If You're in the Market for the Planet's Priciest Production Cars, Look No Further
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As beautiful as it is, the DB-7 is really the baby of the Aston Martin litter. All the more expensive brethren, such as the $400,000 AM Shooting Brake (station wagon), are V8-powered, and none are exported to America. Designed and built by AML at the Newport Pagnell factory, the DB7s borrow a modified Jaguar XJS floor pan matched with an exclusive Aston Martin engine and a GM transmission. Wags in Britain call the DB7 a "Jag in drag." This derision is unfair except for the practical issue of price. A Jaguar XJR sells for $67,400, or about half the price of the DB7. But why not be a fool for a pretty face?
THE BENTLEY AZURE
The experience of driving my first Bentley in silver pearl lacked the spirit of ecstasy as much as its grille lacked the famous Rolls-Royce hood ornament. Here was a car that went for more than $300,000, more than just about any other car on the planet. Was it that great? Was it worth all that? Throughout my childhood, advertisements had conditioned me to expect a car so reliable that it was guaranteed for life and so quiet that, at 60 mph, the loudest cabin noise was the sound of the analogue clock.
Well, the analogue clock was there, as well as an analogue thermometer. Sure, the Azure had Connolly hides with contrasting piping, burr walnut veneer that didn't look like photo-grain, toe-wriggling deep lamb's wool rugs, heavy chromed air vents and dash switches, but so what? Couldn't you get cruise control, anti-lock brakes, traction assistance, suspension management and a tilt wheel on a Lexus?
Were we having fun yet?
Etore Bugatti once remarked that Bentleys were the fastest trucks around. The Azure is no exception. It's heavy and huge--long and broad enough and nearly tall enough to match a Chevy Suburban. Next to an Azure, a Jaguar XK-8 convertible looks as tiny as a Mazda Miata. The Azure runs on a 1950s-vintage low-revving, 6.75-liter, 16-valve, pushrod V8 engine, with a Garret turbocharger, pushing a GM truck transmission. But to its credit, it develops 385 hp and very high torque (553 foot pounds) without much fuss. Bentley claims it will do 0 to 60 in 6.3 seconds on its cushy 255/55 WR17 Avon tires and max out at 150 mph.
The name Azure conjures up the blue skies and sea alongthe Grand Corniche. But the Riviera is closer than just a spiritual home for the car. The chassis are individually built in Crewe, United Kingdom. Then they are flown to Pininfarina, in Italy, where the folding roof, the one without the "starved cow" look,is installed. Finally, they return by air to England to be fittedwith interiors and completed, making this the most sophisticated and well traveled of convertibles. The process takes six months.
My second Bentley turned me around. Lacquered in peacock blue, a deeply satisfying ultramarine, it resonated with the Azure name. The car was finally properly dressed for its classic styling.The Azure is a bit like a fine Bordeaux. It clearly needs to be opened up to properly breathe and be appreciated. No wonder these cars are happiest tooling around warm, wealthy enclaves like Cap Ferrat in the Riviera, Hong Kong, Palm Beach and Palm Springs. A Partagas, a beautiful companion, the Azure with the top down, a sunny day and a quiet road. Things could definitely be worse.
FERRARI 550 MARANELLO
Like Porsche, Ferrari is a postwar marque, having been founded in 1947 by the director of Alfa Romeo's racing division, Enzo Ferrari. Since then, Ferrari has turned out a series of 43 models of competitive racing cars and has still managed to make grand-touring road cars that have earned the brand worldwide recognition. Although almost 90 percent of Ferraris are exported, to my mind they look their best in their native habitat. Last autumn I was driving the Autostrada One from Rome to Florence, doing a comfortable 210 kilometers an hour, when I saw a red Ferrari 308 approaching in the distance. I changed lanes to let him pass. The driver pulled up momentarily, smiled and waved, and then blew by at 260. It was a memorable Ferrari moment.
The 550 Maranello is the latest offering to carry the black prancing horse on the yellow ground, and it celebrates 50 years of Ferrari automotive finesse. Refinement is the leitmotiv of the Maranello. The classically graceful low and wide body with thelong bonnet and cutoff tail is fabricated of aluminum alloy on a tubular steel frame. As with the aluminum Acura NSX and theAudi A8, the Ferrari 550 has a certain lightness and silken quality that match the subtlety of its styling and the suppleness and sensitivity of handling. The center cowl feeds dual air intakes to the fuel feed. Dual engine bay exhaust gills accent the front fender between the wheel arch and the door. Even the undercarriage is totally faired for aerodynamic stability.
The Ferrari 550 has a thoroughly modern design, with the usual air bags, antilock brakes and antiskid features that one expects. The windows automatically lower a fraction of an inch when you exit the car to effect a better seal. The black-leather dash with aluminum air vents holds a neatly laid out set of basic gauges. The drilled alloy pedals contrast with the tan saddle-leather seats and carpeting. The only noise in the cockpit comes from the ball-shaped solid aluminum gear lever hitting against the heavy aluminum shift gate with a satisfying "kerchunk."
