- Post is under moderationWhen money doesn’t matter – the discriminating luxury saloon byer will choose one of these cars. Each has a claim and here we debate the cars merits. Then on #Drive-My – the seasoned LJK Setright decides.
It is a greasy Friday evening. There will be fog tonight. The autumn gloom is gathering already and the M1 has been closed for hours by a bigger-than- average pile-up. To complicate matters, it is the beginning of the half-term holidays, and ten thousand extra car-borne families have wrestled their way into the northward traffic flow on the A1 (M).
We struggle, hours behind schedule, to insinuate our four big saloon cars into the melee. We Knew we should be feeling apprehensive; after all conditions are absolutely ideal for getting involved in someone else's accident, even if you can avoid creating your own. And our cars have a combined showroom value of £220,366, a fact that ensures that even the smallest mishap will not be laughed off.
That we do not feel too greatly concerned (as we would in a quartet of Ferraris and Porsches) is the first of many credits due our cars, the finest saloons in the world. Each purports to be built for exceptional comfort and ease of control and here, so early in our journey, is first proof of the claims. Door handle-to-wheel with swaying Scammells, crowded from behind by madmen in Marinas, we feel safe and are at ease.
We have managed to assemble a #BMW-750iL-E32 , a #Bentley-Turbo-R , a #Mercedes-Benz-560SEL-W126 ( #V126 Drive-My) and a #Jaguar-Sovereign-V12 over the same precious few days. It has not been easy, because such test cars are not parked in serried ranks, awaiting requests from the rotters.
We are heading towards roads we know in Northumberland, 250 miles from Earls Court Road. The idea is to test them where the going is as difficult (and absorbing) as on any roads in Britain, but where the traffic is light. There will be photographs and hard driving and arguments and £250 worth of petrol sent up in smoke. In the end we will have a firm view about which is the world’s best car. So we think.
The coming of the #E32 #BMW-750iL , the vaunted V12, has fomented the British- versus-Germans argument all over again. The launch of the six-cylinder 7-series models. 11 months ago, caused all manner of squabbles involving the new #Jaguar-XJ 6 . (In CAR magazine you’ll remember, the #Jaguar won.) Now, the 750iL is an even more serious contender. According to BMW chairman, Eberhard von Kuenheim, this is no less than BMW’s attempt to ’satisfy the highest standards which could be demanded of an automobile’.
The E32 750iL is the familiar 7-series, now powered by BMW's long-expected 300bhp, 5.0-litre 60 deg V12 M70 (Jaguar-like in that it has single overhead cams for each bank and only two valves per cylinder). It has won early points in the tabloids by being the only car to have its top speed electronically governed (precisely to 155mph). To distinguish it from the rest of the 7s it has wider 'kidneys’ in its grille, a slightly re-shaped bonnet hump, twin square exhaust outlets under the nearside rear body and four inches of extra length (thus knee room) let into its rear body.
We have had no difficulty choosing its opponents. There are only three. The Rolls Spirit is too high and slow, and insufficiently agile. The #Lagonda-V8 is not well enough developed or packaged. The new-body #Jaguar-XJ6 has neither quite the power nor the presence. Nor the price, come to that; it is just too affordable in this company. There is nothing the Americans or Japanese build which is truly comparable, and the Italians' only big car, the #Maserati-Ouattroporte , just can’t cut it.
Even in our tiny field the cars are widely disparate. The prices show it best; the Bentley Turbo R costs only a little less than three times as much as a #Jaguar-Sovereign V12, itself a former title holder in this contest. And the #BMW is the only one of the four which can honestly be called modern. The Mercedes is at least eight years old; plans are in train to replace it early in the '90s. The #Bentley Turbo R. though rebodied in #1977 , improved greatly in #1982 (by addition of a turbocharger), in 1985 (by a fine set of suspension improvements) and again late in #1936 (by a set of #1987 model year detail changes) is based firmly - and dimensionally- on the #Rolls-Royce-Silver-Shadow, which began life in #1965 . Of course, this is the kind of statement that may drive Crewe engineers into paroxysms of protest because there have been literally thousands of changes to the car in 22 years. But the Turbo R’s foundation on the Shadow is still firm.
The Jaguar’s roots are in the short- chassis #XJ6 of #1968 - and even V12- powered versions on this latest car’s extended wheelbase of 113in have been rolling out of the factory for 15 years. The car continues for another three years or so, while Coventry struggles to make a new-body V12 which can better this one.
The BMW crew are quite sure they have built the best saloon in the world. You've read as much in the advertising. Certainly BMW has built a car which provides a middle course in the group. They have attempted to incorporate some of the wood-and-hide of the british cars. They have learned much from the exotic- appeal and the sheer, outrageous refinement of Jaguar's low-stressed V12.
