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.