San Simeon, California - Back in the 1930s, the train would leave Los Angeles at dusk, and the weekend guests would keep the club cars lit brightly all through the night as they made their way north. Finally, the train would reach San Luis Obispo at three a.m., and the guests and their luggage would be loaded into big touring cars for the last forty miles to San Simeon. As the sun rose, there would be the great house on its hilltop overlooking the ocean, more like a castle than the weekend retreat of William Randolph Hearst, the last of America's newspaper barons.
It was night, and we were also on our way to Hearst Castle, a state historical monument since 1957 and still a weekend destination for people in Los Angeles. We weren't traveling in private railway cars, but the effect was much the same. The $211,900 Bentley Arnage Red Label and the $114,000 Mercedes-Benz S600 are the most silent, serious, and luxurious instruments of earthbound transport that man has yet devised. They are the automotive equivalents of the one-of-a-kind objects that Hearst bought in such extraordinary profusion to decorate his estate--cars that are almost beyond price in their beauty, function, and image.
At the same time, the Bentley and the Mercedes-Benz interpret their missions in automotive life in very different ways. We think it has to do with a fundamental difference between the British and German approaches to luxury. And so the subtext for this drive became the search for some insight into the well-known dispute between Volkswagen and BMW in 1999 for control of Bentley and Rolls-Royce. (Volkswagen acquired control of Bentley, while BMW will take the rights to the Rolls-Royce brand in 2002.)
It's a good 250 miles to San Simeon from Los Angeles when you drive California Highway 101, a modern combination of freeway and divided highway that follows the old trail that connected the Spanish missions founded by Father Junipero Serra. We'd neglected to bring our own private dining car to help fortify us during our journey, so we stopped in Montecito, an exclusive little town adjacent to Santa Barbara, and dined at Lucky's, a likewise exclusive little steakhouse just opened by a friend, chef James Sly. The Bentley and the Benz looked at home here in this enclave of estates, avocado ranches, and citrus groves. It was a reminder that these cars are driven by people with wealth--a consistent, reliable source of coin of the realm. Wealth is different from a simple windfall of cash, and that's why an Arnage or an S600 seems appropriate in Montecito and yet self-indulgent in Silicon Valley.
Above Santa Barbara, the traffic finally clears, and a divided highway unrolls along the ocean. At night, the headlights focus the mind wonderfully and help you appreciate the excellence these cars deliver on the open road.
A Mercedes always feels born for the freeway, as well it should, since it's designed in a country where high-speed autobahns (not air routes or railways) are the main corridors between cities. And so the S600 serves up resolute straight-line stability. The 5.8-liter V-12 offers 20 percent more horsepower and 15 percent more torque than the S500's 5.0-liter V-8, and it helps the 4488-pound S600 rip from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. We really felt its power only above 80 mph, however, which is what we'd expect from an autobahn runner. When the V-12 is just loafing along in the cruise mode, it will shut down the left bank of cylinders to increase fuel economy, and it did so with such transparent sophistication that we never noticed. The optional Distronic cruise control, which can automatically keep pace with the car in front of you until you swing into the passing lane, was usually well behaved and surprisingly useful.
The Bentley also has terrific down-the-road ability, a function of its terrific weight--there's nothing like 5557 pounds to iron out the bumps. The Arnage covers the ground with an unyielding, locomotive-like surge that's like nothing else you have ever experienced. While it is fashionably modern to pay homage to light weight, a low polar moment of inertia, and a low center of gravity, these aren't necessarily the right priorities for straight-line travel. The Red Label's turbocharged, 6.8-liter OHV V-8, with 400 horsepower and 616 pound-feet of torque, will reach 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, and the intercooler and transient boost control ensure that there's always plenty of midrange power.
Night driving also makes you appreciate a car's interior--the layout of the controls and the functional aspects of the features. Unfortunately, both of these cars have troubled tales to tell. The Bentley's retro-style point-source lighting for its bank of instruments makes the parchment-colored dials largely unreadable. And the overhead pin light that casts a night-friendly red glow on the center console doesn't make it any easier to find all the switches and controls (even the window controls aren't lighted, for gosh sakes). It's all summed up by the Bentley's navigation system, which is better than the Benz's system in display, map detail, and ease of use. But the flat screen levitates into view from out of the top of the dashboard, like a plastic Jesus, and it's so far away that you have to operate the system with a remote handset.
The S600 feels reassuringly familiar in comparison, and yet night driving in the Benz makes you realize just how bewildering is the vast keyboard of buttons and knobs across the dash--like a cross between a Wurlitzer organ and the flight deck of a Boeing 747. Why do you push down on the rocker switch for the door locks in order to make the lock buttons pop up? We think there's just something about buttons that eludes German designers.
When you wake up in San Simeon, you first check the weather, because thick fog frequently rolls off the ocean, especially in the late spring and summer. We were lucky to find the castle well in view on its 1600-foot hill. This was a remote spot in the 1870s when William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) first came here as a boy and camped with his father, who had made the family fortune in Nevada silver mines. It was still lonely when Hearst began to build the "Ranch" in 1919 and eventually expanded his land holdings to 250,000 acres. And even though it's adjacent to California's famous Highway 1, Hearst Castle is still far off the beaten track. Except between July and September, the high season of motorhomes, you can drive from the nearby resort town of Cambria all the way to Big Sur and be little troubled by traffic.