They have avoided what they see as the frumpish bulk of the Bentley. They have taken some of the Mercedes' long- wheelbase, limousine-look, while staying a telling four inches short of Stuttgart’s unwieldy 120in wheelbase. They have bowed to the conservatism of this market by building an all-steel, family-look body, and have decided not to make an issue out of a low drag factor. The #E32 750iL figure is routine at 0.34.
So there are no radical claims for aerodynamics; none for light weight. The big #W126 S-class claims to be 120lb lighter than the BMW at 3980lb. The advances are reserved for other areas, such as making full use of #1987 -theory electronic gadgetry. British E32 750iLs will have an electronic control for varying their damper rates between 'sport' and 'comfort'. They have power steering whose degree of assistance lessens with speed to provide good centre feel. They will be offered with the option of a traction control device which makes wheelspin next-to-impossible even on very slick surfaces. Anti-lock brakes go almost without saying, and there is a 'wire' link, instead of a mechanical one. between accelerator and engine. That means when you summon more power, a computer varies ignition and transmission settings, and shovels more fuel into the engine.
The #BMW-E32 newest of test quartet. Handling sharp for big car. Design almost identical to cheaper six-cylinder 7-series; main differ once longer wheelbase. Cd only average at 0.34. Interior trimmed in optional buffalo hide - much better than standard leather. Rear roomy, but cabin lacks class of two British cars. Dash has usual fine BMW instruments, ergonomics. Now M70 5.0-litre V12 lacks mid-range urge but is very smooth, develops 300bhp.
Jaguar oldest c or, bettered in some ways by the cheaper and newer #XJ40 six-cylinder brother. Nonetheless. styling still marvellous. Interior traditional loather and wood, seats comfortable, roar most cramped of group – but still quite adequate. Instruments traditional analogue - much hotter than XJ40's mix of analogue and electronic. V12 engine has turbine smoothness, less obtrusive than new BMW unit. Ride excellent, handling sharp.
The Bentley is probably the strictest adherent to old ways. Above all. this is only the second shape in the marque's long history not to have a chassis separate from its body. The Turbo R is as big a car as is made anywhere, these days. It is a foot longer than the BMW at 17ft 5in. It is nearly 3.5in taller than the BMW’s 55.1 in (and a Rolls is 1.5in taller still). Its suspension is by massive double wishbones and coil springs at the front, and absolutely enormous semi-trailing arms at the rear. The steering, now needing just 3.3 turns from lock to lock and having a small-diameter, leather-bound wheel at the top of its column, is a power-assisted rack and pinion system. The brakes, huge and ventilated in front, have standard #Bosch #ABS .
The Bentley's real talking point is its massive, all-aluminium turbo-blown 6.75-litre engine. This is the Rolls pushrod V8, well-developed to give minimal throttle lag for maximum mid-range torque, courtesy of a huge Garrett T04 turbocharger, the kind they use on diesel artics. Some called the installation crude when it was first developed (and were probably right) but now the engine is fed by fuel injection. Rolls-Royce is coy, as usual, about output figures, but this engine’s power is much more than adequate’. Something like ‘copious’ or ’abundant’ would be nearer the mark.
Since the 1986 changes - fuel injection, a low back-pressure exhaust manifold and a high output twin electronic ignition system - this engine has put on 10 percent in power and improved its fuel economy by 18 percent. It works within a 4500rpm rod-line (and doesn’t approach that very often). Informed estimates of power and torque are 330-400bhp at about 4000rpm; 430-450lb ft at no more than 2500rpm.
The Mercedes has a rugged double wishbone front suspension system where BMW has struts. At the rear, both cars use semi-trailing arms (though it is certain that in the next S-class, Mercedes will use its ’geometrically purer' multi-link system, already in use in the smaller models).
The #Mercedes-Benz V8 #M117 is a smooth, well-developed unit, controlled by an electronic engine management system (though not the BMW’s third generation Motronic device) and has been impressive all its life for a big power spread and better than average economy. The capacity is 5547cc; from that is extracted 300bhp at 5000rpm and 335lb ft at 3750rpm.
In a nutshell, the #BMW-750iL-E32 is the king-pin of this confrontation. It is a thoughtfully planned car, built in the light of the experience of the rest. But many a disappointing car has promised a lot on paper and in the eye. As von Kuenheim goes on to say, 'these 12-cylinder luxury models have been created for people who expect optimum agility, ride, comfort and convenience in operation’. If the man had been in the mood for brevity, he would merely have said that it's how they go that is really important.
As well as pioneering V12 engines in modern saloons, the Jaguar is the car with the purest suspension geometry. It has tough but routine double wishbone-and-coils front suspension, but its wide- tracked rear wheels are connected to what is. in effect, a double wishbone rear suspension system. There is a big, strong lower A-arm for each wheel, and the job of the top link is done by each half-shaft. Coils are used for the springing, and the rear disc brakes are mounted inboard, in unit with the Salisbury differential.