Mechanically, the two-seat, Berlinetta-styled 550 is similar to the earlier Ferrari 456 GT coupe. Both have a 5.5-liter V12 up front coupled to a rear-positioned six-speed transaxle, and both share roughly the same dimensions, capacities and weights. The Maranello packs 485 hp, which can be used to accelerate from 0 to 60 in 4.3 seconds and reach a maximum speed of 199 mph. The 13-inch drilled disc brakes, the adaptive suspension system and the traction-control system keep a comfortable rein on the car, which performs any assigned chores without breaking a sweat. One wishes for a control to dial engine noise into the cabin.
When viewed as a replacement for the Testarossa, the rowdy, assertively angular mid-engine star of "Miami Vice," the new Maranello seems tame, almost docile. This is an accessible carwithout excesses whose quiet, unassuming beauty and discipline appeals to aesthetes, not cowboys.
THE LAMBORGHINI DIABLO VT
Lamborghini is the newest marque among the over-$100,000 club. When it was introduced in 1963 by Ferruccio Lamborghini, the story goes, the manufacturer of farm machinery was so miffed by the treatment that he received from Enzo Ferrari that he decided to beat him at his own game. Lamborghini was a proud Taurean who loved bullfighting. Hence, the logo of his company is a raging bull, and allthe models (except the Countach) have been named for breeds of bulls. The current model Lamborghini Diablo VT's radical styling and aggressive performance truly befit the logo.
The driver who delivered mine told me that when other truckers inquire what he is hauling, he radios back on his CB: "I am hauling this thing to Washington from Area 51 in the Nevada desert, where the government has been hiding it the last 40 years." You can believe it. The chassis resembles a DeLorean, with scissoring doors and Nike swooshlike lines. Whatever its specs say, it is the fastest, wildest machine I have ever driven. As you change into second gear in under four seconds, a glance at the speedometer tells you that you're topping 60 mph; but then, this car can do 65 mph in reverse.
While its makers encourage buyers to drive it every day inordinary situations, I would pass. The car is as wide as a Hummer,but unlike the commanding view of the road ahead offered by a sport-utility vehicle, the Diablo VT sits so low to the ground (five inches) that while driving you can actually look up to a guard rail. This isnot a car to drive when learning to parallel park. It has too many blind spots, and a rear window that's only a tad larger than a mail slot. The optimum situation would be to have diplomatic immunity or a decent race track on your own estate. Otherwise, you might consider relocating to Montana, where highway speed limits have been abolished. City traffic and potholes are death to a car this low and wide.
The VT experience comes across as elemental and raw. It manifests the untamed exuberance of riding a rocket while holdingthe engine in your right arm. You get a steering wheel (adjustable),a stick shift (gated five-speed) and the largest tires (Pirelli Pzero 335/35 ZR17) found on any production car. No frills like traction control, ABS or even air bags clutter the 1997 model. Everything but the ethereal cabin sound is extraneous.
The sounds (not of the Alpine radio) are what you live forin this car. The revving engine shrieks like Valkyries. The wind howls in tandem with the blur past the windshield. Even the manifolds sucking in air scream with differentials in the throttle. Thisis the most excitement you can have as a civilian.
While the car comes with standard all-wheel drive, the mid-engine 492 hp double overhead cam V12 overpowers the 12.8-inch Brembo brakes. Accelerating up through the 7,000-rpm red line is akin to dumping jet fuel into an afterburner: "Warp drive, Mr. Sulu." In sum, consider the Diablo a beautiful ivory-handled, engravedand gold-inlaid straight razor--beautiful to look at and an incomparable performer when used knowledgeably. Otherwise, it can doserious and lasting damage.
Three things are worth remembering when you're buying a Wilsonmobile: 1) Specifications such as top speed and acceleration might be inaccurate and don't reveal what a car feels like to drive. The ownership and road experience for each of these cars is significantly different. Some, like the Diablo, require major driving time before you can begin to understand and appreciate them. 2) Despite appearances to the contrary, each car requires professional-level driving skills. Ferrari, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce provide their customers with factory driving schools. The other option is to go to a domestic performance-driving school, such as the programs run by Skip Barber, Bob Bondurant or Jim Russell. Learn your car's parameters. Experience its performance envelope in a safe track environment. Develop the reflexes for throttle steering and heel/toe power shifting. 3) Buy several. How else can you choose between getting that Ferrari in red or black, manual or automatic, coupe or convertible?
Joshua Shapiro is a freelance writer based in New York. Wilsonmobiles Porsche / Turbo Coupe* / $112,000 / www.porsche.com / Turbo S Coupe / $160,000 Mercedes-Benz / S 600 Sedan* / $130,300 / www.mercedes.com S 600 Coupe* / $133,300 / SL 600 / / $123,200 / Lamborghini / Diablo VT Coupe* / $249,000 / www.lamborghini.com / Diablo VT Roadster / $275,100 / Ferrari / 550 Maranello* / $204,000 / www.ferrari.it / 456 GT / $224,800 / 456 GTA* / $229,900 / F 355 Berlinetta / $127,000 / F 355 GTS / $133,000 / F 355 Spider / $137,000 / Aston Martin / DB7 Coupe* / $125,000 / DB7 Volante* / $135,000 Rolls-Royce Motor Cars / RR Silver Dawn / $159,000 / ww.rolls-royce.com / RR Silver Spur / $186,000 / RR Park Ward / $299,900 Bentley / Brooklands / $149,000 / Bentley Turbo R / $203,500 / Bentley Continental R / $307,100 / Bentley Continental T / $324,500 / Bentley Azure* / $329,400 /
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