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Merc SLS roadster vs Bentley GTC vs Aston Virage Volante

  1. Ponk. Extensive investigation of the Oxford English Dictionary reveals no agreed spelling for the noise of a small stone impacting a human eyebrow at 60mph, so I’m staking a claim on ‘ponk’: a dull, boney thud accompanied by a bewildered look and, a few seconds later, a rapid flush of pain in the face region.

    Kicked up by a Bentley’s rear tyre, the small lump of Scottish countryside that has just ponked my brow can’t dampen this too-perfect scene: clear dawn in the deserted Galloway Forest, fingers of mist hanging between pine trees, a trio of supercar convertibles scudding past the dark loch, drowning every ponk beneath 32 pistons and 1,620bhp of glorious, petrol noise. Overlaying the wide woofling whump of the Bentley GTC’s 6.0-litre W12 is the Aston Virage Volante’s mellifluous, multi-layered V12, cut through by the metallic thudding of the Mercedes SLS Roadster, the crunching throb of a helicopter being fed blades-first into an industrial woodchipper.

    Words: Sam Philip
    Photography: Joe Windsor-Williams

    This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. I’m in the SLS, and, though the big Merc hasn’t protected me from the Bentley’s rock onslaught, I couldn’t care less. I mean, look at it. This is an absolute event of a supercabrio: improbably low, absurdly wide, bonnet ending several postcodes from the seating position nestled up to the rear wheels. We worried the necessary loss of the coupe’s gullwing doors would shear the SLS Roadster of visual drama, render it no more than a gussied-up SL. It didn’t. It isn’t. Despite the replacement of the hard-top’s ostentatious, roof-hinging signatures with a pair of conventional doors and a neat Z-fold fabric roof that stows into a stand-alone compartment behind the seats, the Roadster exudes menace.

    Menace morphs into sofa-chewing lunacy as you poke the glowing start button on the SLS’s centre console to fire its 563bhp, 6.2-litre V8. With no roof to protect you from the mad threshing of pistons, this engine doesn’t so much bark to life as detonate directly into your cortex. Things get no more relaxing as you swing the SLS out onto the road for the first time. This car is at least a foot too broad for the British countryside, and wriggly with it. With your bottom parked right up against the rear axle, every shimmy and squirm from the driven wheels shoots straight up your spine in hi-def arse-o-vision.

  3. A car that requires some acclimatisation, then. But with a playground like this, there’s no time to waste finding one’s feet. And bravery. The Galloway Forest is Britain’s first officially recognised Dark Sky Park - a region with such low light pollution that you can see every star, asteroid and probe-fingered alien orbiting the night sky. The boots of our roadsters are packed with telescopes for stargazing later, but, while the sun’s up, the forest serves up an equally stellar offering: the finest roads I’ve ever driven in the UK. Fast, technical, wide enough for supercars and, best of all, entirely empty save for the odd scuttling deer. Time to man up.

  4. Tackling these roads at pace in the SLS initally seems sure to end in a large, fiery crash. But, once you’ve accustomed to its strange dynamics - like a sail ship, you twirl the wheel from way back on the stern, watching the bow, furlongs ahead, swing a distant arc - not to mention its pace, width and wriggling rear, the Roadster actually proves an easier car to drive fast than its coupe cousin. It’s set up a fraction softer than the coupe: less jittery, more planted. In the hard-top SLS, you feel hemmed into the narrow cockpit, far away from the front wheels, but in the Roadster you’re part of the action, more confident of your corners, more aware of the odd effect of that mighty engine just ahead of your knees.

    Even more so than the SLS coupe, this car is all, all about the engine. With AMG, like the rest of the world, switching cubic inches for turbochargers, this may be the end of the line for Merc’s naturally aspirated V8. If so, what a way to go: this thing is fast enough to cause permanent facial disfigurement, loud enough to melt ears. Though peaceable enough if you treat it gently (provided you can avoid twitching the hyper-sensitive accelerator as you jolt over potholes, an action that sets the SLS on a mad kangaroo-bounce down the road), you’re always conscious this car could at any time deposit you in a ditch before nicking your lunch money, just for giggles. It might have the vague profile of a lazy, convertible GT, but make no mistake: this is a brilliant, brutal berserker of a supercar.