The front brakes are ventilated discs, and the system breaks with the class norm by not offering an anti-lock system, even as an option. That, in this arena, is pretty well unforgivable. The steering is a power-assisted rack and pinion system requiring, just like the Bentley's 3.3 turns from lock to lock.
Economy is supposed not to matter in such cars as these, but touring range does. That is why #Jaguar spent several millions giving its car a high-compression May head, and why #Mercedes and #BMW have spent even larger sums over years on research into combustion efficiency. And in its latest, fuel-injected guise, the #Bentley is claimed to be 18 percent more frugal than it once was. We ran numerous fuel checks on the cars; the best figures were returned on gentle motorway cruising (nothing over 80 mph); the worst came from a combination of rapid driving on Northumberland roads and very low speed maneuverings for photography.
The E32 BMW’s best figure was 21.3mpg (worst 12.9mpg). Others were Bentley 16.8mpg (11.9mpg). #W126 Mercedes 20.8mpg (12.6mpg) and Jaguar 18.8mpg (12.3mpg).
The main deduction here must be that the German cars do well when gently driven, but each of these cars delivers about 12mpg when driven hard.
The slowest here does 141 mph, so we are not talking about ordinary cars. The fastest is not much slower than a #Porsche-911-Carrera , and the performance is a damn' sight easier to extract. There is no unseemly pulling of left-hand levers, or stamping periodically on the floor with your left foot. Massive, quiet engines and discreet automatic transmissions do it all.
Off the mark, the Bentley is sensationally quick. Though it has only a three-speed #GM400 automatic transmission (and thus a higher first gear than either of the four-speed German cars) its massive torque, huge 275/55 tyres whose grip is coordinated by a limited slip differential, provide massive thrust. With a cultured burble from its slow-throbbing engine, it erupts off the line without a hint of wheelspin, passing 30mph in just 2.4 sec - a time which you would match with your average supercar only by using high revs, a dropped clutch and exactly the right degree of tyre-shredding wheelspin. And just as often as you’d achieve it. you'd also get it wrong. The Bentley does 60mph in just 6.6 sec (Crewe’s conservative claim is only 7.4 sec) and at 80mph it’s still the fastest of the group, getting there in 11,6 sec. Thereafter, it slows a little because the transmission selects its 29 mph/100rpm top gear and by 100 mph, the barn door aerodynamics have become a big-big factor. You can feel the resistance of the air, rather than hear it. Vet the Bentley still gets to 100 mph in 19.1 sec. and its 30-80 mph is swift at 9.1 sec. Anything that breaks 10 sec is an extremely quick car.
The BMW is ultimately the fastest of them all. It isn’t exactly sluggardly in getting to 30mph in 2.8 sec (without wheelspin) and it's at 60mph at 7.0 sec dead. But it seems to be a virtue of the four-speed auto that it gets the car away so fast. For a 5.0-Iitre engine (and for all BMW's claim that almost 80 percent of peak torque is available above 100rpm) this engine feels rather flat until it is turning 3500 or 4000rpm. Beyond 60 mph, the performance is marvelous: any car which can make the BMW's dignified departure from the line and still get to 100 mph in just 17.2 sec is special indeed. By a narrow margin, the BMW’s 30-80 mph time of 8.3 sec is the fastest of them all.
On the two-mile oval at Millbrook, we did not reach BMW's claimed top speed of 155 mph (it will go faster, company men say. but there's a speed governor to curb the excess). We managed 152, probably because tyre scrub becomes a factor on banking, and because we did not press the car to do dozens of flat-out laps, given that it was bound for Northumberland.
One interesting facet is that the 750, when used hard, does not select its 30 mph/1000rpm top gear until it’s doing 30 mph true (about 148-149 indicated).
The #Mercedes-560SEL-W126 was built as a short-term answer to the BMW V12 #M70 (there will be a V12 from Stuttgart with the new S-cIass body, early in the '90s – #W140 #Drive-My) and it matches the #E32 750iL's performance almost to the letter. It is a shade slower to 30 mph at 2.85 sec, (and allows a little wheelspin), it actually beats the BMW to 60 mph in 6.9 sec, it storms past 100mph in 17.9 sec (holding its third gear for another 25 mph or so) and it achieves 147 mph on the Millbrook banking. Its 30-80 mph time is a mere 0.1 sec behind the BMW.
The Jaguar's 141 mph feels slow because the car is quiet. We were convinced that the speedo error (almost out-of-court at 10 percent) was even greater, because its 141 mph felt so easy. On acceleration, the Jaguar misses a four-speed automatic, which could give it a much more rapid step-off. Its slowish 0-30 mph time of 3.3 sec illustrates that. Thereafter, the car goes quickly. The 8.1 sec time for the 0-60 mph sprint is still affected by the off-line slowness, but 20.73 sec for a sprint to 100 mph is still impressive. The Jaguar's 30-80 mph time is only 1.6 sec behind that of the BMW.
