Bentley Continental GT Mk1 vs. Mercedes-Benz CL600 C215 and Aston Martin DB7 Vantage

Bentley Continental GT Mk1 vs. Mercedes-Benz CL600 C215 and Aston Martin DB7 Vantage

Nobody needs this many cylinders in their carengine but it’s nice to know you can. As the greenwriting on the wall appears for the V12 engine, wecompare some favourites.Words and photography: Paul Wager.


DIRTYDOZEN

AFFORDABLE EXOTICS V12 TRIPLE TEST BENTLEY v ASTON MARTIN v MERCEDES

TRIPLE TEST V12 GTs

As the V12 car engine’s days look to be numbered, we compare Continental GT, CL600 and DB7 Vantage.


Bentley Continental GT Mk1 vs. Mercedes-Benz CL600 C215 and Aston Martin DB7 Vantage

Not so long ago, there was no better way to prove to the world that you had significant sums of cash to fritter on luxuries than buying a massive two-door car which barely seats four, while also being powered by three times the number of cylinders traditionally found in car engines and offering economy that would make Scania drivers wince.

“As a way of resurrecting the Bentley marque as a civilised sports car, Volkswagen couldn’t have done a better job”

Suddenly though, with electric power fast gaining ground and even the once-common four-cylinder engine now generally a turbo triple, it looks as if the most lavish extremes of the internal combustion engine are on borrowed time. Aston Martin has admitted that its V12 won’t survive past 2026, Bentley has committed to an all-electric future with its ‘Beyond 100’ strategy and Mercedes is going all-out for electric power in its top-end models.

All of which makes this an ideal opportunity to sample the extravagance of the V12 engine while you still can, courtesy of three landmark examples of the breed. Granted, the Bentley’s engine is technically a W12 – or two VR6s if you want to be uncharitable – while the Aston Martin V12 engine was significant for transforming the DB7 from curiosity into credible GT contender and the Mercedes CL600 was an exercise in understated opulence.

All three were knocking on the door of £100,000 new but today are yours for under £20k, so which gets our vote?


BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT

The back story of the Continental GT has been told many times before in CCM, so I’ll be brief: when Vickers decided to offload Rolls-Royce Motors in 1998, BMW was the preferred buyer, only to be outbid by Volkswagen at the last minute with Ferdinand Piech at the helm and bent on world domination. The celebrations in Wolfsburg were short-lived however when trademark owner Rolls-Royce Plc declined to allow Volkswagen its use and an agreement was duly hashed out which saw BMW taking the R-R brand away to a new factory in Sussex, while VW would make Bentley-branded cars in the Crewe facility.

Fooling nobody, VW claimed this was the outcome it had wanted all along, with the bigger volume potential of the Bentley brand being the prize. How we laughed, but in the intervening years, the German giant has pretty much stuck to that plan and has proved to be a worthy custodian of the winged B.

Initially the VW era at Crewe began with production of the existing model range, while development of an all-new model carried on at feverish pace.

They weren’t quite starting from scratch though: when VW’s plans for Bentley were revealed, what had until then been considered Piech’s greatest folly suddenly made sense. This was the Phaeton, a car which looked like a bloated Passat but which under the skin was a rolling testbed for the car which would become the first all-new Bentley under VW.

Powered by a W12 engine, in concept a pair of VW Group’s narrow-angle ‘VR6’ engines joined together, the Phaeton offered four-wheel drive and a fastidious attention to detail. The air vents which rotated to conceal themselves when the car was turned off may have been overkill in an upmarket Passat but were just the sort of touches which the Bentley would need.

And so it was that with this flying start, in 2003 the VW-owned Bentley Motors was able to unveil its first all-new model since the 1950s in the shape of the Continental GT.

Styled by Dirk van Braeckel with its haunches evoking the R-Type Continental, the car was a masterful combination of modernisation and retro, with the traditional Bentley grille neatly incorporated to give it real presence.

Unlike previous Bentleys it was also reasonably compact which combined with the modern technology made it as easy to drive as the contemporary Golf.