  5. The SLS’s paddle-shift auto ‘box has seven ratios. This is six more than necessary: any one of the Merc’s gears would suffice for the UK. Doesn’t matter which one - second, third, fourth, fifth - all pick up from crawling speed and propel you into deeply illegal territory. But, while there’s strictly no need to change gear, you’ll still want to for the absurd shotgun bang from the SLS’s exhaust on full-bore downshifts in Sport mode, a rifle-crack that causes tectonic instability and sets off all car alarms within a 10-mile radius.

  6. The Conti GTC is less uncouth. After the carbon-fibre anger of the SLS, climbing into the Bentley is like slipping into a warm, soapy bath: in the case of our test car, a bath trimmed with several walnut trees and upholstered in leather the colour of toothpaste spit. Few cars isolate you as far from the nasty world of road noise and other people, or suck up miles so effortlessly that the possibility of a daily Dumfries-to-London begins to crystallise in your mind as a sensible idea. Bentley says it aimed for coupe refinement with the GTC, but in truth most coupes could only dream of offering such seclusion. Roof up, it’s easy to forget the GTC is a soft-top at all, the hood’s dozens of fabric layers deadening every sound from outside.

  7. But as we’ve somehow arrived on Scotland’s one scheduled sunny day of the year, there’s no excuse for sheltering under canvas. Lowering the Bentley’s big top is a stately operation requiring several minutes and a large team of invisible butlers, but, when finally de-roofed, the Conti feels far more… converted than the SLS. It’s certainly breezier. With acres of open cabin, a roof-down blast in the GTC is bracing but never chilly: you can crank the Bentley’s weapons-grade seat-heater hot enough to turn your buttocks to crackling.

  8. Driving this 567bhp monster fast isn’t an exercise in managing grip, skilfully exploring the limits of the tyres or clipping apexes with reckless precision. It’s a flat-out, hammer-footed blast: point the bonnet vaguely towards the exit of a corner, squash the accelerator, ride the W12’s mighty rush of torque, slam on brakes, repeat until out of fuel. Though it flattens the scales under two and a half tonnes of kerbweight, the Bentley is surprisingly nimble in corners, only betraying its sheer mass under hard braking. You’re ever aware of the lurking danger of hustling two and a half tonnes of stately home along a greasy back road, but it’s a stately home equipped with permanent four-wheel drive and a range of death-avoiding electronic systems, one that’s always on your side. On an unknown road, those of us not possessed of Stig-spec driving skills would go faster in the Bentley than the SLS.
    Most of the time, you won’t feel the need. The Bentley wears its supercar pace lightly, a chilled-out, tactile experience, a car to be stroked rather than ragged everywhere. It exudes the cool, understated luxury posh hotels strive for, an air of expensive material and deep-rooted quality. OK, some elements verge on the chintzy - even Liberace would have baulked at the walnut-trimmed sunglasses case slotted into the central cup-holder of our test car - but spec your GTC with a little restraint, and nothing short of a Rolls Ghost can match it for opulence.

  9. The sky is clear, the mountains fringing the horizon are snow-flecked and Scotland looks gorgeous. So does the Aston. In both price and intention, the 490bhp Virage Volante nestles between the Bentley and the Mercedes: less a wafting GT than the Conti, less a snappy supercar than the SLS. It’s a familiar position for a model that dissects the hardcore DBS and the softer DB9 in the Gaydon V12 line-up, melding the DBS’s clear rear lights and steroidal side sills to a softer front end. Aston’s design language may have stalled recently, but, really, when it’s churning out lumps of quicksilver like this, what’s the problem? The DB shape isn’t ageing - it’s maturing to a fine vintage.