More important than its outright performance is each car's ability to get up and go from a gentle cruise. The Bentley can always draw on its massive torque to gather speed at a great rate. Turbo lag is present put hardly noticeable because the car has 6.75-litres to propel it, even when off boost. Only above 90 mph does the feeling of instantly available torque slip a little. The BMW engine does not always feel as if it's on the boil, despite its high outputs. But its quick-acting #ZF transmission #ZF-4HP24 (with discreet part-throttle kickdown) largely covers the engine's shortfall.
The Merc's engine feels stronger low down than the BMW's, and it is, but its wooden throttle pedal requires that a deliberate, ungainly long-throw push is needed to make things happen fast. It's a crying shame, because for discreet smoothness and power, the Merc's V8 is every bit as good as the BMW V12.
The Jaguar's ability to sprint without notice is impaired by its shortage of gears. Its accelerator is more responsive than the Merc's (but not the BMW's) and its #GM400 transmission is extremely smooth. But the Jaguar loses a little time on every one of the others. This is not the problem it sounds, because the Jag has decisively the smoothest and quietest engine. There is no bark of response when you squeeze on the power. It just goes, as if propelled by a medium other than an internal combustion engine.
The BMW is the best handler. High marks go to its steering, which on the open road is well weighted for fast driving. The BMW has very high cornering limits, completely reliable turn-in (even if you arrive at corners too fast in the wet). There is just a hint of final oversteer under full power, but nothing like the tail-happiness of BMWs past. But it is worth mentioning that our test car did not have the electronic dampers which are to be standard on British production cars, and which give a dashboard choice of 'sport' and ‘comfort’ settings. However, our European editor, Georg Kacher, has opined that neither of the optional rates is as good as the standard one, which our test car used.
The Bentley is completely surprising. It feels agile, it grips the road like mad; there is no untoward roll and lurch even in full-noise bends, and the massive understeer for which these cars were once well known is long gone and easily forgotten after you’ve spent half-an-hour sprinting rapidly around the roads of Northumberland. The car’s remaining limitation, as you’d expect, is its bulk.
It cannot be as nonchalantly placed in tight spots as the smaller cars. Yet it can be fairly described as a sports saloon, and this underlines Crewe’s considerable achievement. The steering is very direct, perhaps still a shade too light, and it suffers a little from road surface kickback. But it is superbly sharp and responsive.
The Jaguar's 'dead' steering is a well documented phenomenon. It has gradually been improved over the years to a point where it is more or less acceptable, even in this company. Less assistance and more centre feel are still needed, but a smaller diameter wheel and a thicker rim would go most of the way towards improving things. The steering wheel rim is the single most important communication point between car and driver; it’s a mystery to us why Jaguar insists on inhibiting the exchange.
The Coventry car has the usual leechlike grip in corners, little body roll, no discernible understeer at sane cornering speeds, perhaps a whiff of final oversteer for those who choose to induce it. But what distinguishes it is the typically Jaguar, glorious, flowing progress along difficult roads that no other car maker has yet matched. We’re starting to wonder if one ever will. The Jaguar’s security and effortlessness are enhanced by the fact that its occupants sit low and are little affected by roll or pitch.
Mercedes S-class W126 - one time best car in world - has fine build quality, solidity, but lot down by wallowing handling, and by excessive road noise. Seats are made for people endowed with massive backsides - anyone of regular build will slide around. Steering wheel vast, ungainly. W126 SEL has generous rear room. Styling stilt looks crisp. Engine is fine V8, develops 300bhp, gives excellent performance, also smooth, and has wide power spread.
Bentley most aristocratic car of group, has real presence on road. Interior wonderful to some, although thoughtless scattering of switchgear can annoy. Not particularly roomy for cur more than 17ft long. Handling surprisingly good, steering sharp. Big turbo V8 engine delivers massive urge, has wonderful throttle response. Bentley most accelerative car to 60 mph. Despite blunt aerodynamics, car very quiet at speed.
The Mercedes, for all its optional hydro pneumatic levelling, is the least accomplished of those on the road. Its suspension does well, mind, as the cornering limits are unfailingly high. But the car always feels cumbersome, partly because of its uncommunicative steering (and the #W126 S-class steering wheel which is perennially too large) and partly because of a 120in wheelbase. The Bentley has the same wheelbase but more overall length, yet its firmness and good roll-control could teach lessons at #Daimler-Benz . If you can manage to get the Benz into a steady state of high cornering load (a difficult thing in a cumbersome car on the give-and-take roads of northern Britain), the chassis is well balanced and the wheels grip well. 8ul this was substantially an unsatisfying car to drive. They must be worried in Stuttgart.
Ride comfort honours go routinely to the Jaguar. This #XJ12 does better than any other car except the latest XJ6, and there the honours are tied. In a few modes, the XJ12 floats a little too much; on others, the new-theory XJ6 feels a little harsh. But each Jaguar out-distances its rivals by being quieter and softer and, well, nicer. The wonder of the #Jaguar-XJ12 is that its ride is superb even at 25mph, where other 140mph cars seem to chop and thump. Yet the Jaguar felt the most composed of this bunch on the speed bowl at Millbrook.