Eagle-eyed parts spotters would notice familiar bits of switchgear of course, often something plucked from a Golf or A4 and given a sliver of aluminium garnish but in reality this didn’t matter; as acknowledged masters of car interiors, Audi were the best people to borrow from after all. Certainly the effect was far more successful than Aston Martin’s clumsy use of off-the-shelf Mazda and Ford parts.

The Continental would sire a four-door version which revived the Flying Spur badge as well as a convertible GTC and would be produced until 2011, at which point a second-generation car was introduced which added a V8 option.

It’s the original we have here though, which for many Bentley fans is the more significant car and which naturally packs the W12 engine which is its signature feature.

Twin-turbocharged in its Bentley guise, the 6-litre W12 produces a useful 560bhp backed up with a mighty 469lb.ft torque, yet it’s as user-friendly as a basic Polo. Yes, the door is heavy but it swings open with a lovely precision and instead of the climb up into older Bentleys, the seating position feels more familiar.

Waking the W12 requires a simple jab of the engine start button, but perhaps surprisingly, its unique exhaust note hasn’t been silenced in the name of refinement. The W12 has a steady bass note to it yet is responsive and free-revving in a way the older Jaguar V12 for example isn’t.

Nudge the DSG shifter into D, brush the pedal and the Continental moves off smartly. As you’d expect with that much torque on tap, it never feels wanting, while acceleration is entirely linear – basically comprising of a relentless shove in the back, the twinturbo set-up ensuring that there is no discernible lag.

At nearly 2.4 tonnes these are heavy cars but feel surprisingly capable, the four-wheel drive allowing the massive torque to be deployed in a civilised way.

From a standing start, the prodigious grip slings the Bentley to 60mph in just 4.9 seconds which is fast by any standards, while at higher speeds it’s so eager that overtaking has to be planned carefully to avoid nudging the slower car as the Bentley lunges forwards.

As a way of resurrecting the Bentley marque as a civilised sports car, Volkswagen couldn’t have done a better job with the Continental. But how does it compare to the early 2000s competition?


ASTON MARTIN DB7

Like the Continental GT, the DB7 has a controversial back story, the result of automotive corporate mergers – in this case, Ford’s ownership of both Jaguar and Aston Martin. Like the BMW-VW-Rolls- Royce saga, the story has been told many times before, a potted history being that when a proposed all-new Jaguar ‘F Type’ was canned by Ford on cost grounds, the discovery that the body style fitted neatly on to the platform of the XJS was seized upon by Jaguar contractor Tom Walkinshaw as a means of creating a new, affordable Aston Martin. With Aston desperately needing an entry-level model, it was produced for the company in Walkinshaw’s Oxfordshire facility, newly vacant after completing the XJ220.

Early DB7s used a supercharged version of the Jaguar straight-six engine, although in a curious move it was a parallel development to Jaguar’s own supercharged XJR engine and the two are noticeably different.

The car was well received, although the heavy use of Ford and Jaguar componentry didn’t go unnoticed, but in 1999, Aston Martin upped its game by introducing the DB7 Vantage. Powered by a new V12 engine, at a stroke it silenced critics of the straight-six car’s performance.

Developed by Ford engineers and using the pistons and valvegear from the 3-litre Duratec V6, the V12 was a very modern design and lifted the DB7 into another class entirely.

In isolation, it seems like a great idea: the combination of sledgehammer performance from a state-of-the-art V12 engine, Keith Helfet’s impossibly elegant style and proven detail components, all trimmed inside by Aston Martin craftsmen. In reality though, stepping from the Continental into the DB7 feels like a step down – which in a very literal sense, it is since the Aston is so much lower than the bulky Bentley.

Where VW managed to neatly integrate the componentry borrowed from around its empire, Ford didn’t manage it quite so cleanly: a pushon veneered cover piece attempts to disguise the Mk2 Mondeo switches in the centre console, while the window switches are familiar to any Fiesta owner and the interior door pulls are very obviously from the Mk1 Mazda MX- 5. The outer handles meanwhile were donated by the 323 estate, while the tail lights are upside-down 323 items and it’s difficult to get past this kind of cost-cutting in a car which retailed in 2001 for £94,500.

