You could live pretty comfortably with $649661 in your checking account, but that’s what you’d need to blow on these three topless fantasies if you wanted to park them in your garage.
Interestingly, each is about $100k more than the next, but which represents the purest driving experience? Which is the best daily driver? Which of these could you live with if you could only choose one?
When you’re looking at cars costing six-figures, it’s hard to imagine value would be part of the equation, but you wouldn’t want to buy the wrong car. You wouldn’t want to drive off in one of these knowing you had second best…
Our three-way battle royale would take place between the Aston Martin DBS Volante Carbon Edition, Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster and BMW M6 Convertible. They could be scored on many aspects: not least the raw numbers. But for us, driving pleasure is the overriding factor. So if you plan a route according to the most entertaining roads, rather than the shortest distance, you think like us.
We could only secure these three temptresses for a short time, so maximizing our time behind the wheel was crucial. What would we do, where would we go? We planned some epic trips, but a drive into the desert to finalize the eBay Porsche 911 (featured elsewhere in this issue) presented us with the best opportunity.
Rising at 4am, even LA’s crowded freeways would be lightly trafficked, and the desert roads would be… well, deserted.
Obviously we’d keep everything within the legal speed limit, officer, but a network of unpopulated roads seemed the answer to our prayers.
Long stretches of freeway under 70mph can be tedious in cars that can comfortably double that number. Fortunately, each car is equipped with a semi-automatic transmission that simply requires fingers to be flexed to bring on the noise.
The seven-speed M Double Clutch Transmission in the BMW M6 is probably the most advanced, with its adjustable shift points and shift speeds, while the SLS AMG isn’t far behind. Technically, the least advanced is the Aston’s auto ’box that’s a little more ponderous, yet still unleashes the 12 hounds of hell once the V12 hits its sweet spot. So while it won’t top the nerdometer, it performs the task requested of it.
This is the overriding impression of the DBS. As soon as you look beyond the glitz and glamour of its supermodel looks, it’s clearly the product of a small company in the British Midlands. A point most vividly exemplified by the infotainment.
Yes, the DBS has a big screen on the dash like the others, but its restricted to second-party navigation duties, and the controls are a little clunky. Tune the radio or make a call and you’re down to a tiny one-line LCD screen on the radio that has you removing your eyes from the road for extended periods to decipher what it’s saying. In fact, you end up controlling music and calls from the phone, channeling everything through the car’s speakers. It works, but it isn’t the slick operator that BMW’s once-loathed iDrive system has become.
The smooth integration of nav, Bluetooth, music, apps and more into the M6 is very impressive. Navigation commands can be heard, seen on the widescreen or viewed on the heads-up display projected onto the glass in front of you.
Controls are input through the iDrive, steering wheel or sometimes the console buttons. Every discipline has multiple inputs and displays, each repeating similar steps to give the driver the option that suits him best. Yet there isn’t an overload, it’s simple and intuitive. Who thought we’d say that about BMW’s interface five years ago?
Where BMW has reduced its switchgear and clutter to a minimum, the SLS looks like Mercedes went to a clearance sale at Radio Shack: there are buttons in every crevice, with slightly confusing symbols that don’t make the functions immediately apparent. Adjusting the seat was a good example of this proliferation of control surfaces, with two adjustment buttons tucked under the front of the seat, while others were on the side. Both the BMW and Aston were more logical to use than the Merc.
With familiarity, operating the SLS would undoubtedly become instinctive, yet it still seems you’d spend a lot of time with your eyes off the road, scanning the myriad of buttons to find the correct function. The SLS cabin felt techie but was also slightly overwhelming.
The cool, crisp 4am air seemed to be shaped like a megaphone, amplifying the exhaust note from each of these machines, each with very different powerplants.
The BMW has very clever turbos: two twin-scroll turbines, perched between the reverse-flow cylinder heads; the exhaust valves placed on the inside, feeding the crossflow manifold to reduce lag and increase torque. However, they inevitably absorb some of that sound energy that would otherwise let the 560hp 4.4L V8 resemble an angry Nascar. Revving to 7200rpm, it’s tame by BMW M standards but when pushed to the limit, the V8 has a menacing snarl. It brings another facet to the M6’s otherwise laidback character that would make you think twice about feeding it by hand if it were a dog.
That said, in this company, it was the ginger-haired stepchild. Whether the DBS or SLS sounds the best is open to debate. On a 2-1 vote, the Benz came out on top for its sheer ferocity and surprising volume, heightened by the silent morning breeze.
My vote went to the Aston. The V12 has a different character, less mechanical but more operatic. It’s higher pitched, not as rich as the Merc’s V8 but seemingly more exotic. It’s F1 vs stockcar, so take your pick.
The SLS 6.2L V8 appeals to your primitive nature, the V12 is more cultured, but both were spine-tingling in the tunnels we passed through.
The same characteristics applied to each car’s performance: The BMW was slightly muted here; the Benz was raw; while the Aston needed you to dig to find it.
It was almost as if you had to qualify to unlock the treasures buried inside the DBS. I have to admit my first experience was terrifying. Having obtained extra insurance for what was the most expensive road car I’d ever driven, I signed several forms and headed for the rush hour freeway. Ordinarily, I’m a swordsmith, slicing my path through multiple lanes to defeat dozing drivers who pick a lane and remain in it for the duration.
In the DBS, what previously appeared like a chess game became a deadly obstacle course. Sudden lane changes, unexpected braking, drivers moving closer to take a look; the freeway was a minefield, and the snatchy carbon-ceramic brakes weren’t helping. Light pressure for more than a second or two would build into heavy braking without any extra leg effort. Then jumping back on the gas to avoid traffic piling into the gorgeous rear would be similarly staccato as it hesitated, kicked down, then shot off towards the closely spaced traffic.
It took a while to gather my senses, anticipate the brake pedal and select the transmission’s Sport mode so it would hold a gear, becoming more responsive to the throttle.
The next day, on an empty stretch of road, I paddled down a couple of cogs and let the 510hp V12 sing. It was as if the few cars around me had jumped on the brakes as they dwindled in the rearview mirror.
Once you relaxed, the Aston seemed to wrap its arms around you. The transmission, although not a newer double-clutch, was the only one you could park easily – the other two requiring stabs of throttle and brake to overcome the stall speed.
The suspension settings were superb. The Comfort mode absorbed everything; it was like riding in a very low limousine, but even in Sport mode it was surprising well damped, with good roll control. Allied to its supportive seats, it proved a remarkably comfortable grand tourer.
The Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, was significantly tauter. Its engine response was more instantaneous, thanks in part to a more intelligent transmission and lower weight. It seemed more inclined to follow your commands and, where the DBS felt like a high-maintenance supermodel, the SLS was a bit more down ’n dirty.
From the second you fired what’s easily one of the most abrasive, intimidating exhaust notes of all time, you just want to go fast. Very fast. With 563hp on tap, this car feels stupid quick. Floor it for 3.8sec and you’re doing 60mph, and in another 8.2sec you’ve covered the quarter-mile and accelerating past 120mph, seemingly with less effort than it takes to secure the seatbelt.
Compared to the DBS and M6, the SLS feels slightly less refined, a bit rabid dog. Something you wouldn’t put a small child in the passenger seat.
There’s a “comfort” suspension setting in the Merc but its definition is like suggesting skydiving is relaxing. And while the Roadster is a bit too stiff, it deserves this connection to the black-top, especially at triple-digit speeds where it can feel a little fidgety but gets the job done.