By comparison, the BMW feels firm and even a little choppy. But it is purposeful, too. Its tyre, wind and mechanical noise are kept low a: all speeds, and the ease with which it sustains the 130mph is exemplary. Compared with something like a Renault 25, the 750 is quiet. Compared with the Jaguar, its various thumps and whirs are always heard.
The luxury trimming of these cars, and the comprehensiveness of their gadgetry, can be taken (or granted. Each car is naturally equipped with such hardware as automatic air-conditioning, leather trim, deep pile carpets and self-levelling suspension. Practical pieces such as electric windows, headlight washers and central locking can be taken as read. Only highlights need be recorded.
As usual with Mercedes-Benz cars, you need to pay more for the 560SEL's options than the other cars'. The BMW, though completely equipped, lists no-slip buffalo hide as a £700-odd option for its seats which we would not cheerfully be without. The Jaguar is the only car which cannot be had with ABS brakes (standard on the others) but as a result it has the firmest, most progressive pedal of the lot. The Bentley is so completely equipped that its option list refers mainly to small-demand combinations of paint and trim.
It is enough to say that these four cars are the most completely equipped on the market, and that the BMW is the one whose creators consistently have the most thoughtful approach to gadgetry.
Three of these cars were superbly finished: the BMW, Mercedes and #Bentley . The Jaguar's main problem is its paint, which is soft, easily marked and less lustrous than the others. And its door gaps are wide, indeed. Still, nothing broke or foil off or failed to function. And there were no rattles.
In cabin accommodation and comfort terms it is tempting to look at the Jaguar as a small car. Yet it is only 2.5in shorter than the BMW, and weighs more.
The truth is that the Jaguar's cabin is cramped by modern standards, lacks rear legroom (a six-footer can only just about sit behind another) and is narrow. Its leather seats, comfortable seating for four only, are too shiny to provide really good support, but there is an appealing 'closeness' about the cabin, particularly the driving position, which can appeal. The controls are nice and conventional, but not the car's finest feature.
BMW has got its controls and cabin exactly right. The marque's standard set of wands, switches and dials will be familiar to BMW users. There is plenty of room back and front, the grippy, luxurious buffalo hide is the best trim material we've seen in many a year, and all that is lacking (probably deliberately) is an old world air of clubby luxury. This is a modern car. The Mercedes also has the marque’s standard interior. Its components are beautifully made and work well enough, without being near as practically planned as the BMW's. The big wheel and single, multi-function column wand have been criticised too often in these pages for that to need doing again. We consider (as undoubtedly do DB's people themselves) that a re-think is well overdue.
The Bentley, for all its bulk. Is outrageously small inside. On the other hand, it is quite big enough for four adults to disport themselves in luxury, and this is probably as much as matters. The division between this car and the rest of them is the sheer altitude of the seating positions; occupants can stare right back at normally superior people in Range Rovers. The Bentley seats, though thinner and better bolstered than ever before, are still big and sumptuous by ordinary standards. They are surprisingly firm (the sports saloon again), but some feel the front buckets lack lumbar support.
The controls continue to be the usual Crewe mish-mash. The parking brake is a pedal with a very awkward release. The wiper switch is hidden behind the key fob, a full-arm's reach away on the facia. The auto selector is on the column. The ancillary switches are scattered over the facia as if distributed by blunderbuss. There is a certain charm in this antiquated arrangement, but only when driving conditions are undemanding.
How does one choose from such an array? Each is a big. fast, expensive, luxurious car-yet within that description the cars differ enormously. In which other serious comparison does the cheapest car cost just one-third the price of the most expensive?
Still, it is fairly apparent that the BMW is the best car here, by conventional judgment. It is the fastest, best handling, probably the best made and the most thoughtfully equipped of the lot. It employs the most modern construction methods, is probably the most crashworthy and will be in production for the most years yet. That's the good news. On the other hand, our testers were not much more impressed with this car than with the normal wheelbase E32 735i, since the V12 engine lacks mid-range oomph. (We suspect that a 5.0-litre #Chevrolet lump strapped in there would have more 2000rpm push). Besides, the V12 engine sounds and tingles much like a six. And since the #BMW-735i-SE costs nearly £19,000 less than the 750iL (shorn, admittedly, of some equipment and four inches of body length) the V12's virtues do come at a ludicrously high price.
The Mercedes we can dismiss. It just doesn't have enough driver appeal. The wooden throttle and the cumbersome handling make this a real bookmaker's car. for people who know they want a good, big and expensive machine, but don't much care how it drives.
Which leaves the Bentley and the Jaguar. What a motley duo they make. Only a heretic would choose the XJ12, more or less declared obsolete by its own makers. Or the Bentley for that matter; too big and expensive to be truly practical over the good, modern sense of the BMW.
