What is the ultimate GT car? It’s a pretty straightforward question, but one that’s clearly open to interpretation if the three cars before us are anything to go by.
For Aston Martin, the gran turismo recipe is pure and simple: a big and grunty, front-mid-mounted, naturally aspirated V12 mated to a rather quaint six-speed manual transmission and rear-wheel drive. More sporting than the gentlemanly DB9, yet less tigerish than the V12 Vantage, the £166,872 DBS is Aston’s most concerted effort at concealing an abundance of latent performance beneath a classy and convincing cloak of civility.
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With the £221,339 599 Fiorano HGTE, Ferrari has chosen a rather more blatant approach. Lest we forget, the basic 599 re-wrote the rules of front-engined supercar engagement when it successfully transplanted Enzo power ahead of the driver. It figures, then, that this keener, sharper ‘Handling Gran Turismo Evoluzione’ version, which counts a lower ride, stiffer springs, larger wheels and quicker steering amongst its tweaks, sits right at the pointy end of the GT scale.
The very fact that we’ve built this test around the new £163,000 Bentley Continental Supersports is testament to our respect for Ulrich Eichhorn and his engineering team. It also betrays our already high expectations for this, the ballsiest Bentley to emerge from Crewe in the company’s illustrious history.
All-wheel drive, a novel twin-turbocharged W12 engine and a six-speed torque-converter auto ’box are standard Conti fare, but the Supersports builds on the already impressive GT Speed, both in terms of output (now a whopping 621bhp and 590lb ft) and, perhaps more importantly, in the purity of its dynamic focus. It’s a thoroughly comprehensive transformation that makes significant changes to the steering, suspension and transmission, complete with a new rear-biased 40:60 torque split. It can also run on E85 bioethanol, and weighs 110kg less than the GT Speed, although at 2240kg it remains a heavyweight.
There’s no doubt the Supersports is keeping some exalted company on this test, but as we arrive at every high-performance car’s favourite watering hole – the Shell petrol station in Betws-y-Coed – it appears every inch the hyper-GT. Bulgingly muscular, with menacing black alloys and subtly swollen arches to accommodate a 2in wider rear track, it looks tighter and meaner than a clenched fist.
By contrast the Aston and Ferrari look more glitzy, thanks to the former’s rakish, low-slung stance and glossy carbonfibre detailing, and the bright polished rims, bazooka tailpipes and positively sulphurous paint of the latter.
Irrespective of hue, none, it has to be said, is a shrinking violet. This much is proved when we start each of them in turn, then pause in collective awe as the whole filling station reverberates to the seismic pulse of 36 cylinders, 18 litres and 1750bhp at fast idle. It’s a cataclysmic show of force, and one we’re all itching to unleash on some of the few roads with the scale to stretch these behemoths’ legs. Tomorrow will be a good day.
We emerge to a perishing February morning. All three cars are encased in a layer of ice reminiscent of a scene from The Day After Tomorrow, while the road surface looks as cold, wet and foreboding as the Bering Sea. Brrrr…
It’s not the most inviting scene that ever greeted a group of blokes each holding the key to a 12-cylinder super-GT in their hand, but our enthusiasm soon grows as once again we fire the cars into life and stand amongst the swirling clouds of vapour, engines raucously working some warmth into their treacly vital fluids while heaters blow warm air at frosted glass.
By the time we’ve worked our way inland from Conwy, passing through Betws then up and across the rugged plateau near Ysbyty Ifan, snow is starting to fall. Still, the roads remain mercifully clear, so we can get cracking.
I decide to introduce the Supersports to these challenging, daunting, wonderful roads first.On the face of it the ‘SS’ is a strange concept. Take a plutocratic, super-luxury GT, dispose of the leather Chesterfield that would normally reside in the back, funk things up with a wide track and fat rims, enable it to run on stewed vegetables and tweak the chassis so it’ll do skids. It’s a bit like turning the QE2 into a Class 1 offshore powerboat, yet despite the incongruity of the idea there’s no question the Supersports is the real deal. Heave open a door and you’re greeted by a surprisingly spartan interior. All things are relative, of course, and even this stripped-out Bentley exudes a rare sense of luxury and quality, but still when you look behind the carbonfibre front seats to find an Alcantara-trimmed luggage deck and a fat carbon retaining beam it comes as a bit of a shock.
