Our test of 600-hp cars nine years ago looked very different from this one. Fenders bulged. Eight-, 10-, and 12-cylinder engines boomed. Hoods stretched to the horizon—except for that of the Italian, which carried its engine behind the cockpit. Because nine years ago, rounding up four cars with 600 horsepower meant coming face to face with rare and exotic sporting machines. We called them “the pinnacle of the automotive food chain.” They were a Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, a Dodge Viper SRT10, a Lamborghini Murcielago LP640, and a Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG Black Series. It was 2009, and as the economy cratered and stiff fuel-economy mandates brewed, it was tempting to assume that the halcyon days of horsepower would soon be behind us.
It doesn’t appear as if automakers plan to cut us off anytime soon, though. When 600 horsepower seems unexceptional, you know you’re living in exceptional times. Packaged as it is for this comparison test—in four-door bodies, produced exclusively by blown V-8s, and paired with automatic transmissions—600 horsepower today looks markedly less exotic than it did back in 2009. But don’t be fooled—this much power will always blow your mind.
The BMW M5 is the newest in the set, and while it looks familiar, inside and out, it features two notable format changes: An eight-speed automatic transmission has taken over for the six-speed manual and seven-speed dual-clutch offered in the prior model, and standard all-wheel drive promises to shrink acceleration times. A rear-wheel-drive mode allows drivers to appreciate how masterfully all-wheel drive wrangles the full might of the 600-hp 4.4-liter V-8, particularly since it’s only available once stability control has been fully defeated. M5 pricing starts at $104,595 and runs $127,295 as equipped for our test, with the $4000 Executive package (soft-close doors, four-zone climate control, massaging and heated front seats, plus heated rears, among other equipment) making the M5 as lavish as it is sporting.
Cadillac’s 640-hp CTS-V is the outlier, nestling a supercharger in the valley of its V-8, where everyone else stuffs two turbochargers, and delivering torque to only the rear wheels. It’s also the value play, as it’s the sole car here that can be bought for five figures. The Caddy’s price, however, pushes to $102,935 with big-ticket options such as Recaro performance seats ($2300), the performance data and video recorder ($1600), the Luxury package ($2500), and an exterior carbon-fiber package ($6250). The price is kept in check, at least in part, because Cadillac doesn’t offer carbon-ceramic brakes, an option that costs between $8500 and $8960 on the three other cars assembled.
Mercedes began sending torque to both the front and rear axles of its E63 for the 2014 model year. Naturally then, the big innovation of the new-for-2018 E63 S 4MATIC is… rear-wheel drive. As on the M5, the E63’s two-wheel-drive mode can’t be unlocked until all the electronic safety nets have been cut, at which point the 603-hp Mercedes reverts to old habits, i.e., butchering tires in burnouts and drifts. Our $134,600 test car includes upgraded front seats ($1320), forged 20-inch wheels ($1700), an active exhaust ($1250), an advanced lighting package ($1500), and additional insulation in the body and glass ($1100) as part of its $29,205 in extras.
We also have the second generation of Porsche’s Panamera Turbo. The Panamera 2.0 arrived for 2017 cured of its scoliosis and looking quite handsome. Porsche’s passenger car seats four and swallows cargo via its hatchback. The options list is short on this particular Porsche, but that doesn’t make it inexpensive. Its $25,375 in add-ons are concentrated around performance-enhancing equipment such as the Sport package with launch control, four-wheel steering, and two-mode exhaust ($5580); active anti-roll bars ($5000); and carbon-ceramic brakes ($8960). As tested, this one costs $173,325, and yet with a mere 550 horsepower, the Panamera is the noodly-armed kid that threatened to undo our gathering of four 600-hp brutes for this comparison test.
But if you could turn the camera around in that opening image, you’d see that things are so heady in 2018 that our chase car compensates for the Porsche’s 50-hp deficit. Armed with 603 horsepower in its own Mercedes-AMG E63 S 4MATIC wagon, our photo team had no excuse for falling off the pace during this test. In fact, we were so smitten by the longroof’s hard-charging performance, innate practicality, and dashing looks that we briefly considered naming it the winner of a comparison it didn’t compete in.
We did not extend such consideration to the Audi RS7, which needed to make an appearance if it was going to defend its 2013 victory over the BMW M6 Gran Coupe and the Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG S. Audi introduced an RS7 Performance for 2016 that pushes the twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 from 560 horsepower to 605, but the company was in the midst of launching the next-gen A7 and didn’t have an RS7 for this test.
Just as we did nine years ago, we concentrated our power in Southern California. Where writhing mountain highways spill into desolate desert, we ran these heavy hitters hard and fast to determine which car actually earns the right to wear its golden brake calipers.