► Battle of the 12-cylinder Brit cabrios
► Aston DBS vs Bentley Continetal GT
► A stunning Swiss road trip
The Gotthard Tunnel is the most direct route between Airolo in the far south of Switzerland and Göschenen, 13 miles north. It’s way below our feet as we watch evening traffic stream towards its southern entrance on the floor of the valley, its walls sheer mountainsides. We could hop in the Bentley Continental GT Convertible and Aston DBS Superleggera Volante, bound downhill, then sit in a straight line on the A2 north. In the dark. With lorries and fumes. The sat-nav thinks we should.
Pah! One hundred years ago, when Bentley was newly established and Aston only six years old, there was no tunnel, only the Gotthard Pass, carved over the Alps by men with pick axes braving conditions that might’ve given Edmund Hillary a wobbly lip. Today it’s the longer, more perilous option, but it also happens to be a giant beanstalk of a road that stretches to the heavens and cool evening air above.
Given we’re driving 12-cylinder convertibles built for grand touring and glancing back a century in the rear-view mirror, it feels appropriate to take the longer, older way back to tonight’s hotel, to drive faster but arrive later and celebrate a brace of automobiles that stand as the very last of their kind.
Sat-navs off, roofs down, the Aston roars away in gunpowder crackles of exhaust flare and spikes of turbo boost, the Bentley a more dignified kind of very rapid progress with its torque curve like a stiff upper lip and stoic all-wheel drive.
It’s a reminder that for all their conceptual similarities, what we have here are two quite different takes on the convertible GT. Yes, the DBS and Continental are produced by two of the most storied of British luxury marques, both cosset and pamper with their exquisite leatherwork and thickly insulated fabric roofs, and both are over-specified with 12-cylinder twin-turbocharged engines that turn zero into 62mph in a whisker over 3.5 seconds and blow past 200mph. But in philosophy as well as execution? Definitely different. Two days exploring Switzerland will crystallise their strengths and weaknesses.
The Aston DBS Superleggera Volante is marginally the newer of the two, and represents the flagship of Aston’s series-production range. Based on the V12 DB11 AMR, it cherry-picks three iconic names from Aston’s past: the DBS initials returned for the V12 coupe last year after an eight-year sabbatical, and you’ll know Volante is a posh way of saying you can remove the roof. Superleggera is a reference to Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera and its lightweight tubular spaceframe/aluminium body construction, and recalls a collaboration that began on the DB4.
The DBS isn’t particularly leggera at around 1890kg, but there is an all-new carbonfibre body, with a gobbier look and swept-back headlights like a DB11 on a rollercoaster, as well as up to 177kg of downforce – just 3kg less than the coupe. The composite also helps drop 72kg over the DB11 AMR when coupe models are compared (there’s no AMR Volante thus far), though a DBS Volante is 170kg chunkier than a coupe.
Don’t fret too much, because Aston’s given its 5.2-litre V12 a vigorous working over to yield a total of 715bhp and 663lb ft, some 85bhp and 110lb ft more than a DB11 AMR, then toughened up the transmission with a carbonfibre prop and thrown in the hand grenade of a shorter final drive to lower the overall gearing.
The first time you accelerate hard you’ll probably depress the throttle three quarters of its travel and reflexively back off in awe – all the Aston’s weight, the drag as it cuts through the air, the friction bound up in its rotating masses, all of it is apparently cast aside in one torque-laden, giddy seam of acceleration. Exposure does little to lessen the impact of this car’s any-gear, any-speed urge – 50 to 100mph in fourth is gone in 4.2 seconds!
Thankfully, there are decent odds on mortals containing this cultured violence courtesy of a significantly revised Matt Becker Who Used To Work At Lotus™ chassis: 5mm lower than DB11 with extra camber front and rear, retuned steering and brake-based torque vectoring, plus larger 21-inch wheels with 10mm wider tyres. Carbon-ceramic brakes are standard, too. Cost you, though: a DBS Superleggera Volante is £247,500 before options.
All of which makes our £175k Bentley the value proposition of this twin test. It’s the convertible version of the third-generation Continental GT, produces 626bhp and 664lb ft from its twin-turbocharged W12, and wears a smart aluminium body that can only apologise profusely that it still weighs 2414kg, even if it is an impressive 80kg lighter than its predecessor, and its body five per cent stiffer.
So the Bentley’s less powerful, much heavier too, yes, but it’s also a more opulent kind of GT – this much is obvious from a more upright and formal design that’s given spectacular definition by super-formed aluminium panels with crisp creases like a perfectly ironed shirt, and the jewel-like detailing of its headlamps, a grille like stately-home gates and our car’s optional 22-inch alloys.
