Sport sedans operate in a gray area where practicality gives way to emotion. A thoroughly rational shopping list of the world's best examples would include the Audi S6, the BMW M5, the Cadillac CTS-V, the Lexus IS-F, and the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG. But pragmatism, logic, and good sense are rarely the deciding factors when considering an irrational purchase like a $100K-plus, 150-mph-plus automobile. Instead, right-brain values come to the forefront - style, rarity, sophistication, glamour, equipment, image, and, yes, sex appeal. The aforementioned sedans are undeniably speedy and dynamically impressive - but at the end of the day, the M5 isn't much more than a 528i on steroids, the S6 is an A6 that has undergone a complicated heart transplant via Sant'Agata Bolognese, the CTS-V and the IS-F both have relatively humble genetic backgrounds, and the E63 AMG started life on the same assembly line as 75 percent of the German taxi population.
So, we're left with three truly uncommon four-doors that excite by design, stun through performance, and convince with ability. It's hard to find a sedan that's more luxurious and bigger inside than the Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed. If you think this car is only a tricked-out Volkswagen Phaeton wearing a Savile Row suit, think again. Consider also its impeccable craftsmanship, supreme road manners, and explosive torque delivery. For a hooligan's delight in a plain wrapper, you need look no further than the Jaguar XFR. Its body may look like the product of a brief love affair between Ford and Lexus, but the handling talent hidden deep inside is true and rare, and the kick provided by the new, direct-injection supercharged V-8 peels tarmac like a dragster. Finally, the Maserati Quattroporte, especially in Sport GT S guise, perfectly fuses an eclectic piece of rolling art and a thoroughbred four-seat race car, and it does so to the accompaniment of some amazing music.
This will not be a cold, clinical, numbers-crunching showdown. For a start, there is simply no fair points scheme for entrants as far apart in price, positioning, and personality as the 600-hp, $204,795 Bentley; the 510-hp, $80,000 Jaguar; and the 433-hp, $138,100 Maserati. That's why we're guided not only by facts but also by controversial, opinionated, and often very personal arguments.
For instance, the Quattroporte Sport GT S makes a visual statement that is impossible to ignore. Like a scantily clad supermodel taking a walk on her day off, the beauty from Modena slices through the crowd with an emphatic swagger, accompanied by a sound track that doesn't seem street-legal. Even before you push the sport button, the 4.7-liter V-8 intones an acoustic italianità that even the late Pavarotti would have been hard-pressed to match. Every blip of the throttle makes windowpanes rattle and birds scatter; any deep accelerator dive toward the firewall threatens to momentarily blur the field of vision; and when the underhood orchestra eventually climaxes at the redline, the phonetic punch becomes almost physical. For a full-strength acoustic earthquake, hit the sport button and relish the staccato of throttle blips that accompany every downshift and pay extra attention to the violent blat-blat as one gear chases the next.
While the Maserati is all about voluptuous curves and mighty aural impact, the Bentley beguiles you with acres of splendid isolation, a landslide of torque, and back-seat space that rivals a first-class sky suite. From the outside, the Flying Spur may look to some like a circa-2003 Hyundai XG350 that has spent a couple of summers with Mr. Mulliner and Mrs. Park Ward. Inside, however, the Speed is pure Buckingham Palace: there is soft leather everywhere, and the choice of timber and man-made surfaces would fill an interior design encyclopedia. Sybaritic delights include the sensational 1100-watt Naim audio system, lamb's-wool rugs that are almost too special for anything but bare feet, and a ride that, at the turn of a knob, can vary from cloud-nine soft to Silverstone firm. The only irritations are the outmoded navigation system, the garish Breitling clock, and the depressingly fast-moving fuel gauge.
In a way, the Jaguar doesn't belong in this group. Its size and style are more executive express than dream machine, and surely that supercharged engine can't make that much difference. But prejudice exists to be refuted, and that's what the contender from Coventry does in a compelling and convincing manner. The supercharged and intercooled V-8 catapults the Jaguar into the supersedan champion's league. It accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, trailing the Bentley by 0.2 second while eclipsing the Quattroporte by 0.4 second, according to their makers. The unrestricted Flying Spur Speed will top a remarkable 200 mph and the Maserati is good for 177 mph, but the XFR is electronically red-flagged at 155 mph. On back roads, however, the corner-greedy Jaguar is in a realm of its own. It harbors deep reserves of low-end grunt; its ordinary, cast-iron brakes out-decelerate the competition by an almost supernatural margin; and the steering is a precision instrument. The Bentley is the fastest in a straight line, and the Maserati is the uncontested rev master of this threesome, but as soon as radii, apexes, and undulations up the ante, only one car is as addictive as a drug.
