. Lorinser's sport wheel and shift knob got the same treatment. An audio/video system included a Panasonic DVD/CD unit with custom-framed Alpine LCD video monitors throughout the spacious cabin.

Sure, there were faster cars on the hill that day; none, however, got the attention received by the Lorinsers S-Class.

2001 Lorinser Mercedes-Benz C320
By all accounts, Mercedes new C-Class is a winner, featuring a sporty look, balanced chassis, solid powertrain and the familiar dimensions compact sports sedan enthusiasts want (That's what Editor Brown says, anyway). I agree with Brown, but for me the styling is a little sedate. Give it to the guys at AMG or, in this case, Lorinser, and the new C-Class takes on a whole new demeanor.

Lorinser's C-Class features the same DTM bodywear as the larger S-Class, including the cool dual exhaust. Running gear is comprised of Lorinser's RS1 wheels, measuring 8x19 in. up front and 9x19 in. behind, carrying Conti Sport Contact rubber sized at 235/35ZR-19 in front and 265/30ZR-19 aft. The interior sports Lorinser's steering wheel, sill plates and matching wood trim and, unfortunately, the shift knob to an automatic transmission. Although some colleagues of mine are particularly adept at making a Mercedes slushbox work, I'm not one of them. A proper five- or six-speed would have made the C-Class much more enjoyable, as it's got plenty of beans and chassic control.

Lorinser's sport suspension did a more than adequate job of controlling body roll without impinging on a comfortable ride. It feels a bit firmer than the stock C-Class, and, to Mercedes credit, the transmission has more snap.

TechArt
TechArt was created in May 1987 with the idea of fusing technology and art. The aim is to meld perfect design with functional technology.

Today, TechArt offers complete tuning conversions for the Porsche 911 (964, 993 & 996) and 986 Boxster. This includes body styling, light alloy wheels, sports exhausts, performance enhancements and sports suspensions. The interior program is extensive, leaving no hide untouched. Stateside, TechArt sprang to prominence with its blisteringly fast CT3, clad with an outrageous body and interior. A fellow worker down the hall still has the CT3 poster on his wall.

2000 TechArt Porsche 911 Cabriolet
TechArt joins several other Porsche tuners in its attempt to restyle the 996 with more aggressive lines. Although the car is significantly longer and wider than its predecessor, it doesn't look that way--when placed side-by-side, I bet the previous 993 gets more looks.

TechArt's solution involves significant body augmentations, including its "Turbo"- look flared rear steel fenders, front bumper spoiler, side skirts and rear wing. Although it still looks fairly sedate, the proportions reveal themselves when you step behind the car and look down. This damn thing is fat! Huge TechArt Daytona wheels measure 11x18 in. with 285/30ZR-18 Continentals; the fronts are 8.5x18s with 225/40ZR-18s. TechArt's suspension stiffens the underpinnings, and its engine program features a revamped computer and stainless-steel exhaust. TechArt claims the program is good for 30 more bhp.

TechArt's trademark wild interior styling was also present, including its steering wheel, gauge faces, aluminum pedals and custom leather.

TechArt's appointments certainly create an aura of unabashed individualism--and though that's not really my style, I'm sure the approach has its fans. This car was significantly louder than our long-term 996 coupe, trumpeting its raspy exhaust note all through the canyon. It did not feel any faster than our car nor did it handle any better--but I suppose that's the price one pays for 20 miles of headroom.

CEC specializes in style. Period. If you want to personalize your car's styling, go see Claus. Although the tuners CEC represents have significant European engine tuning programs available, little of it makes its way over here. CEC is not an engine tuner nor does it claim to be. CEC can, however, outfit your ride with a gorgeous suit. You'll want to bulk up elsewhere.

CEC
16200 S. Figueroa St.
Gardena, CA 90248
(800) 766-0064
www.cecwheels.com

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