At this sort of driving, the S600 excels. It offers every electronic driving aid the Mercedes-Benz engineers have been able to devise. There are anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, and skid control--and these are just the features that provide a safety net if things should happen to go wrong. One electronic device that affects your driving every moment is Active Body Control (ABC), a combination of conventional and semi-active suspension components for optimal wheel control and a proactive reduction in body pitch and roll. Some-times ABC feels as if it snubs the suspension up short and calculates things according to an in-flight turn-and-bank indicator, but it's generally unnoticeable and very effective. ABC simply expands the parameters of normality, so the S600 always feels normal, whether you're driving 50 mph or 100 mph. As a result, you can pick this car up by the scruff of its neck and really drive it, and that's not something every luxury car will permit.
No one would expect that the Bentley could keep pace with the Benz on a road like Highway 1, but we forget that the Arnage is not an antique. It was essentially all new upon its introduction in 1999, a symbol of a promising new relationship with BMW and a statement by the Bentley engineers that they knew a little something about good handling. So the Arnage has computer-controlled adjustable dampers, traction control, automatic ride-height control, and hydroplaning detection, not to mention massive brakes and big, big Pirelli P Zero tires. The Arnage also has been engineered in Britain, a country where narrow, bumpy country lanes are a daily experience and every car needs accurate steering, lots of suspension travel, and dependable handling. The Arnage is utterly delightful to drive quickly on a winding road. Of course, it's tall and relatively soft in roll, so the body leans more than Americans are used to. But it will haul the mail. At the same time, this car's enormous weight always can be felt through the controls. You have to remember that the driver does business here in strictly an advisory capacity, and some real learning is required before so much weight can be balanced during braking and cornering.
The S-class is certainly a design breakthrough for Mercedes. The sweep of its bodywork and the detailing of the lights bring a new warmth to the cars of Stuttgart. The interior is especially interesting, as the style and presentation have a soft, almost Italian look. This is a very successful attempt to soften the edges of the traditional, austere Mercedes style, a lesson learned from Lexus, we think.
The car itself also reflects lessons learned from Lexus, because it always manages to be luxurious as well as capable. At the same time, there's no diminishment in its utility, as the broad door openings, expansive rear-seat area, and driving dynamics prove. This is a car that you can live with on a daily basis, a car that adapts easily to any automotive task. It is, of course, always clear that you are driving a car with everything on it, for the traditional German approach to luxury has been to add features and technology. Everywhere you look, the Benz is doing something for you--guiding you to your destination, keeping the air temperature comfortable, reclining your seat, and both opening and closing the trunk lid for you.
The Bentley looks as if it's from another age than the Mercedes. The enormous, flat-faced grille and platter-size headlights remind us of Bentley's victories at Le Mans, and, although those triumphs are beyond the recall of living memory, the Bentley's face is as classically familiar to us as a martini glass. The Arnage's bodywork, swept by the wind like a Gordon Crosby illustration from the 1930s, lives up to this standard, while the interior's leather and chrome evoke the atmosphere of a British clubroom. And the view over the magisterial hood makes driving an occasion.
The Bentley also has an unmatchable aura of exclusivity that surprises even us. This is partly a function of its English style, a combination of soft luxury and refined sophistication that car companies around the world have been trying to imitate with a conspicuous lack of success. It's partly the statement the Bentley makes, an expression of pride that's almost a boast. And it's partly the Arnage's ability to back up its imagery with a driving experience that is at once different and relevant.
The S600 does not make such a statement--and it shouldn't. A Mercedes-Benz personifies the spirit of ultimate utility, and it always is a very good car first and an instrument of expression second. And, after all, a Mercedes-Benz will never again be exclusive now that Stuttgart has expanded the brand to cover everything from minicars to sport-utilities. Mercedes-Benz might be one of the most robust brands in the world, but we, too, would pursue a new brand like Maybach in order to compete with Bentley.
We are not, however, going to tell you that the Bentley Arnage is a better car than the Mercedes-Benz S600. We're not going to stick you with some more of that typical head-in-the-clouds thinking that leads most automotive writers to be so easily seduced by Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Bentley already has redesigned the interior of this car, miraculously finding an additional two inches of front leg room, an inch of hip room, and an inch of headroom, while making things easier for rear-seat passengers, but it's five cubic feet short of the Benz's interior volume, and you're aware of the discrepancy every moment. And value, depreciation, durability, and reliability also count for something, even at this end of the spectrum. As a result, the Mercedes-Benz is clearly the car to drive on a daily basis. It is a car first and a fashion statement afterward.
But we'll also remind you that the Bentley has incredible charisma. The corporate wrangling over the rights to Bentley and Rolls-Royce shows us that these British cars have a quality that even the Germans, the proudest and most admirable of car manufacturers, do not understand. They have tried to duplicate it and failed. And now they have bought up the assets of the British marques, hopeful of coming closer to the spirit that has sustained Bentley and Rolls-Royce through decades of misfortune and mismanagement. But let us remind the new German owners that exclusivity is a difficult thing to manage. You have only to look at Ferrari, which nearly squandered its image in the go-go 1980s with ever greater volumes of cars, and only in the last few years discovered the right balance of image, profit, and volume. It's a lesson Volkswagen will have to learn with Bentley as it plans to produce a higher-volume model. And it's a lesson Mercedes-Benz will have to learn with Maybach.
It is difficult to defend enthusiasm for a car as exclusive, artful, and yet irrational as the Bentley Arnage. Perhaps we can draw a lesson from Hearst's collection of art and artifacts. With a Mercedes-Benz, we expect something so functional to have beauty, and so it passes as unremarkable. With a Bentley, we are always surprised that something so beautiful should have any function at all, and so we cannot stop talking about it.