Yet the British pair offer something which most enthusiasts find crucial, and which the Munich car almost totally lacks. And that is character - a unique, distinct identity and an ability to turn every journey into an enjoyable occasion. The Jaguar is still the world’s most refined car. Driving in it remains a special experience. It is quieter in progress, quite often, than your own sitting room as you sit in an armchair. The ride remains superb - and as we've said before, these virtues are as accessible at 120 mph as when you're driving to the post office.
The Bentley is appealing because it is so separate, and so surprising. There simply isn't another big, 145 mph turbo V8 which goes like this, and does so inside a 4500rpm rod-line. And there is certainly no other 17ft 5in saloon that fully justifies the description, sports saloon. The car also carries with it a heady helping of Rolls-bred superiority and there is also the excitement of knowing that the people at Crewe, once not dwellers in the real world, can now do things well. What in the world will they build when allowed a completely new model? Such considerations make the Bentley a persuasive purchase.
The best saloon in the world? You can argue sensually for the Jaguar, quixotically for the Bentley and logically for the BMW. But which set of arguments will hold sway? Setright now decides.
It is unlikely that anyone under the age of 42 years is able to appreciate the real worth of these four cars and those few others that merit bracketing with them. Their monetary value is a different matter: as Benjamin Franklin suggested, if you want to know the value of money, just try to borrow some - and similarly, if you want to know whether the cost of any of these cars can be justified, you will have to buy one.
In the end, however, money is not the point: we finally judge merit, not price. If money mattered, then by all means invite the youngsters into the debate, for youth and riches are not mutually exclusive. I am reminded of a lawyer who boasted that he had only three books in his office: he died worth half-a-million... which happened to be half the amount he inherited. How one spends one's money is one thing; how one spends one's life is another.
Life, I should add, does not begin at 40. It begins afresh every seven years, when the whole body has been replaced in what is literally a metaphysical cycle; and by the time one has passed through six such spans, one is ready for a sabbatical phase, one of rest and reflection. Thrashing around and waving your arms - or indeed your fists - in all directions is seen to be no longer the way to make waves or to make progress. Making journeys, no less than making love or music or money, is seen to be a process Involving an order of priorities: what one does is less important than how one does it, and what matters most is why. Driving is no longer a mere athletic enterprise, and the car has ceased to be an end in itself. It is merely a means - and that means that it can no longer be forgiven its faults, can no longer be indulged.
Instead it is the car that must be indulgent, forgiving its driver's faults, allowing him his whims, acknowledging his dominion. He is no longer the slave of boyish enthusiasms, preferring mastery to such an extent as he can achieve it. His car must now be the perfect servant, demanding nothing but upkeep; and he must have, if not perfection, at least the best that he can genuinely afford.
If he can really afford the best, he can afford one of these four. These are cars that have been created for those as richly judicious as they are richly dued, who will make no allowances for disabilities because they are past giving thought to mere abilities. That is why It is not enough that these cars should be utterly comfortable and impeccably finished; they must also be so fast and so sure that they should never be found wanting, so safe that they may never be suspected of wavering.
How comfortable, how smart, how fast, how safe? Someone once wrote that you can only know what is enough when you have known what it is to have more than enough, but I disagree; it is enough to feel to desire for more. When life, despite Dr Johnson, proceeds from enjoyment to enjoyment instead of from want to want, that is freedom from covetousness, and that is enough.
In this case it may be significant that I was content to drive each of these cars, on open roads, just about 10mph short of what proved on the test track to be its maximum speed. I think, and perhaps many people would think, that they are probably fast enough; but that alone is not enough. How far some of them fell short of sufficiency in other respects was surprising, even shocking. One of them was not quite good enough, another was not nearly good enough; and at this level anything less than enough is not acceptable at all.
The trouble has nothing to do with the abilities of the various manufacturers to produce what is wanted. The faults do not lie in execution, but in conception: what these four cars reveal is the quality of the men who chose that they should be what they are. I can infer from this only that the product planners of #Daimler-Benz are not men of the calibre of the customers that we in Britain would suppose them to be addressing. They are doubtless very astute salesmen who understand and perhaps even share the mentality of the German swanks and American posturers whom they so easily separate from their money. They must be, for what they are selling is not legendary but mythical. The Mercedes-Benz is nothing more than a quite ordinary car - so ordinary that I could not take it seriously - that happens to be very powerful.
Sometimes that allows it to be very fast, but conditions have to be right. At night the thing is utterly futile; the headlamps are abysmal. The ride is almost as disgusting: despite all the complexities of the D-B air suspension, the car is not a patch on the simply air-sprung #Lincoln-Mk7 that I drove in Texas last summer.
