Top of the Line

Ultra-autos succeed by exceeding.

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The Bugatti Veyron is the fastest at 253 mph.

The world of luxury automobiles can be confusing right now, particularly when you consider that the most expensive car on earth, and arguably the fastest, is… a Volkswagen.

That's right, the Bugatti Veyron, at $1.2 million and 253 mph, is made by Volkswagen. The folks that brought you the Beetle have come quite a way from Bug to Bugatti.

But that's only the start. Consider that Rolls-Royce, the venerable British carmaker whose Spitfire engines won the Battle of Britain, is now owned by BMW, the German company that built engines for Focke-Wulf fighters.

Or that Aston Martin, the perennial James Bond car, is owned by Ford. Or even that Bentley, the longtime sister of Rolls-Royce and once the quintessence of Englishness, is also now owned by Volkswagen.

High-end car lovers will definitely need a program to keep track of the players, as top makers battle to turn out the most luxurious, fastest-and most expensive-model on the market.

At the top of the pyramid, the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 is a car so fast and so expensive and so intricately detailed that the competition doesn't stand a chance. The Bugatti name, from French car builder Ettore Bugatti, stands high in your sports-car connoisseur's esteem as pur sang, or pure blooded, and the Veyron carries on that distinction. Powered by an 8-liter V-16 engine producing somewhere on the far side of 1,000 hp, the Veyron is not only stunning to look at, but stunning to drive. In fact, the driver gets two keys: one to start the car and allow enough power for normal driving about town, and a second key (that fits a lock next to the driver's thigh) that unleashes the full power. Of course, at maximum speed, the 22-gallon fuel tank will run dry in just 12 minutes, although you'd have covered 51 miles, probably in white-knuckled terror.

Among the Veyron's details are a hinged air brake to help drag it down to reasonable speeds, a seven-speed gearbox (shifted clutchlessly with paddles on the steering column), and a PDA to keep track of all the telemetry in the car. A GPS navigation system is integrated into the mirror for easy viewing and, should you ever have a fender-bender with your $1.2 million car, a small pyrotechnic charge blows off the positive battery pole to prevent fire.

Not surprising, you can't just wander into your neighborhood VeeDub dealer and buy a Veyron. Only a few will be built each year and, while the company doesn't openly admit it, they screen their owners for credentials other than a big bank account. Actor Tom Cruise drove one to the Oscars, but couldn't get the door open; Ralph Lauren presumably has better luck with his.

The Veyron is a very cozy two-seater, but when it comes to an ultra-luxury sedan, the trophy for being the most expensive goes to the Maybach 62, at around $385,000. Get your program out, because this tony model is built by DaimlerChrysler (née Mercedes-Benz) which, after dropping out of the bidding to buy Rolls and Bentley, retrieved the Maybach (pronounced "my bach") nameplate, which once powered Zeppelins.

The Maybach 62 redefines the standards for coddling passengers in ultra-luxury cars by including fully reclining rear seats like those in first-class airliners. Propelled by a V-12 engine, the car is 20 feet long, leaving plenty of room for all the amenities you need on the road, such as flat-screen monitors, a refrigerator and a secondary set of gauges (including a speedometer) so passengers can keep an eye on the driver.

A business package makes the Maybach the first car to offer a wireless Internet router with Bluetooth color printer. A fax machine rounds out the "office on wheels" equipment. As you'd expect from a car at this stratospheric level, the appointments, from leathers and woods to granite trim, are entirely up to the client.

For those who want more zip in their doodah, the Maybach 57S ($369,000) is a smaller version (at a mere 18.8 feet) but with a twin-turbo 604 hp V-12 that blasts this vehicle to a top speed in the neighborhood of 172 mph. Interior and business features are similar to the 62, although the styling, suspension and handling are more aggressive. (By the way, when pronouncing the name DaimlerChrysler in Germany, the Chrysler is silent-kidding!).

Just pocket change behind is the Rolls-Royce Phantom ($328,000), a stately creature from which you'd expect the Queen of England to emerge through the rear-hinged "suicide doors." Though powered by a 453-hp V-12 engine and boasting an aluminum space-frame to keep the tonnage under three, this sixth-generation Phantom is no sports car. Instead, its rear lounge seating and such necessities as umbrella storage compartments, picnic tables and video system redefine motoring elegance. The Phantom also comes with a retractable Flying Lady hood ornament to keep street urchins from snatching your mascot.

Once just a nameplate away, Bentley is now emerging from the shadow of Rolls-Royce with its own identity, from the Bentley Continental GT ($171,000) with a twin-turbo 552 hp V-12 engine in contemporary coupe styling, to the Arnage T ($242,000), the last of the pre-VW Bentleys and the most powerful road Bentley ever.

While the Bugatti leads on the pocket-rocket front, it has a challenger that isn't far behind in speed (240 mph), although it's priced at about half ($560,000). But this contender isn't Italian, German or even British: It's home-grown American. From Orange County, Calif., comes the Saleen S7, the fastest and most expensive car in the U.S. With a shark-gilled carbon-fiber body and a massive 427-cubic-inch Ford engine made from beryllium, titanium and other exotics, it's still docile enough to run to Safeway for a quart of Ben & Jerry's. Too low to have an inside mirror, the Saleen driver instead has a TV screen and a rear-facing camera (as though anyone will be coming up astern). While only a handful of Bugattis will ever be built, there are already more than 70 S7s out there.

Introduced this year at $350,000 and 211 mph, the Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 is a European supercar like the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano (205 mph and $250,000), which, with an engine derived from the oft-crashed Ferrari Enzo, will be the most powerful front-engine Ferrari ever. Also in the over-200 mph league (how many judges do you know?) is the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren (208 mph and $452,000), a Teutonic supercar of which only 500 will be built each year for the likes of Jay Leno and Paris Hilton (separately, of course).

Aston Martin, of shaken-not-stirred fame, is reportedly being courted for purchase by purse-maker Louis Vuitton's parent company but, for now, this Ford product leads with the DB9 at $172,000 and 186 mph in a suave package with V-12 power.

Back on the sedan side, the flagship of the BMW line (excluding Rolls) is the 760 sedan ($117,000), which the Beemer spoil-sports electronically limit to 155 mph, although the 438 hp V-12 engine could certainly pull it faster down the autobahn.

So whether you prefer speed, luxury or something in between, you'll find a fleet of choices when you need to pop down to the yacht club to visit your Perini Navi.

Of course, if you really want expensive, take a look at collectible cars, like the 1958 Ferrari (no air-conditioning, no electric windows, uncomfortable) that sold last month for $5.61 million. Just think: All that money, and you're lucky to go the speed limit.

But that's a story for another time.