You sit low, but not so low that your visibility or confidence is compromised. Thankfully the Benters does a good job of shrinking around you. The steering wheel is trimmed in a very fine ‘soft-touch’ leather, which perhaps unflatteringly reminds me of the original Renaultsport Clio 172’s wheel, although I suspect this Bentley version will wear a bit better! The only ergonomic bugbear is the position of the high-set gearshift paddles, which always feel like a stretch to find with your fingers. But that does little to diminish what is a beautiful, comfortable and classy place to be.
The twin-turbo W12 is an engine brimming with cultured menace. It snorts and woofles and booms and blusters in such a way that you feel it as much as hear it. If you dislike shouty supercars then this is the machine for you. That soundtrack is backed up by a deliciously muscular delivery of the kind you immediately want to savour. Instinctively you find yourself measuring throttle inputs to avoid kickdown and maximise the epic surge of all that writhing torque twisting a tall gear into submission.
With 621bhp and 590lb ft to throw its 2.2 tons at the horizon, the Supersports is a heavy hitter in every respect, yet there’s surprising delicacy to the way it steers and stops. The standard Conti GT is a resolute understeerer, while the peppier GT Speed can only summon neutrality at best, but the Supersports is an altogether more enthusiastic machine. The steering initially feels lighter than you’d expect, but you soon appreciate its immediacy and accuracy. With revised rates for the adjustable dampers, new suspension bushes and different anti-roll bars, the SS has plenty of grip and body control to lean on.
As your confidence builds, you learn to trust the front end, and the immensely impressive carbon-ceramic brakes, which with 420mm front discs are the largest ever fitted to a production car. If you’re diligent about managing the momentum just at the point of turn-in, you can drive the Bentley like a two-ton Mitsubishi Evo, which sounds absurd, but feels brilliant. With that keen front end nailing the nose into the apex, you get the feeling the tail j-u-s-t begins to help it on the way in with a useful nudge of yaw. Better still, it is happy to do this without waking the recalibrated ESP.
That’s as far as prudence allows you to push this car on the cold, unforgiving roads of Wales, but as we discover later at the Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground and the Bedford Autodrome, this is far from the limit of the Supersports’ ultimate dynamic repertoire.
If such pointiness comes as a surprise, the Bentley’s awesome ability to punch you out of a corner is a given, for when it comes to traction the Conti is a monster. String all this together on a great, familiar chunk of Snowdonia and the SS rises to the occasion in a manner you’d never believe a car of such mass could even attempt, let alone carry off with such conviction.
Its pace is stupendous, and the gearshift – now some 50 per cent quicker shifting – is about as incisive as a torque-converter gearbox can get. The car doesn’t steamroller the road into submission either; rather it inhales and exhales with the crests and compressions, softening the blows with a rare lightness of touch. Bentley has thrown down the gauntlet with this car, and in unexpectedly fine style.
I’m strangely unprepared for the culture shock of stepping from the Bentley and into the Ferrari. I honestly can’t remember two cars in the same group test feeling more different. The Supersports has the most power here, albeit only 10bhp more than the 611bhp 599, but it’s the massive maximum torque that the Bentley’s W12 delivers from just 2000rpm that lives longest in the memory. By contrast the Fezza needs nearly three times the revs to deliver 20 per cent less torque. But with 550kg less to carry it’s explosively quick at all times. The funny thing is, though they feel like chalk and cheese from behind the wheel, only 0.2sec separates their claimed 0-62mph times (3.7sec for the HGTE, 3.9 for the SS) and they come within an ace of matching each other on top speed too, the Ferrari just pipping the Bentley with 205mph versus a measly 204. Oh the shame…
It takes a long time to even begin to gel with the HGTE in these conditions. Having tried another example fitted with Pirelli P Zero Corsas (rather than the non-Corsas of this car) on hot, smooth Spanish tarmac, I know how hooked-up it can feel, but today, in the bitter Welsh sleet and on a road that’s as cold as steel, the 599 can be a malevolent, prickly brute.
There’s a kind of melancholy pleasure to be derived from stealing yourself to pit your skills against the car and the elements, but push too hard and you soon find yourself getting stiff of arm and sweaty of palm. Maintaining traction is something that requires delicate throttle management and constant vigilance, for even on the most timid of manettino settings the 599’s rear tyres will snap and snatch for grip. What’s more, they do so as the V12 hits its high-revving, Usain Bolt-esque stride, so you can find yourself in the meat of third or sometimes even fourth gear when the rubber cries enough in a straight line. And although you nearly swallow your own tongue when it kicks and wriggles, in the euphoric adrenal backwash you realise this is a car that encourages boldness, yet demands enormous respect.
