The task was a simple one; the decision was anything but. Naming the most significant European import of the year for the 2003 european car Grand Prix trophy was the most difficult decision we've faced in the five years of this annual accolade. Our eight-car field is so loaded with talent that the panel of judges spent days behind the wheel of each car to learn all we could of their strengths and weaknesses, and many hours in the office (and a couple of bars) were spent debating their merits and deficiencies.

The most important goal for the european car Grand Prix panel of testers was to identify that one car which is able to reach into the soul of the automotive enthusiast and arouse the desire to climb behind the steering wheel for the simple enjoyment of driving.

To understand the european car Grand Prix is to wind out a great motor along a twisting country road; it's to pit a superior chassis against the challenges of changing surfaces and devious apexes; it's to revel in the dance between pedals, steering wheel and shift lever; it's to find yourself grinning from the sheer joy of driving.

We don't use performance figures in this competition. We're more interested in how the car is an important step forward for the manufacturer. Is it because of the introduction of exciting new technology, or is it a well-aimed thrust into a new market segment? Underscore the word "significant," though don't suppose our definition of the term remains constant. Each of the cars in this year's contest is, in some way, extremely important to its maker. A common comment from our panel went something like, "Any of these cars could find a place in my garage." But we couldn't very well call it an eight-way tie and design eight different trophies. Our contest demands a winner, and finally all agreed that one car showed all the traits that qualify it as a champion.

Technology R Innovation R Sex Appeal R

Volvo S60 RA quantum leap forward from a steady player takes top honorsCongratulations to Volvo for winning the 2003 european car Grand Prix. The S60 R is the most powerful, fastest production car ever from Gothenburg. But, our selection was based on more than the outright speed elicited by the 300-bhp turbocharged engine. The S60 R is a complete package, featuring a sophisticated suspension, muscular brakes, luxurious, fully appointed interior and a body beautiful that stands out from the crowd. When Volvo says the S60 R displays everything the company knows about building cars, it's no idle boast.

Mercedes-Benz E500High-end models like the S-Class and SL may be used to pioneer new technologies, but the E-Class sets the standard. It is, in a sense, the state of Mercedes-Benz, and it is all-new for 2003. Increased use of aluminum and high-strength steel has made the new E-Class stronger, stiffer and safer than its predecessor, while allowing more safety and luxury equipment without dramatically increased weight. The six-cylinder is little different, but the standard V8 is now 5.0L and produces 302 hp and 339 lb-ft of torque. (It provided the material for the fastest-accelerating production Mercedes-Benz ever, the supercharged, 469-hp E55 AMG.) As before, Mercedes' Touch Shift five-speed automatic transmissions are arguably the most refined in the world.

The air suspension from the S-Class is improved for the new E-Class and comes standard on the E500. In addition to the computer automatically controlling spring and damper rates, the driver can select a program. Electronic braking, introduced to the world on the SL, is implemented for the first time in volume production on the E-Class. Braking force is electronically distributed between the four wheels at all times.

Inside, the E500 features four-zone climate control and optional Harmon Kardon Logic 7 audio-one no longer must unravel i-Drive to experience the latter. The E500 is among a handful of the most sophisticated, luxurious and beautiful performance machines in the world.

Porsche Boxster SIt is often said that there are no bad cars anymore. While some may debate that point, there are few that a performance enthusiast can simply get into and drive, rewarded with a car that does exactly what is wanted, exactly how it is wanted. Every Porsche available as this is written makes that list, from the GT2 right down to the Boxster.

The Boxster and Boxster S were revised for 2003; many changes were similar for both models. New Variocam technology yields 8 hp more while improving fuel economy. Front and rear fascias were restyled with input from the wind tunnel geeks, and the exhaust tips were updated as well. A new top includes a glass window, finally matching the flyweight Asian roadsters. Standard 17-in. wheels are nearly 0.5-lb lighter, while the optional 18-in. wheels are nearly 24-lb lighter (the total for all four) than the old designs, enhancing acceleration, ride and handling. The rear anti-roll bar was stiffened slightly.

Porsche's new Communication Management systems connect tuner, CD player, navigation system and trip computer through a digital databus. The fold-down-face head unit has been banished, hopefully forever.

While not new to the extent of some other cars in this group, the Boxster remains the favorite of several staffers. It has received new life through an injection of technology, benefitting from advancements made since its introduction six years ago.

