Milan, Italy-- As I shifted the Ferrari 575M Maranello into sixth gear, the speedometer flicked past 160 mph, and the Lamborghini Murcilago loomed ever closer in my rear-view mirror. Running hard behind us were a Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG, a Porsche 911 Turbo, and an Aston Martin V12 Vanquish. For a brief moment, we were heading into the upper reaches of these cars' performance envelopes, before we had to brake for a slow-moving Fiat to pass an even slower truck--but what a moment.
Twenty-five years ago, if we had driven through northern Italy in the finest production supercars, they would have included a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, as well as an Aston Martin and a Porsche. (No Mercedes back then could have been called a supercar.) But where those cars would have been running out of breath at (or before) 170 mph, these five still had plenty in reserve and were still breathing hard. And they were serene at this speed, unaffected by surface or wind, their cabins cooled by effective air conditioning. That wouldn't have been the case in 1977. One thing hasn't changed, though: Beyond 160 mph, on a public highway, things happen very fast. Super high speed needs vigilance, and you don't spend much time up there dancing with the fates.
Italy is one of the best places on earth to drive supercars superfast. The police don't seem too worried about speeding, so you can run all day on the autostrada at 110 mph without fear of getting nailed. Go much faster than that, though, and you could be fined heavily--if the police weren't so thin on the ground. The minor roads that cross the Apennines are a perfect playground for these vehicles: sinuous, lightly trafficked, challenging, with plenty of creases to test a car's suspension. So long as you're sensible through towns, no one cares what you're doing in such cars; they're just glad to see them out on the road.
Of course, when we'd arrived in Italy, we weren't sure whether all five cars would actually be there. European bureau chief Georg Kacher was driving down from Germany with photographer Martyn Goddard in the two German cars; the Aston was arriving by cargo truck; and associate editor Joe DeMatio and I were picking up the Ferrari and the Lamborghini from their respective factories. Twenty years ago, one of the Italian cars might well have been waiting to have plates fitted, or we could have been greeted with a casual "I thought you were coming next week," but the advent of e-mail and professional PR departments has changed all that.
So on a sunny Monday morning, there they were, five cars sitting in the courtyard of an old Italian farmhouse. Even hardened professionals like Kacher and technical editor Don Sherman were grinning like five-year-olds at the sight. DeMatio and I nearly fainted with excitement, and only Goddard kept on an even keel. Swooning time doesn't figure for a man whose only impulse is to immortalize cars with a camera.
If you want to know why people go the extra $100,000 or so to buy the Lamborghini or the Ferrari or the Aston instead of the Porsche or the Mercedes, all you need to do is look at them. These are the supermodels of the car world. The Murcilago is squat and menacing and outrageous. The 575M Maranello is a traditional, old-school, front-engined Ferrari, with a foredeck of a hood that suggests serious power. And the Vanquish is just bloody gorgeous. James Bond is driving one in his next film, and so he should; it's as tightly tailored as his Brioni dinner suits. Even Italian passersby, who naturally gravitated toward the Lamborghini and the Ferrari, were appreciative, throwing comments of "bella macchina" our way.
The 911 Turbo looks a little prosaic in this company, but that could be a result of the 911 shape's familiarity. The SL55 AMG is elegant and would look wonderful in your garage or turning up for a dinner date, but it isn't knock-your-socks-off stunning. (If the car seems out of place here, look at the performance statistics. On special tires, an SL55 was faster at the top end than even the Lamborghini in a recent Auto Motor und Sport test.)
All five cars are gorgeous inside. Once upon a time, supercars were basically racing cars for the street, devices in which you became over-heated and uncomfortable. Nowadays, they all share the same comfort and convenience features as the most luxurious of luxury cars and are studies in supple leather, plush carpeting, and exquisite detailing.
The five interiors look very different. The Ferrari has businesslike metal accents, round eyeball air vents, and a glorious, very Italian leather dashboard. The Aston is like an English gentleman's club that has been renovated by a hip modern furniture designer, with its cool juxtaposition of metal surfaces and traditional materials. (Unfortunately, no amount of fabulous leather can hide some cheapo Ford parts bin pieces.) The Porsche looks just like a regular 911, except for the extra leather trim and stitching. The Lamborghini has the simplest, most elegant interior, and, at long last, it has rational switchgear and a sensible driving position. The Mercedes is very stylish, with great interior shapes and surface treatments, in stark contrast to the pure functionality of old SLs. Special touches include the Alcantara around the instrument cluster and on the automatic shift lever. The SL55 is also a dual-purpose car: a cozy coupe in winter or at high velocity, a convertible when you're not in the mood for speed.
Through the years, there has been no consensus about supercar layouts. Mid-engined may be best for racing cars, but on the street, you need to package people and their luggage as well as the mechanicals. Hence the variety of layouts on display here. The Aston and the Mercedes have front engines and transmissions driving the rear wheels; the Ferrari has a front engine, transaxle, and rear drive; the Porsche is rear-engined with all-wheel drive; and the Lamborghini is mid-engined with all-wheel drive. The Aston, the Lambo, and the Ferrari have monstrous naturally aspirated V-12 engines, whereas the Porsche makes do with a twin-turbocharged horizontally opposed six, and the Mercedes has a massive supercharged V-8.