That was a good car, better in many ways than the Merc, and when Ford develops it next year, installing air suspension that promises to be as good as that of the Toyota Soarer, it may well be marvellous. Right now, the #W126 #560SEL is bumpy and pattery, lurching about in a sort of roll-rock on long fast bends or slow bumpy ones as though wheel and body movements had had to be confined by excessive anti-roll stiffness. The effect on the driver is very inhibitory.
Given plenty of practice (which would need plenty of space) and more aggressiveness than is nice in a mature person, this Mercedes could probably be taken by the scruff of the neck and Hung about like any boy-racer hardware; but do you suppose that any likely customer would be interested? And. unless he were built like a bus himself, could he stay put m his seat? Each sitzptatz is obscenely wide and laterally unsupportive; being covered in leather imitation plastic so slippery that it might be undried eel skin, it allows its occupant to go submarining despite all that harness and electrical adjustments can do to hold him.
The old traditional Bayerischer Bauer would be about lour feet wide from neck to knees if only he had a neck, so it may be natural that the BMW seats should also be more than broad enough. In this case the leather is impressive buffalo, but the firm cushioning was too poorly contoured to support anyone not carrying his own built-in upholstery. After a couple of hundred miles I was acutely uncomfortable, and that is just not good enough.
Long before that. I had been discomfited by the steering, which starts out by being lighter than the Merc's (not difficult) but gets heavier with speed, and which loads up terribly as one winds it into a corner. The change in feel is of such magnitude as to swamp any sensitivity to feedback, again inhibiting the speedy negotiation of serried corners. Making matters worse was a confusing pitch change which intruded at the apex of a corner as the brakes were finally released after progressive easing and the throttles opened. The #BMW-750i does not handle as nicely as the 735, does not encourage one to drive it as fast, is neither quieter nor sweeter, and may therefore be nothing more than a badge o1 rank among those for whom promotion is essentially stipendiary. The car thus offers a salutary warning to Jaguar, in time one hopes, for it to profit from it; it would be tragic if the future V12 should be similarly inferior to the new XJ6.
It would have been interesting to include that magnificent vehicle in this test, but the call of the old V12 was too Strong. It is an old car; perhaps that is why it is so good, having had longer than any of the others for development in service. Whatever the reasons, it is remarkably good, and I found to my surprise that I was happily driving it faster than the BMW in similar circumstances because it was so much less stressful.
I had feared instability under heavy braking from high speeds, that being a vividly remembered fault of the original XJ12; in all the long intervening years I have not touched one, but now I find it vastly improved, still fast and refined but much more sure-footed.
Some of the compliance seems to have been taken out of the suspension: bumps are now heard, though still not felt. For the rest, tyre developments may be largely responsible; whereas, compared with the rather slim Continental Super Contact of the Mercedes, the #BMW was generously shod with the Pirelli P600 (probably to cushion the ride with its radial flexibility, leaving it to the belts and bandage to provide ample lateral stiffness), the Jaguar wore the older #Pirelli-P5 . It is an excellent choice, for the Jaguar is exactly the type of car for which the P5 was designed, and the increase in lateral stiffness over the dubious old Dunlops almost certainly accounts for the reduction in driver-stress when going briskly.
Another boon was the sheer comfort of the car. It seems small, but in fact it is big enough: the glove like fit of a Jaguar is almost without motoring parallel, and despite the limited (and merely manual) adjustments available, the seats were actually the most conforming, the most supportive, and the most comfortable, of the lot. It is much nicer to move harmoniously with the car than to have to try to follow it around, and this, too helps to ease the driver’s mind.
It cannot be overemphasised, this matter of driver stress. In cars of this category, the driver must never have a moment's doubt about the ability of the car to do what he requires, nor ever suspect that it might demand more skill than he is willing or able to deploy. It was probably Fiat who first made such a car with enough roadholding to transcend handling: that was the 130, the supremely elegant coupe version of which set standards for comfort, competence, sensuality, and serenity at speed, to which any present manufacturer without an XJ6 to hand could still profitably refer. It was not a very powerful car: it would reach only 120, but it would average over 100 from Esher to Paisley, and after 15years’ progress I doubt if any of today’s quartet would do it more easily.
Only one of them would tempt me to try. Only one of them offers unfailing reassurance of infallible behaviour, inimitable sensual pleasure, incredible steam-hammer controllability, impeccable address to any situation, unutterable contentment. The Bentley does not belong with these other cars: it does not belong with any others, but occupies with effortless superiority and unforbidding remoteness a pinnacle entirely its own.
It is the only truly aristocratic car of them all. The Jaguar is fit for a gentleman, but with all due embarrassment I have to state my opinion that neither of the German cars is. In baser company the #Mercedes-Benz might impress as it is meant to. but compared with the other three it is unfortunately vulgar. The BMW is not so bad, and to give the thing its due. it is likely to prove mechanically (in the broadest sense) as sound a proposition for investment as the Bentley. When the dozen jurors (who come from all around the world) met last year to allocate the Turin Design Awards, we chose the 7-series for the production class not only for its looks but more particularly for the superb mechanical detailing of the body. The way the doors are hung, the way the bumpers are mounted, the way the door and window seals admit and enfold their charges; these and many details like them reveal exceptional care and competence in BMW engineering. Similarly, the new mechanical connections for all the electrical circuitry, are unmatched except by the new XJ6's which are also superior electrically: but noise from the alternator (or the timing computer?) interfered with the radio, which is inexcusable.