The aesthetic sophistication is complemented by engineering that puts an emphasis on comfort and luxury first, but doesn’t overlook dynamics; air springs with 60 per cent more air volume than the previous model, a 48-volt anti-roll system that removes the compromise of rigid anti-roll bars, active all-wheel drive that can apparently recognise a good driver and give them more freedom to play (and vice versa), huge 10-piston front brakes with 420mm discs and an endless list of driver-assist acronyms to take the stress out of holding a steering wheel, so long as you spec our car’s – gulp – £6195 Touring and £3960 City Specification packs.
Press the starter and the Bentley’s 6.0-litre W12 engine politely clears its throat, press a button and the Z-fold roof, with its new mechanism, insulation and sealing, disappears over your head silently at speeds up to 30mph – and a little indulgently at 19 seconds – like an Egyptian attendant dragging a palm frond back through humid air, before packaging flushly behind the rear seats.
Then the Bentley eases you into its embrace with its fine hides and plush comfort, overcoming any trepidation about its price and performance almost as soon as you select Drive. As we pick our way back to the hotel, daylight falling fast, Ben Miller’s up front in the Bentley with the quilted massage seats cat-pawing at his back, neck warmers at full blast, heated steering wheel and armrests set to toasty, CAR’s ed instantly comfortable and confident to open the taps.
I’d picked up the Aston earlier in Zurich, and swooned over its Coke-
bottle waist and rakish proportions, nestled down into sports seats set aggressively low in a cocooning cabin and marvelled at how its Z-fold fabric hood had whirred so quickly over my head and stowed so neatly.
Just 14 seconds to fold away, trumpets Aston. A class-leading stack height of 260mm! The latter isn’t trivial: packing the roof in the tiniest space gives the engineers daymares, but it preserves the elegant hindquarters of the DBS Superleggera coupe. The downside is a savaged boot. You want to put actual people in those rear seats? Need a boot? Buy the Bentley.
There’d been intimidation to those first urban miles in the Aston: its V12 had erupted with a phlegmy bark, and it felt large, wide and low as I dodged the kerbs and tram tracks of Zurich. But its easy gait and encouraging control weights softened the nerves: the feelsome, responsive twirl of
the steering, the smooth auto gearshifts, the gentle take-up of the brakes, and more than anything the supple ride, which had lulled soothingly on the journey south towards Andermatt. But was it meaningfully better than the DB11 AMR? Samey interior, similar feel at the wheel… Not so sure.
Now, chasing the Bentley along the Oberalp Pass towards our overnight in Rueras, the DBS’s size is melting away and, with the benefit of space, the true separation to its milder-mannered sibling becomes apparent. The more resolute bite of its front end is tangible. Load it up and it’ll still feel pure and unflustered, even with what should feel like a wobblier structure but somehow does not. The Aston encourages you to carry more speed to the apex, so you do just that, buoyed by confidence not only in the front axle but also the car’s carbon-ceramic brakes – the middle pedal is unfailing; push it harder and you always – always – get stronger deceleration.
With the DBS, though, more than anything it’s the extra performance. You need 3000rpm before the turbos are fully lit, but the explosive energy that’s subsequently released, and the bassy, relentless richness of its delivery through to 6500rpm, never fails to feel anything other than runaway rapid. Combine that with these tighter corners and you need to be on your game: the DBS can understeer a little when the boost’s still swinging a leg out of bed, only for the compressors to spool and kick out the tail while you gather speed in one frantic blur of wheel-twirling and thunderous noise.
Firming up the suspension helps. Comfort’s just the ticket on autoroutes, but there’s too much load swilling side-to-side through quick direction changes. Sport retains enough compliance to keep a flow, but the mass is locked down, moving in sync with your intentions, not a fraction behind. Feelsome steering puts you at the centre of the action too, with weight and precision. It constantly reassures – if you overstep the mark, you’ll be able to add lock quickly.
We surge effortlessly past the thinly spread traffic, engines and chassis stroked along at a comfortable seven-tenths, every braking zone calmly squashed, before the Bentley’s brake lights burn red for the towns and the calm of our cabins fills with snatches of conversation, inviting smells from restaurants and cool evening air. Finally we’re into Rueras, placing our orders just before the kitchen shuts for the night.
Next morning, as we make our way back south past the Gotthard Pass, I switch into the Bentley. Let Joe Public jump from the Aston to the Continental GT and they’d surely never guess the Bentley was less expensive: the wing-like dash and centre console have such a solid, imposing feel you wonder if the entire interior isn’t hollowed from a single tree trunk. The solidity’s leavened here and there by beautifully wrought garnish: bezels like expensive watch mechanisms, indicator stalks to make a Faberge egg look dowdy, and a richness to the stitching and leather and a heft to the controls that speaks of relentless, fastidious quality – even the latches that tilt forward the front seats have tactile knurled backs. Details, details.
