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A "tuner" is a stock vehicle highly modified with performance parts--therefore "tuned." The appeal of a tuner is the appeal of a "sleeper," a car with unexpected performance wrapped inside an ordinary-looking car. And the appeal of a sleeper--please follow this transitive logic--is the element of surprise in the ad hoc and spontaneous competitions at stop lights, in passing lanes, in the jockeying for position on the way to the exit ramp.

And of course, driving is competitive. You defend your territory, seize opportunity, capitalize on open space in lanes next to you. To do otherwise is to be plaque in the blood flow of traffic. Do not confuse competence with aggression.

In other words, get out of my way.

It wasn't so long ago that tuning was a cottage industry in which specialists in small garages transformed one car at a time using rare parts from underground catalogs. In the last decade, however, the liquidity of the American car market has attracted big manufacturers to the tuning side of the business. Now Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Lexus, Cadillac and lots of others have set up tuner divisions, putting out hi-po versions of stock products with factory fit and finish.

Consider the Mercedes-Benz CLK55. For all its technology, there is something primitive and atavistic about the CLK55. The thin veneer of civilization cracks easily underfoot when you apply pressure to the gas pedal, and quicker than you can say "Nolo contendere," you are a road-going Genghis Khan, slicing through traffic with your silver scimitar, leaving the yeomanry quivering in your wake. Ahh, that feels good.

The CLK55 is the final iteration of the Mercedes-Benz mid-size coupe that debuted in 1998, and like other cars bearing the two-digit nomenclature, it is a high-performance model created by the demon elves at AMG, the in-house tuner outfit based in Affalterbach. The AMG badging is understated, and rightfully so, confined to the 17-inch monoblock alloy wheels, the decklid and the polished alloy stinger on the dual-exhaust pipes.

But you could chip all of that off (debadging, as is done in Europe, is currently a hot trend on the Left Coast) and the car would still announce its AMG pedigree with its tumblers-in-the-combination-lock-of-hell exhaust note: husky and resonant, concussive and urgent.

The source of that aural malevolence is the 5.5-liter, 24-valve SOHC V8 generating 347 hp and 376 lb-ft. of torque, channeled through the five-speed automatic. The significance of those numbers is several-fold. First, the power-to-weight ratio is 1 hp per 10 pounds, making the CL55 not only ridiculously fast (top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph, but the car isn't even sweating at that speed), but absurdly quick. With a 0-60 mph time of less than 4.9 seconds, nearly as fast as a Corvette, this is the quickest production Mercedes ever built. The CLK55 was the safety car for this year's Formula 1 series, and as far as I know, Mika and Mikey never complained the car was in their way.

On the other side of Germany, the Bavarian mountains cast a long shadow over the tuner segment. BMW's M5, a 400-hp Lear jet on Z-rated tires, remains one of the world's most desirable cars--debonair and elegantly mature, with the hidden soul of a killer.

The product of Munich's M (for "Motorsport") division, the M5 is the benchmark in the midsize sedan category. About the only car to compare is another AMG, the Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG, the Stuttgart company's family sedan primed with race technology by the good folks in Affalterbach.

But sometimes smaller is better--and it's almost always quicker. The 2001 BMW M3, a successor to the car widely regarded as the best handling automobile in the world, is rolling into dealerships now. The M3 coupe is motivated by a new, highly strung version of the company's 3.2-liter inline six producing 333 hp, exceeding the threshold of 100 hp per liter, long the gold standard of performance engines. It's also 90 hp more than the previous M3.

Also, unlike the previous edition M3, which was perhaps too subtle to be recognized as a performance variant, the new M3 plainly demands respect, with brilliant 18-inch wheels gripped inside oversized fenders, a jutting front airdam and huge intakes feeding brakes and engine, a power dome on the hood and quad-outlet exhaust.

You might argue that the M3 is not a midsize but a compact--the EPA does. Yet the M3's adrenaline-pumping appeal reaches out beyond segment distinctions to attract anybody with a desire for practical excellence.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the tuner war between BMW and Mercedes is raising expectations across the board. While Americans continue to wait and hope for Audi Motorsport's "S" version of the A6 (340 hp), we have been consoled with the 4.2-liter, 32-valve, 300-hp A6 Quattro, a spacious and silver-heeled sedan with lapidary elegance concealing histrionic performance and all-weather élan. I've immodestly written about this car before. I talked my wife into buying one. The family rocket ship.

Is there a pattern here? For all the excitement generated in this segment with niceties such as digital wireless, nav systems, high-end sound and "ambient" interiors, the bottom line is power as prestige. The BMWs and Mercedes have it. The Jaguar S-type and the Lincoln LS--platform cousins, thanks to the Ford Motor Company--don't.

Three-hundred horsepower seems to be the new standard. Note the newly revised Lexus LS430, a car once noted for its reassuring stateliness, has been transformed into a handsomely aggressive cruiser. With a freshened alloy 4.3-liter V8 churning 290 hp, the LS430--slicked back aerodynamically to a remarkable drag coefficient of .25 Cd--can scat from 0 to 60 in 6.3 seconds while achieving admirable mileage of 25 mpg at highway speeds. A car of the same brand with a sharper edge is the new GS430, the 5-series fighter from Lexus, also implanted with the 4.3-liter motor.

Cars are getting faster. Why is traffic moving just as slow?

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