Are there excuses for the way it feels? Having heavy steering and brakes, it is not a car that a lady would choose to drive. With coarse-grained surfaces for its wheel and some minor controls, the sweaty - and the horny-handed may come to grips; such asperity would ruin fine gloves, but the nouveau venu does not wear gloves.
I know nothing about the latest bunch of bosses, but the chaps who really matter at #Rolls-Royce are not newcomers, and they overlook nothing. Regardless of scale, everything is done very properly. The Bentley hull, the work of delightful Dr Fritz Feller, is probably the strongest in the world: at the other extreme, there is not a switch or handle, not a lock or lever, that would endanger the most fragile of feminine fingernails.
’The car must be indulgent, forgiving its driver’s faults, allowing him his whims’
If one chooses to go at it bare-handed, there is tactile pleasure to be found on every surface, yet only the tiniest buttons of the radio defy gloved operation. The very pedals delight the feet, however shod the accelerator is like no other, precise in action and subtle in are, while the brake pedal not only provides beautifully progressive response but also a cancellation of the cruise control just like the set trigger of a bench-rest rifle.
Most amazing of all the Bentley controls is the steering. Whether you grip the wheel in clenched fist or caress it with fingertips, the servo assistance is always enough and never more than enough, the response is always precise and predictable, and the feel is extraordinary: a ripple in the road is translated, for information rather than trepidation, as a ripple through the wheel - not the reptilian squirming of a #Porsche-911 , horresco referens, but a feathered touch to the fingers to tell them what passes beneath those vast Avon treads. I do not remember sensing this when the original Turbo R wore #Pirelli-P7 s, but a good deal has been done to the car since then; for one thing, it is a good deal faster.
Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re: gentle in manner, resolute in deed, the Bentley moves with absolute authority. I wish its motor were a little less audible: what little can be heard of the two V12s is musical, and if the #Mercedes #W126 has only a V8, at least it keeps quiet about it. So the Bentley is not perfect? No: its front ashtray is a meagre shadow of its former self, and the instruments’ illumination is too dim for my eyes - but oh, those blessed headlamps! The BMW's mam beam bull’s-eyes are all right, but its dipped beam is miserable: I reckon that Germans drive fast only on motorways, and Americans do not care a dime about headlamps, having been brought up on the rubbish their own protected industry makes. The Bentley's are wonderful: one is not aware of a hotspot or cut-off anywhere, but everything one needs to see is evident.
The same is true of the under-bonnet view. The old traditions of black enamel and clean pale metals - aluminium, cadmium, nickel, but no chromium if you please - are still observed. The engine oil filler is built like the quick-release cap of a pre-war Le Mans car, labels are relief castings or enamelled plates rather than sticky plasticised paper. Do these things matter? As much as wearing clean linen.
It is a costly way of doing things. Does that matter? Do you suppose that the sheer thirst of the Bentley counts against it. when petrol costs are actually among the most trivial of motoring expenses and fuel economy is a government-sponsored delusion? Is the price of the car so unreasonable, considering what unparalleled care is taken in the design and manufacture of every component, and what a stupendous return you get for your investment?
Does money matter? When only the best is good enough, money (a nasty enough subject at any time) becomes completely irrelevant. Does the size of the car matter? When only the best is good enough, then once again only enough is enough. Long enough ago (516 years. more than long enough) to put most other nations into perspective. Sir Thomas Malory died, having a year earlier written Now I thank God... for his great mercy of that I have seen, for it sufficeth me. His full story would have sufficed to justify Macaulay writing, in his History of England, our democracy was, from an early period, the most aristocratic, and our aristocracy the most democratic, in the world. It is no coincidence - there is no such thing as coincidence - that the most aristocratic, is also the most English car.
Were it made anywhere else yet made as it is. I would choose it without hesitation from this quartet. I might hesitate if given a wider choice: even after all these years I would still be tempted by the holy simplicity and the ladylike grace under stress of a Bristol Brigand, which has most of the Bentley's virtues except that its engine bay is more like a battlefield than a parade ground. I would also weigh carefully the prominence of the Bentley against the reticence of the XJ6. The latter is perhaps a bourgeois virtue: ye: bourgeois is, as Anthony Hope observed, an epithet which the riff raff apply to what is respectable, and the aristocracy to what is decent.
So what is it to be? I knew when I pondered the profile of the Bentley looming above the others as they were clustered for photography. Stature means much more than mere height, and stature is something that none but the Bentley possesses.
'How far some of these cars fall short of sufficiency is surprising, even shocking'
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