I have a theory why people who don’t really even care about speed are buying some of the fastest cars in the world.

The first and most obvious answer is cost. If you want to buy the most obviously expensive model of your run-of-the-mill executive car, you need to go with the performance model.

Nobody can tell from the outside that you have spent six figures on your Mercedes S600 for peerlessly comfortable, whisper-quiet V12 cruising. What people can see are the little vents and chrome accents and big wheels and scraping bodykit of your S63 AMG, which also put you back in the six figure range.

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This is the start of the high performance luxury conceit — the S63, with its more high strung V8, has more demands on its cooling system, and its high speed potential means the car puts more demands on its wheels, its tires, its aerodynamics. You see, the car needs the visual changes.

All of these changes are expensive, in turn. A BMW M4 goes faster than a regular 4 series, so it needs better brakes. Carbon ceramic rotors fade less in hard driving than ordinary steel ones, so BMW offers them as an option, one that you really want to tick if you want the last word in credibility. But carbon ceramic brakes are more expensive than steel ones. The same is true for the car’s upgraded suspension, its upgraded exhaust, engine, and everything else that makes it an M car.

Has it always been this way with powerful, expensive cars? Probably. But now, in 2015, in this age of insane performance, it feels more prevalent than it’s ever been. Horsepower and performance specs have never felt more like status symbols than they do now.

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And that’s why if you walk into a showroom and ask for the most expensive version of a particular car, you’re walking out with the highest performance edition.

All of the gains that an M5 gets over a normal 5 series (or an E63 over an E class, or an RS6 over an A6 or whatever) come at a cost, particularly for the owner who rarely presses their foot to the floor, or heads out to a track day (read: virtually all of them).

The big engine means the car sucks gas, the high performance tires mean the ride clunks and road noise roars, and the wheels themselves are so big that they make liabilities of their own. I met a BMW X6M owner who insured his, so likely was he to break a wheel and/or blow a tire on the cobblestoned streets leading to his downtown Manhattan apartment.

The car makes sacrifices, you see, to support its high speed needs.

And these needs, visually presented by the car itself, extend psychologically to the owner.

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I’m a high-powered businessperson buying these cars! I live a high power life! I need high power cars to back me up! A BMW 535i only has 302 horsepower. That’s not enough! I’m a fast-paced person; 302 horsepower is not enough to get me to my lunches, my meetings, my pick-up-the-kids-at-soccer practices. It’s not that I want a BMW M5. It’s that I need it.

There’s more, too. The gains the BMW M5 gets over non-M car BMWs are that it accelerates faster, it brakes harder, and it maneuvers quicker. If you see a baby seat in the back of an M5, you can understand that these sound like accident-avoidance features. An M car might bring on images of street racing in some rich kid crosscountry rally, but it’s easy to argue it’s a safer car than its lower-speed versions.

I’m not buying an M5 for me! I don’t even like this car. I’m doing it for my little baby angel.

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So you can see that the allure of a high performance version of a car, a G63 AMG compared to a regular G series, a CTS-V over a regular CTS might have little to do with the actual performance gains of the car. You can see why Land Rover builds a Ranger Rover Sport SVR. You can see why the newest M5 chases more mainstream buyers than the last model did. You can see why Cadillac seems so obsessed with its V car image.

And this is why you see the fastest cars in the world offered from the factory... forget that, this is why you see some of the fastest cars ever offered from the factory being driven by owners who seem completely uninterested in testing their cars’ capabilities.

Horsepower, as it turns out, isn’t a drug. It’s just a status symbol.

Photo Credits: BMW


Contact the author at raphael@jalopnik.com.