Keep the stability control button pushed for at least five seconds, and the XFR will don its track suit, racing gloves, and helmet. From here, up to 461 lb-ft of torque are controlled solely by the driver's right foot. On wet surfaces, fourth-gear wheel spin is easy - that's how loose those 285/30YR-20 rear Dunlops can be. On dry pavement, the grip level improves, but third-gear tail-slides are still second nature for this tactile and talented cat. Although the Quattroporte, too, will indulge in power oversteer, it needs more whip action on the part of the jockey - as well as an extra acre of turf, just in case. Even with stability control switched off, the Maserati's nicely balanced chassis refuses to be upset until the power-and-torque cocktail takes effect, which usually deflects the trajectory by at least 45 degrees. The Flying Spur, too, can be pushed sideways like a rally car - on a frozen lake near the Arctic Circle. But on blacktop, the only variation in handling attitude concerns the amount of understeer. Despite four-wheel drive, the Bentley's inherent nose-heaviness requires a different driving style: brake early to squash the momentum, turn in early to protect the front tires, set up the nose for the apex, and then give it stick as you exit the bend with little drama, as befits the car's tux-and-bow-tie approach.
The Flying Spur Speed dishes up 48 hp and 73 lb-ft more than the base version. The Sport GT S squeezes an extra 8 hp out of its 4.7-liter V-8; maximum torque is an unchanged 361 lb-ft. The XFR's engine betters the normally aspirated 5.0-liter by 125 hp and 81 lb-ft. Is it, with these cars, really worth it to reach out for the high-end models? Yes - but with certain reservations. In the Bentley, we'd consider mating the Speed package with the more compliant spring and damper settings of the standard, 552-hp Spur. That's what chairman Franz-Josef Paefgen did when he specified his personal company car. The result is a cushier low-speed ride and a plusher chassis calibration at speeds of up to 100 mph. The Quattroporte Sport GT S not only sounds better than the S, it also behaves more progressively at the limit, thanks to the conventional dampers that beat the S's arrangement for superior body control and more unambiguous action. On the debit side, the GT S suffers from a much harsher ride, which is due to firmer springs, wider twenty-inch tires, and tauter dampers. At Jaguar, the R package buys different wheels, an active rear differential together with sportier active dampers, and more direct steering, as well as substantially bigger front and rear brakes.
Although it is badged Speed, the Flying Spur makes high velocity feel about as effortless as a Japanese bullet train does. Thanks to four-wheel drive, even low-speed acceleration is always more of a gesture than an event. Despite the curb weight of 5478 pounds, the cruiser from Crewe takes only 10.5 seconds to beam us from naught to 100 mph. The short burst from 50 to 70 mph is an even more impressive 2.4-second affair. And at 180 mph, when the Maserati has moved over to the slow lane, the Bentley still has 20 mph to unspool in its unmistakable, turbinelike style. Directional stability at the peak of the mph spectrum is good but not brilliant, the ride on certain surfaces pays tribute to the stiff twenty-inch Pirelli PZero Rosso tires, and whenever the speed or direction of the flight path changes, the driver is never in doubt about the forces he must deal with. Those with a heavy right foot shouldn't hesitate to spend a small fortune on the composite brake discs, which, when called upon, dispatch a separate guardian angel to each wheel. The Flying Spur rewards smoothness with even more smoothness, precision with ease, consistency with fluidity, and proper timing with perfect poise.