BMW Z4 RoadsterIf the Z4's predecessor was aligned with the E30, the Z4 is fundamentally an E46-a quantum leap in chassis goodness. The 330i is a favorite of everyone here, and the idea of a two-seat roadster version set great expectations. Smaller, lighter and more agile with the same 3.0L, 225-hp inline six, on paper at least the Z4 could only be good to drive.

A six-speed manual matches the number of ratios in the Boxster S but is more delicate than the transmission found in the M3 and M5. The exhaust note could be accused of aping the smaller-engined Boxster's, but that's hardly a bad thing.

People are used to loving the styling of new BMWs instantly. The Z4 is the second new model that will have to grow on many fans of the marque. Certain elements, such as the high bustle on the trunk lid, correspond to the same engineering challenges faced in the design of the new 7 Series. The Z3's traditional long roadster hood is preserved, if not exaggerated. It will at least be interesting to watch and find out whether BMW succeeds in dragging its fans kicking and screaming into the future or if they choose to live in the past.

Saab 9-3Saab is a builder of cars we want to love, delicately balancing a hippie/artist quirkiness with cutting-edge engineering and, lately, superb style. The new 9-3 symbolizes Saab's future. A completely new design, it is based on GM's European compact platform. Platform sharing no longer means badge engineering. With modern engineering and design, platforms can be defined by a set of weld points, with even basic parts such as floorpan stampings differing significantly. Though it has some GM building blocks, this new Swede is all Saab. Torque steer, the bane of the old 9-3, is all but vanquished.

Wedge- rather than teardrop-shaped, the body is a new direction for Saab's design team, led by Michel Mauer. The interior, while preserving the console-mounted ignition, is likewise a step forward. It has its own "cupholder solution," a particular example of creativity appreciated by many in the 9-5, and the look of the dash and buttons reminds one of an E39 BMW.

Saab is the only car company that builds all turbos, all the time. It re-engineered every part of GM's "world" four-cylinder, the Ecotec, to make a turbo-friendly performance engine. Saab's 2.3L High Output Turbo is among our favorites, and the hot version of the new 2.0L engine promises to be impressive.

Jaguar XJRThough previous XJs might have been cars your rich, aging uncle owned, the new version is decidedly young in spirit and should bring a new group of buyers to the badge-those who enjoy the dynamics of driving.

The new Ian Callum-designed XJ still has its share of Jaguar styling cues, but it's bigger in every dimension, making it a true five-passenger luxury sedan. Even with its growth in size, however, it looks ready to leap and drives like a much smaller car. Credit a lightweight all-aluminum chassis and body, built in an entirely new way to ensure high levels and strength and safety. And also credit an air-spring suspension that makes the new XJ both a comfortable cruiser and a serious challenger to twisting back roads.

Two engine choices make it to America, a naturally aspirated 4.2-liter V8, slightly revised from the powerplant found in the Jaguar S-Type 4.2, and the obvious choice for our competition, the supercharged version of the 4.2 found in the XJR. Matched to a suave and sophisticated six-speed ZF automatic transmission, it delivers satisfying pull from its 400 bhp.

But what makes this Jaguar XJ different from all those which have come before will be the grins on the faces of driving enthusiasts when they experience its superior ride and handling.

New Beetle ConvertibleOver the last seven years, the original New Beetle has morphed into more powerful and luxurious iterations, including the GLX 1.8T, Turbo S and the race-bred Rsi. Despite what many predicted would be a short shelf life, New Beetles have continued to do well for Volkswagen; it was the only model in VW's current lineup to show positive sales growth for 2003. A large part of its continued success is the New Beetle Convertible, maybe the last chapter in this retro-style saga.

Although it has taken VW a good deal of time to scalp the New Beetle, the wait has been worth it. The crew at Wolfsburg has done it right and retained all the fundamental goodness of the original while adding 20 miles of headroom. It's lost little in the way of torsional rigidity and handling prowess thanks to a super rigid body structure augmented with additional support in stressed areas.

The three-layer cloth soft-top can be opened manually or with an optional electrohydraulic system in 13 sec. There's a glass rear window, and the top folds just behind the rear passenger headrests, which automatically pop up in the event of a rollover.