Technology is seamlessly integrated with traditional luxury, including a digital instrument binnacle that won’t frighten the digitally illiterate, and the optional revolving infotainment system, a kind of posh Toblerone that rotates from veneer to a trio of analogue dials to the full infotainment with an easy grace. It’s the VW Group leveraging its strengths to great effect: enough independence for the Bentley craftsmanship and heritage to flourish; with access to group technology that a low-volume manufacturer couldn’t hope to develop on its own.
The Bentley is an easier car to just jump into and drive than the Aston. You perch in a sports-command driving position on plush 20-way heated and cooled massage seats that favour comfort over ultimate support. There’s room – just about – for adults in the rear seats, and a larger boot. And you can bound into gravel laybys that fall away from the road and would blow the Aston’s carbon splitter to smithereens. You can even raise the Bentley on its air suspension. In some ways the Conti feels more Range Rover alternative than Aston rival.
Drives more like a Range Rover too, with sleepier steering response at top-dead centre, more muted feedback, and an even more indulgent plushness to the ride quality. Metaphorically speaking, it’s like a finger of whisky to knock the edge off reality, and a lovely way to cover far more miles, more easily, than you ever thought possible.
We head down the really old part of the original Gotthard Pass, with its cobbled surface and snaking hairpins built up and out of the landscape like fortress walls, before pushing further south. Here the silence, previously troubled only by water gushing down the hillsides and more cowbells than an ’80s hair-metal anthem, is overwhelmed by our 24-cylinder symphony.
On some faster sections there are unexpectedly uncouth noises from the cars, too: diff whine and noise around the hood from the Aston, and some very pronounced wind noise around the Bentley’s driver’s side window – Ben recalls the press-launch test cars being far better insulated, as well they might be. They lived up to Bentley’s claim that this convertible is as quiet inside as the previous coupe. This car does not. Perhaps it’s an anomaly.
A little way past Bedretto, the road starts to thread steeply uphill, doing a fair impression of the pass that brought the Italian Job to its literal and metaphorical cliffhanger. There are hairpins, unforgiving rock faces and just a thin strip of armco between you and a drop to who knows where.
I’m revelling in the Bentley’s easy thrust, if unable to escape the charging Aston or the nagging feeling that this W12 remains a slightly curious engine. It’s keener to haul from very low revs than the Aston, less interested in being wound right out, and delivers its performance in a linear surge, all of which fits the GT brief. But it’s not particularly exciting or tuneful, instead going about its business making lots of woofles and whistles, like it’s having excitable dreams during an afternoon doze in an armchair.
It also feels less explosively rapid than I remember versus its coupe sibling, no doubt because the convertible body adds an extra 170kg. But if anything, the refinement, the weight and the monotone delivery disguise just how rapid the Bentley actually is: it pushes you back into those sumptuous seats hard, and thumps down the road with abundant speed.
It also makes a surprisingly good fist of covering a challenging road with a great deal of finesse. Yes, the Bentley does feel like a lot of car to get slowed and turned into a tight corner if you’re driving quickly, and the gearbox can be surprisingly reluctant to serve second when you’re braking in third, but the body control impresses given the masses at work and the inherently comfort-focused bent to the set-up. Impressive too that the 48-volt anti-roll system feels so natural given it’s governed by a computer rather than responding with mechanical predictability.
The variable all-wheel drive and 22-inch tyres have traction to tear the road surface from beneath you, but there’s also a satisfying rear bias when you accelerate hard from a corner, especially in the stability control’s Dynamic setting. It sends just 59lb ft of torque to the front axle as it starts to oversteer – enough for you to sense the car really digging its heels in, sometimes enough to kick the rear end right out, which feels fantastically perverse in a car so grand, like barrelling down the stairs on a silver tray.
After two days on autoroutes, mountain passes and burbling through town, the Bentley ultimately reveals itself as the car with the broader spread of talents. It’s more spacious and comfortable as well as less stressful to use daily. It has the better-finished, more lavishly equipped interior, and it balances its fine craftsmanship with a level of technology the Aston can’t match. It’s also less expensive and a highly enjoyable drive, rewarding drivers of all abilities in all conditions. Given how most people would expect to enjoy a GT, I suspect it’s safer to recommend the Bentley.
The Aston has more narrowly focused talents, but it claws its way back into contention with seductive design and its bewitching dynamics and powertrain. It is a sensationally tactile and involving machine to push hard over a great road, and still makes the long-distance stuff effortless, imperfect though it may be. There’s no doubt the Bentley is the more complete car, and the more sensible buy. But it’s the Aston you ache to drive again, and the car into which I’d put my (entirely) fictional funds.
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