Grasp the door handle of the DB7 and the window inches itself down neatly to clear the seal but the door itself lacks the heft of the Bentley and rather clanks shut, the Jaguar mirror wobbling on its mounting.

You sit low in here, in the traditional sports car way and it’s cosy if a little cramped. The steering wheel offers adjustable height but there’s no such adjustment on the driver’s seat, where an ergonomic disaster means the control buttons are hidden behind the handbrake lever, its outboard location betraying its XJS origins.

Like the Bentley, the Aston uses a starter button, although it’s paired with a traditional ignition key – another Ford part with a DB7 sticker concealing the oval which would have housed the Ford logo in its original Mondeo application.

One jab at the big red button though and you’re minded to forgive quite a few of those Ford bits as the V12 barks into life. It’s a sportier-sounding engine than the Bentley with less of a bassy note and sounding more like a race engine with its busy idle. The car in our photo also runs sports tailpipes which will make any self-respecting petrolhead do a double take as it crackles and pops. It’s not all smoke and no action, either. Make no mistake, in Vantage form the DB7 is a fast car, ticking off the 0-60 sprint in just over five seconds, even in automatic form. In the dry, that is...

In the wet, it’s a different matter entirely, the Ford-sourced traction control barely able to curb the wheelspin even in urban driving. The brochure proudly trumpeted the fact that 85 per cent of the 400lb.ft maximum torque was on tap at just 1500rpm which translates to 340lb.ft transmitted by just two driven wheels. In practice, this means you’ll need to wait for someone to flash you out into fast-moving traffic, since attempting to catch a gap will see you wheelspinning helplessly. The overall tail-happy effect is not unlike piloting a Capri and it’s the Aston’s lack of sophistication which is perhaps the biggest surprise.

Something of a dragster, it’s viciously fast in a straight line on a dry road but in all other circumstances feels out of its depth, as if that magnificent V12 has simply overwhelmed the rest of the car. Which of course in some ways, it has: at the end of the day, the DB7 is more Jaguar XJS than anything else, as confirmed by one look at the underside which is identical – and even Jaguar stopped at around 300bhp with the last 6-litre XJS.

Handling is less of a surprise, with the car feeling very similar to the XJS, which means perfectly adequate but strangely at odds with the urgency of the engine and the car’s swoopy styling. In comparison to the Bentley and Mercedes – and curiously, even a well-sorted XJS – it feels rather boat-like and imprecise.

It’s a surprise then, the DB7: faster than you’d expect, more lairy than you might expect of a brand so associated with upmarket class yet let down in the details. But no doubt about it, the nicest looking of the trio.


MERCEDES-BENZ CL600 C215

Even someone well informed on automotive culture could walk right past this understated Mercedes without realising that it packs the 367bhp, 5.8-litre V12 engine, while the cabin is also crammed with tech. Derived from the W220 generation of S-Class the so-called C215 coupes sat on a wheelbase eight inches shorter than the saloon but enjoyed the same levels of technical sophistication, with the options list including many items which may now be commonplace but which back then were verging on science fiction: radar cruise control, massage seats, keyless go, voice control and automatic doors. In contrast, Aston Martin didn’t even offer cruise control as an option on the DB7 Vantage. Compared to both Bentley and Aston, the Mercedes initially seems so very ordinary, perhaps even a little underwhelming but dig a little deeper and you find a product of supreme confidence and the ordinariness becomes part of the appeal. To put it simply, here is a product which stands on its technical merits and just happens to produce its towering performance courtesy of a V12 engine.

The Mercedes’ keyless key must still be inserted in the traditional way, but when turned to start the engine, the result is largely silence. Unlike the other pair, the CL600 is about refinement and there’s not a hint of a racy exhaust note, merely a cultured woofle which needs a glance at the tacho to check it’s even running. Like the Aston, the CL600 uses a conventional torque converter automatic rather than the Bentley’s complex twin-clutch automated manual and it suits the nature of the car perfectly.