Time is the key to your relationship with the 599 HGTE. Take things steady, don’t push your luck and slowly but surely you can begin to trust it. And once you do that it will take you places the Bentley, intelligently developed and beautifully honed though it is, simply can’t. You roister your way along in the HGTE, an angry yellow whirl of growls and snargles, stabby flurries of wheelspin and paradiddles of percussive reports from the quartet of gun-barrel tailpipes. It’s an angry car – the wheeled equivalent of the cartoon Tasmanian Devil – but my God is it exciting.
The problem with the HGTE package is that it pushes an already extreme front-engined GT into Scuderia territory. The recalibrated steering is switchblade quick, which is terrific in the warm and dry, but in wintry conditions that require you to apply frequent, precisely measured amounts of corrective lock, this makes it very hard not to over-correct. It’s hard not to conclude that on these roads, in this weather, the more progressive character of the standard 599 GTB would see it cope more convincingly than the pugnacious HGTE.
And so to the Aston. The DBS and evo have a bit of previous. Back in 2007 we took one of the launch cars to eCoty – a pre-production car on pre-production dampers as it later transpired – and it got a cruel kick in the goolies for its trouble. We subsequently drove a production model, which felt much better, but it was too late to change the outcome. Now it has the chance to redeem itself, but with Aston’s resources currently being put wholeheartedly into the Rapide launch, the company’s press fleet is without a DBS coupe. Enter Simon George, who has kindly let us borrow his 25,000-mile example for the test. He even delivered it. Thanks, SG.
There’s something approachable and honest about the Aston. The gracefully upswept ‘swan‑wing’ doors provide some welcome theatre (the fiddly ‘key’ less so) and the low-slung seats deliver the sportiest driving position of our trio. It seems funny to have a gearstick sprouting from the transmission tunnel after the paddle-shifters of the 599 and SS, not to mention a third pedal in the footwell, but this all helps to distinguish the DBS driving experience and underline its role as the traditionalist of the group. With 510bhp, 420lb ft and weighing 1695kg, the DBS could be accused of being outgunned, but that’s not the word that springs to mind when you hook second gear and squeeze the throttle into the carpet.
Compared with the light, direct steering of the Supersports and the hyper-alert helm of the HGTE, the DBS’s is weightier and calmer. Indeed it seems almost stodgy for the first few miles, but as you settle into the drive you begin to appreciate that the chassis, steering response and engine performance are the closest to being in harmony. The brakes have the best feel and action, too, their firm pedal and linear response fractionally more satisfying than the Bentley’s and more consistent than the HGTE’s comparatively dead, glassy feel.
Driving in fast convoy with the Ferrari and Bentley is a lesson in the limitations of just how much performance you can deploy. The DBS is less spiky than the Ferrari, but when the tail lets go it does so quickly. Too quickly, it seems, to put your faith (and no-claims bonus) blindly in the hands of the DSC. Even though the calmer steering allows you to gather it up more cleanly, knowing that you can break traction in any of the first four gears tempers your enthusiasm for getting back on the power.
You’d think this would hand the advantage to the Bentley, but from what I can see in the rear-view mirror, the Conti has its own issues to deal with through the faster corners. As road test ed John Barker explains later, it’s all down to being completely sure the front end can indeed persuade 2.2 tons to change direction. Once it does you’re home free, but only enough to claw back what it loses to the lighter pair on the way to the apex.
On a dry road there’s no doubt the HGTE would leave both the DBS and Supersports breathless, but today they have its every move covered, the Aston shadow-boxing the Ferrari corner for corner, shimmy for shimmy, the Bentley maintaining station in its own sweet way. Considering how different each car is in character and engineering approach, it’s ironic, miraculous even, that they all appear to be tied together by 200 metres of bungee cord. But then rain is always the ultimate leveller.
As is often the way with tests like this, you could make a compelling argument for any of the protagonists, so memorable are they in their own unique ways. Even so, it would take a special kind of commitment to live with the hardcore HGTE all year round. Inspirational in the right weather, but downright hairy when not, the HGTE upgrades take the 599 further into supercar territory than ever before.
By contrast it would be oh so easy to live with the Bentley. But fabulous though it is, you would choose it in the knowledge that you’re sacrificing that final layer of connection, purity and playfulness you get from a front-engined, rear-drive layout.
What marks the DBS out as an exceptional GT is its ability to capture just enough of the Supersports’ magnificently assured pace and combine it with a healthy pinch of the HGTE’s frenzied, pent-up energy. Mellow when you want it to eat miles, yet exuberant when you want to get your heart pumping, the DBS earns itself a narrow but unanimous victory.