Friday, March 25, 2011

Thank God For The British (And By British I Mean Aston Martin And Bentley)


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via Forbes Network Activity by Hannah Elliott on 3/25/11

I've been driving a lot of eco-minded cars lately.

Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, solar car, French fry car–all done and done. And while I appreciate the need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, I must admit a sense of relief as I eased back into something more thrilling. Namely, new offerings from Aston Martin and Bentley.

Days after I had tooled around in the Leaf, Aston loaned me a V12 Vantage for the weekend. As their pricing and fuel economy might attest, the differences between the two couldn't have been more pronounced. The V12 goes from zero to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds, has a 510 bhp 6-liter engine, and pulls 570 Nm of torque with a top speed of 190 mph. Don't drive it unless you want to make a statement.

Forbes Images

The V12 Vantage is different in several ways from the Vantage V8 that came out in 2005. It rides lower (so low I had to take some garage inclines at an angle to avoid scraping the bottom) and the pronounced trunk flip and rear carbon fiber diffuser give it major attitude. The special edition carbon black paint job, sneering hood vents and chrome-clad console also add to its unique persona.

I would call this coupe beautiful, but it's much too masculine for that. Dangerously handsome is a better descriptor.

Vantage has a thick, small steering wheel, heavy knobs and shifter, and optional carbon fiber and Kevlar composite seats. It's all very no-nonsense inside. Aston Martin calls it "the ideal environment for the focused driver to extract the very best from every element of the car."

This is Aston's largest production engine on its smallest chassis, and you can feel it when you drive. The car has two drive modes, "sport" and "normal," which allow drivers to choose between throttle responses and exhaust notes, though in both modes the voracious V12 instantly bounds to the slightest press of the gas pedal. The handling is agile, the response of the carbon ceramic brakes refined. A six-speed manual gearbox comes standard.

Bottom line: In spite of luxurious trimming inside and comfortable, spacious seating arrangements, this is a weekend fling, not a daily driver. It demands all of your attention, every time you drive. You walk away very hyped up.

Mid-mounted 48 valve 5935cc V12
Transmission: 6-speed manual rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 510 bhp
Torque: 570 Nm
Weight: 3,704 pounds
Length: 172.5 inches
0-60 mph: 4.1 seconds
Top Speed: 190 mph
MPG: 11.6 city/24 highway
MSRP: $180,000

AP Photo

Fast-forward two weeks to the redesigned Bentley Continental GT. Now here's a daily driver, if you can stomach the attention it gets. To get in and sit is to exhale into a silent, smooth world of hand-crafted artistry–polished woods, fine-grain leather, artisan stitching, manually applied paint. It's built like a tank but performs like a coach. Each Bentley has a plate on the engine identifying the person who built it–it's a badge of pride more than an inspection device.

The GT is among the sportiest Bentleys available. The haunches are sculpted, the matrix grill an assertion of superiority. With doorhandles integrated into the side edge, the car looks seamless and muscular and swift. There are more than 100 colors available for the GT (and of course Bentley will customize your own if you'd like); the one I drove was a gray blue with camel interior and burled wood trim as supple as a pair of bespoke John Lobb shoes. It smelled like a tack room.

The details of the interior match perfectly with the jewel-like detailing of the headlights. Four "cobra-design" leather seats, the Bentley B and trademark wings, a veneered removable sunglasses case, and stainless steel effects all trim this plush cocoon. The eight-inch touch screen and 14-speaker Naim system are delightfully unobtrusive. The front space feels enormous; the rear is roomy enough for a prolonged road tour.

The GT has a 12-cylinder engine, though it's not nearly as tightly wound as the Vantage (the GT weighs considerably more). Still, the car is noticeably lighter than its predecessor and fast in a very solid, bearing-down-on-the-road sense.

My car had a six-speed quickshift transmission and paddle shifters that allow instant double downshifts (going from sixth to fourth gear, say). Steering is firm, the brakes responsive. It was virtually silent to drive in and–the best part–so smooth that it made Manhattan's worst potholes seem to disappear completely.

It's wonderful that this car can run on E85 bioethanol as well as regular gas–though I sheepishly noted at the end of one foray downtown that my average fuel consumption had been 6.0 mpg.

Talk about a contrast.

Engine: Mid-mounted 5998cc 12-cylindar
Transmission: 6-speed all-wheel drive automatic with paddle shift
Horsepower: 576 bhp
Torque: 700 Nm
Weight: 5,115 pounds
Length: 189.2 inches
0-60 mph: 4.4 seconds
Top Speed: 198 mpg
MPG: 12 city/19 highway
MSRP: $189,900

Follow me on Twitter: @HannahElliott


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