If Ferrari were ever to build a four-door sedan, the outcome would probably be a car that closely resembles the Quattroporte Sport GT S. The Maserati aims to excite and involve, challenge and inspire, seduce and allure. To do so, it has been equipped with a sports car drivetrain, a sports car chassis, and a sports car interior. Furnishings include four suede-trimmed bucket seats, large shift paddles, and a feature called MC auto shift. MC offers launch control, extra-aggressive rev limits for up- and downshifts, a hold-in-gear and no-kickdown mode when manual has been selected, and the most riveting intake and exhaust duets this side of Maserati's MC12 supercar. Unlike the Bentley, the Maserati has never learned to relax; it's always in a fighting mood. It will snap after potholes, kick back at grooves, tap-dance through puddles, swing its hips in response to lift-off maneuvers or in preparation of a full-throttle sprint. There's plenty of grip in the rear but not quite enough in the front, the massive brakes could do with a bit more staying power, and the steering is a little too light for all the weight it must control.
One of the reasons why the XFR breaks with tradition in so many ways is because the R&D brief said it should. We can think of no other explanation for the motorized-knob gear selector, the lack of real timber in the cabin, and the disappointing passenger space - there's less room up front than in a Honda Civic. But the autobahn isn't a catwalk, and after two days and 650 miles, we lined up at the Jaguar for an encore. In this company, it may lack prestige, panache, and presence, yet in terms of accessible performance, total immersion, and grins per bend, the XFR stood at the head of the pack. Its steering puts the road into your palms, its brakes have a built-in fast-rewind mode, the ZF gearbox can be both velvety-smooth and scalpel-sharp, the adaptive dampers handle dynamic forces without ever dropping a ball, and the aerodynamic balance combines high downforce with impeccable stability.
In this group of three, the Jaguar XFR is the least exotic and yet the most involving. It feels almost as compact as a four-seat coupe, is surprisingly easy to drive fast, and doesn't need to go to the changing room before entering the next drift challenge. In the Bentley Flying Spur Speed, it doesn't really matter whether one samples the atmosphere from the driver's seat or from the back bench. Pace in the Spur is such a relative commodity when compared with tangible assets like exquisite woodwork and fine leather. Even at velocities approaching 200 mph, the dominating impression is of a relaxed blend of grace, speed, and total effortlessness. Among the superlatives the Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT S can claim are the most intoxicating sound track, the most eager engine, and about twice as many turned heads as its rivals. Indeed, the Maserati is about as laissez-faire as a lion on the prowl. It puts up a bigger fight than most of the classic sports car gladiators, and its often dramatic handling habits require a seasoned wheelman as well as fearless passengers. Like the other two contenders, it has character and charisma by the bagful, evokes strong emotional responses, and triggers more daydreams than the complete works of Pamela Anderson. So what are you waiting for? Enjoy one of these diverse super sport sedans before government-mandated hybrids or the next economic tsunami wipes out your ability to get one.
|Jaguar XFR||Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed||Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT S|
|Engine||Supercharged DOHC 32-valve V-8||Twin-turbo DOHC 48-valve W-12||DOHC 32-valve V-8|
|Displacement||5.0 liters (305 cu in)||6.0 liters (366 cu in)||4.7 liters (286 cu in)|
|Horsepower||510 hp @ 6000 rpm||600 hp @ 6000 rpm||433 hp @ 7100 rpm|
|Torque||461 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm||553 lb-ft @ 1700 rpm||361 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm|
|Transmission Type||6-speed automatic||6-speed automatic||6-speed automatic|
|Steering||Power-assisted rack-and-pinion||Power-assisted rack-and-pinion||Power-assisted rack-and-pinion|
|Suspension, Front||Control arms, Coil Springs||Control arms, Air Springs||Control arms, Coil Springs|
|Suspension, Rear||Multilink, coil springs||Multilink, air springs||Multilink, coil springs|
|Brakes||Vented discs, ABS||Vented discs, ABS||Vented discs, ABS|
|Tires Size F/R||255/35YR-20, 285/30YR-20||275/40YR-20||245/35YR-20, 295/30YR-20|
|L x W x H||195.3 x 80.8 x 57.5 in||208.3 x 83.4 x 57.7 in||200.7 x 80.9 x 56.6 in|
|Wheelbase||114.5 in||120.7 in||120.6 in|
|Track F/R||61.4/61.9 in||63.9/63.3 in||62.3/62.8 in|
|Weight||4169 lb||5478 lb||4375 lb|
|Fuel Mileage||15/21 mpg (est.)||10/17 mpg||11/18 mpg|