The piney Georgia foothills are a blur as I veer the six-figure sports car along a winding, rain-soaked ribbon of highway. The solid-metal gearshift feels like an electrical conduit, channeling every sweet vibration of the 420-horsepower engine into some primal quadrant of my psyche that I’d forgotten even existed. As the needle soars to 100, I can hear the air surging through the vented aircraft aluminum. The feeling is more than good; it is close to enlightenment. But my spiritual transport has not come via a Lamborghini or even a Dodge Viper. It’s courtesy of a car few people have heard of, let alone own: a Panoz Esperante GTLM. And the man who hand-built it, Daniel Panoz, is sitting next to me in the passenger seat. Coolly lighting a Gitane while absorbing the performance of his baby, he smiles broadly.
“Very tasty,” he says.
On a par, performance-wise, with new Ferraris that cost twice as much, Panoz’s $120,000 rocket rolls out of his factory in the woodlands of Hoschton, Georgia, at a rate of only 120 a year. “When we started the company, our argument was ‘Why should Europe have the monopoly on interesting hand-built cars?’” says Panoz.
And he’s not the only automotive entrepreneur asking that question: A handful of companies in the United States are microbrewing the kind of fine-tuned, jaw-dropping rides that Detroit can only wet-dream about. The appeal for the moneyed road junkies who buy them is cleara head-turning high-performance car that makes a Porsche look as common as a minivan.
“I’ve driven the Porsche Carrera GTa great ride by any measure, but it was boring compared to the Esperante,” says Tony Mastandrea, 38, the CEO of a Georgia real-estate-development company. “When you hear the sound of a Panoz, it just screams ‘I’m here.’ Everybody asks about it when they see it, and no one can believe it’s an American car.”
Another hard-to-believe-it’s-homegrown dream car is the Saleen S7. Racing legend Steve Saleen has been building meaner versions of Ford models like the Mustang for more than 20 years. In 2002, he unveiled a gilled predator deadly enough to make a Ferrari engineer spill cappuccino all over his Bruno Maglis. His tiny company in Irvine, California, now lays claim to the world’s fastest production car, capable of ripping up to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds. The car is as beautiful as it is vicious. “We tried to create a timeless design, so it ages gracefully,” says Saleen. “It’s something you can drive as a normal car, but if you open it up, you can have a level that very few people have ever experienced.” Or ever will: The new S7 Twin Turbo sells for $555,000, but even at that price Saleen has a yearlong backlog of customers.
“It’s a thrill,” says Mike Price, 36, CEO of California-based Website-management company Cyber Trend. He dropped an extra 100 grand just to boost the horsepower on his S7. “I have a Ferrari and some other exotic cars. But to drive this is a whole different experience. I’m not hauling ass down the freeway on a daily basis, but don’t be surprised if you see me going by you at 200 mph, either.”