Like all current Volkswagens, the New Beetle Convertible is content-rich and tips the scales at a hefty 3,159 lb. This means VW's aging 115-bhp 2.0-liter engine is hard pressed to move the convertible with much authority. Available options are numerous, and transmission choices are a manual five-speed or six-speed automatic.

While we'd prefer to wait for more beans underhood from the upcoming 1.8t version, this new drop-top proves a car need not be fast to be a classic.

Volvo S60 RThe Volvo S60 R boasts the tenacity of the Audi Sport Quattro, the high-speed stability of a Porsche 911, the grunt of BMW's M3 and the interior elegance of a Range Rover. In a steel-clad nutshell, the Gothenburg-based manufacturer has built a car that can pretty much do anything, go anywhere and do it in a style that is unmistakably Volvo.

In the pursuit of a "driver's car," Volvo engineers pulled out all the stops, beginning with its active performance chassis, a highly advanced system that imbues the suspension with three distinct settings: comfort, sport and advanced sport. Designed in conjunction with hlins, it uses highly evolved electronically controlled dampers to temper body movement in relation to road surfaces. The car's awd system is based on a Haldex driveline and funnels the power to the wheels that can best use the torque. But the real magic behind this hardware is the software that helps control it. Volvo has designed the S60 R with brains that allow an unprecedented amount of control. Want more rear-wheel bias for some tail-out oversteer? Just press the dash control. Or let the Volvo figure things out on its own as DSTC and TRACS will step in and apply brake and power to negotiate the most efficient route through the turns.

Although the R's inline five is getting long in tooth, Volvo engineers have given it new life via revised internals, twin intercoolers and a larger turbo. With 300 bhp and 295 lb-ft of torque (available at 1950 rpm), the S60 R is the most powerful car Volvo has ever released. Gigantic Brembo brakes, 17- or 18-in. wheels with Pirelli P Zero Rossos, and a brilliant six-speed manual (or five-speed automatic with Geartronic) complete the car's athletic frame. And the understated yet elegant body lines penned by Peter Horbury appear designed to withstand the test of time.

Inside, the S60 R is distinguished by three levels of trim, topped with gorgeous Atacama leather, brushed aluminum, blue-metal gauges, three-spoke sport steering wheel and matching stitching throughout. Add the best sound system from Harmon/Kardon and you've got a stellar cabin.

Ten years ago Volvo surprised the world with its T5 R Sportwagen. Prepare to be shocked by the S60 R.

Audi RS6Unlike most automotive manufacturers, Audi has two distinct performance lines: the S and the RS. Although S versions have graced U.S. roads for some time, the vaunted RS models were kept across the pond due to cost and legal issues. Or perhaps Audi was simply waiting for the right car.

It could have done worse in choosing the RS6 as its first RS emissary. It's a car that embodies everything we've come to love from Audi.

As expensive as it is exclusive, the RS6 gets all the best stuff from Ingolstadt's parts bins. Based on the standard A6, the RS6 receives major work to its suspension including uprated spring and shock rates and Audi's Dynamic Ride Control, an active suspension where each corner is linked diagonally via hydraulic lines. Interestingly, DRC is operated through purely mechanical means-no fancy computer wizardry here. Of course, it is augmented with EDL (electronic differential lock), ESP (electronic stability program), and EBD (electronic brake-force distribution), all of which have been retuned with more aggressive parameters.

Audi's all-aluminum 4.2-liter V8 has received numerous internal parts from its race department, including low-friction roller rockers, improved head design, sodium-filled valves and a dual-branch intake. Add a pair of K04 turbochargers and intercoolers, and you're looking at 460 bhp. To cope with its prodigious torque, the RS6 uses a transmission based on the 12-cylinder A8, retrofitted with more aggressive gearing and the latest Tiptronic technology. Leave it in drive or use the steering wheel paddles to shift, the RS6 charges forward with almost unreal power.

The brakes were also culled from the race bin and include massive eight-piston Brembo calipers that grip sizable floating rotors. They can bring the two-ton RS6 from 62-0 mph in 2.6 sec.-race-like performance indeed.

And while the RS6 can hold claim in the far left lane, it performs with all the grace and poise of a luxury sedan featuring every conceivable amenity. The list of standard features is staggering.

Expensive? You bet. Exclusive? Yep. That hasn't deterred the Audi fans who eagerly snapped up all 860 U.S.-bound RS6s before they left the boat.

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