With a light foot, the CL600 simply oozes around town without drawing attention and is as easy to drive as a hatchback with a quarter of the power. The hydropneumatic suspension soaks up the speed bumps and potholes and progress is serene.

Find an open road though, use up all of that traditionally long Mercedes throttle pedal travel and… progress is equally serene, except that the cows are now going backwards past the windows very fast indeed. The official 0-60 time stands at 6.3 seconds and it’s achieved with very little drama indeed. Even under full throttle the engine is barely audible, while the doubleglazing means wind noise is eerily absent. The CL600’s traction control is part of a full ESP set-up, far more sophisticated than the Ford system in the DB7 and at higher speeds the Active Body Control works its magic to keep roll in check. Impressively, all this technology still works in our photo car even after 20 years.

Registered in 2002, our CL600 cost its first owner nearly £100,000 – identical, in fact to the list price of the DB7, although some way off the £124,000 of the Bentley. In all other respects, the two couldn’t be more different, with the solid build and quiet confidence of the Mercedes at odds with the lively nature of the Aston Martin and its wobbly door mirrors.

THE VERDICT

It’s fascinating to compare this trio of high-end grand tourer coupes and see how they’ve survived the years so very differently.

First to go home is the Aston Martin, its lively engine providing the fun factor but unable to make up for frankly sub-Alfa Romeo standards of build quality and lively handling which brings to mind the humble Capri. Which means comparing chalk and cheese in the shape of the Bentley and the Mercedes. Both are hugely impressive feats of engineering and both are put together with an impeccable quality. The Mercedes is deeply impressive simply because of its understated nature and its appeal is to someone who likes to fly under the radar yet enjoy the best. The Bentley by contrast is a brash creation for the extrovert who likes to announce their arrival at the party, yet to my mind recalls the traditional Bentley spirit far better than most of the cars produced during the Rolls-Royce years.

Given that anyone choosing a 12-cylinder car isn’t going to be doing so for purely rational reasons, it’s the lavish Bentley which gets my vote simply for its sheer outrageousness. But the first rude gesture I get is going to make me wish I’d chosen the quietly classy CL600.

BUY ONE

The Tanzanite Blue Mercedes CL600 in our photos is currently for sale and having sampled it, we can report that it’s a really lovely example of the breed. Costing its first owner some £100,000 the spec includes such niceties as double glazing and heated/ cooled massage seats.

With a record of fastidious maintenance from main dealers and independent specialists, the car currently shows 96,000 miles and comes with a massive file of paperwork going right back to the first owner’s factory collection. The best part? Lloyds Cars of Broadway in Worcestershire is asking £9495 for this slice of Mercedes history. Find out more on 07977 006605.

The Aston Martin V12 owes much to the Ford Duratec V6, but to very good effect. Rear shot emphasises the low-slung stance of the Aston Martin. The Continental feels massive against the Aston and is significantly heavier, too. The Bentley's W12 powerplant is incredibly compact, essentially two of VW's ‘VR6’ engines.

Sober styling of the S-Class coupe makes it almost anonymous against the chunky Continental and slinky DB7.

Aston and Mercedes were level pegging on price when new, but the German car came loaded with cutting-edge tech.

The DB7's elegant shape was originally created as a successor to the XJS, dubbed ‘F-Type’ by the press.

“The Aston Martin V12 engine was significant for transforming the DB7 from curiosity into credible GT”

Rear-end styling neatly evokes Continentals of the 1950s.

MODELBENTLEY CONTINENTALGTASTONMARTIN DB7MERCEDESCL600
ENGINE5988CC W125935CC V125800CCV12
POWER552bhp at 6100rpm420bhp at 6000rpm367bhp at5 500rpm
TORQUE479lb.ft at 1600rpm400lb.ft at 5000pm391lb.ft at 4250pm
TOPSPEED198mph165mph155mph
0-60MPH4.7secs5.1secs6.3secs
LENGTH4.8m4.7m5.0m
WIDTH1.9m1.8m1.9m
WEIGHT2385kg1825kg2075kg
Article type:
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