  10. At least, from the outside. To hop from the Bentley into the Aston is to move from five-star hotel to pleasant English B&B. It’s by no means bad, simply… dated. Where the Bentley’s upholstery seems sourced from the plumpest, cheeriest cows, the Aston’s leather is papery to the touch, the product of a herd fed on low-fat lentil soup. Though, at long last, Aston has ditched its ancient Volvo satnav for a shiny new hi-def Garmin unit, the pop-up nav display isn’t integrated with the rest of the car’s infotainment gubbins, meaning the audio display is confined to a poxy screen at the bottom of the centre stack.

    Critically, objectively, it’s the same story on the road. Good, not quite perfect. The six-speed autobox - geared for a world where triple-figure speeds are a daily reality, not a distant dream - is mainly obedient, but occasionally gets itself into a lurchy mess on upshifts. In its softer damper setting, the Virage confidently absorbs most lumps, but on truly crap tarmac the Aston can’t match the body control of the SLS, which, though stiffer-sprung, always somehow regains composure immediately as the Aston wobbles itself out. Roof up, too, the Virage looks less resolved than either the SLS or the giant-canvassed Conti.

  11. But all the Virage’s flaws dissolve away when you flick into Sport mode and stretch that venerable V12 to the rev limiter. More tuneful than the Bentley’s big turbo block, less fighty than the Merc’s psychotic V8, this is one of the great engine noises, filling the cabin, the forests and every nearby country with layers and layers of delicious cylinder symphony. Charging from corner to perfectly sighted corner through these lonely woods in the Virage is an experience laden with character, drama and, less redolently, the odd shard of gravel to the face.

    Done tracing its low, glinting arc across the clear sky, the wintry sun has sunk below the hills now. From the east, a great curtain of space unfurls across the sky. Telescope time.

  12. We park up our roadsters on the shore of Clatteringshaws Loch, unsheath our skygazing apparatus (the verb is totally appropriate: each telescope has the title of a futuristic sex toy: Celestron Astromaster 130EQ, SkyProdigy 90 Maksutov, Intruder 3,000 - OK, I made the last one up) and mount them securely atop our roof-down convertibles. Welcome to our very pricey, very shiny astronomical viewing platform. As astro-buff and motoring editor Ollie Marriage pores over instruction booklets, a whacking great cloud sweeps in, plonking itself directly above our heads, turning our starscape to grey. Comedy timing at its finest. We wait and wait, but this cloud is set in for good.

  13. Never mind. We might not be able to explore the infinite cosmos, but we’ve got stars of our own down here. There’s no dud on this test, but the least luminous of our trio is, by common consent, the Aston. The Virage looks and sounds delicious, but alongside the Bentley and Merc, it feels like a revamp of an old classic rather than a new cutting-edge supercar. If it were £30,000 cheaper, the Virage would be a charismatic diversion. At £165k, it’s too expensive, especially alongside the bargainous Conti.

  14. It might sound odd to refer to a £140,000 roadster as good value, but the Bentley (in relative terms) serves up a lot of car for its weighty price tag: a full five metres of stunningly finished and unflappable luxury. It stretches the concept of a fast, front- engined cabrio in a different direction to the SLS, but the GTC is equally convincing: for tomorrow’s 400-mile drag back to TGHQ, there will ensue a fingernails-and-hairpulling scrap for its keys.

  15. But, right now, with the empty, cold curves of the Queen’s Way beckoning, it’s the beautiful, deranged SLS for me. It costs £190,000 with options. It’ll occasionally try to murder you. But it offers up all the noise and fastness and insanity a convertible supercar should, a big-screen blockbuster of a cabrio. I fire the big V8, turn every cabin heater up to 11 and swing that long nose out into the Scottish night, and, as I flatten the throttle to the noise of crunching metal filling the night, a profound realisation sweeps over me. Should’ve taken that telescope off the rear deck first.

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