When it comes to changing gears, there's no accord, either. The Aston and the Ferrari use clutchless manuals with paddle shifters and automatic modes. (You can buy the Ferrari with a regular six-speed.) The Mercedes and the Porsche both have automatics with push-button manual modes, and the Lamborghini relies on a good, old-fashioned stick shift. And you know what? There's nothing to beat the feeling of a perfectly timed conventional shift. For anyone who thinks that clutchless manuals are a gimmick, they come alive on a track, where you can use your left foot for braking, safe in the knowledge that the transmission will downshift expeditiously. On the street, too, left-foot braking gives an extra margin of safety. The Porsche and Mercedes autoboxes just don't downshift fast enough, and you can momentarily lock the rear wheels with the stability systems off.
Our plan was simple. No one with more than half a brain is going to drive cars like these on the ragged edge on the public road, because their limits are so high. With that in mind, we booked Quattroruote magazine's test track near Milan.
Day one was spent at the track, where Sherman--"Data Don"--gathered performance figures and we amused ourselves on the handling course and by acting as Goddard's photo slaves. As you can see from the accompanying chart, our five vehicles do a lot more than most cars, and they all have a sharpness on track that will blow the mind of anyone other than seasoned Le Mans prototype drivers. That evening, we discussed the finer points of our super fleet over a glass or two of the finest Brunello di Montalcino and a pleasant meal in a local trattoria. On day two, we headed for the hills and some real-world driving. Our first call was the Autostrada del Sole, en route to Reggio Emilia from Milan.
Nowadays, you get only brief bursts of massive speed as you head from the Po valley into Emilia-Romagna. The economy in northern Italy is humming, and that means that the autostrada is crowded with trucks, along with econoboxes nipping into the fast lane to get around them--and get in our way. A hundred miles in this quintet, trying to go quickly, becomes wearing. But as masters of the universe for the day, we owed it to ourselves to go fast. Kacher won the top-speed race, with an indicated 330 kilometers per hour (205 mph!) in the Lamborghini.
At Reggio Emilia, we left the autostrada for the SS63, a two-lane road that narrows and twists as it goes into the Apennines. There were too many trucks for serious pleasure, but we turned off onto the white, unmarked roads that pepper the detailed Michelin maps, where the traffic is lighter, the views are picture-postcard Italian, and you can go as fast as you like over what resemble rally stages. Through towns and villages, locals cheered and waved and chatted as they saw this procession of fabulous machinery, and we were pleased to show them engines and interiors. Sherman played to the spectators by blipping the Lambo's throttle, a move that would cause annoyance anywhere else in the world but merely provoked whoops and hollers here--from grandmothers and their grandchildren alike.
Our supercars really rock when you drive them hard. They pin you back into the seat under hard acceleration, and they threaten to pop your retinas under heavy braking. They also corner as if someone had mounted air foils on their roofs and smeared their tires with sticky gum.
The 414-horsepower 911 Turbo was first up at the test track, blasting between corners and then crushing them into submission. This is a car that uses technology to help you conquer the road, with its simple all-wheel-drive system apportioning torque where it's needed. Lift the gas on entry into a corner, let the back end slide wide, then nail the throttle. At this point, the Turbo uses rear-engined load transfer to grip and go and all-wheel-drive traction to claw through at stellar speed. Add marvelous brakes and steering to die for, and you'll have a ball without ever worrying about falling off the road. The 911's small size makes it the easiest of these five to drive fast out on the road, yet it's as stable as the Swiss franc and rides pretty nicely, too.
Both the Aston and the Ferrari employ the classic systeme Panhard layout of front engine and rear drive, a setup that dates back to the 1890s. Oh, and they have more power than you will ever really need. On the track, you must brake a little earlier than in the Porsche, let the car settle, then dial in the required angle of rear-end dangle with the gas pedal. Sure, it's old-fashioned, but, by gosh, it's fun. Driven hard, the 508-horsepower 575M feels like an overgrown 250GT Lusso, and the 460-horsepower Vanquish feels like a modern DB6, only with much more of everything. The Ferrari's steering is as precise as a neurosurgeon, and both cars' F1-style gearboxes make you feel like a hero, particularly when they blip the throttle automatically on downshifts.
The Aston is a bit of a mess on the track, with too much roll, too much understeer, and slightly spongy brakes. On real roads, though, it comes into its own. It just lives to gallop along the autostrada at 130 mph all day long, and it shrugs off mid-corner bumps as if they were minor irritants. The ride is great, too, and the steering is second only to the Porsche's. If ever a car showed that track work tells only a small part of the story, it's the Aston.
The Ferrari, too, is marvelous on the street, a big car that's brilliantly nimble and breathtakingly fast. On the track, it feels a little soft and undertired, but only a maniac would think it hasn't got enough grip on the twisting roads near Reggio Emilia. Both V-12 engines are glorious; the Ferrari's is subdued aurally, but the Vanquish's has a magnificent, soulful wail that fills the cabin. You change gear to hear the engines sing; there's so much torque, you could leave these two cars in top gear most of the day.
You expect a car as big as the 571-horsepower Lambo to flounder around, but it comes across like a gigantic go-kart on the track. It's not as spectacular as either the Aston or the Ferrari, but the tail end wants to dance more than the Porsche's. (And dance it did, off track, for both Sherman and me.) At the end of our second day with the cars, when Sherman and Kacher had left with the Aston and the Mercedes, DeMatio and I gunned the Lambo and the Ferrari toward Ferrari's hometown of Maranello. More darty than the 575M, the Murcilago rides flat and true, and it feels a lot smaller than its gargantuan width would imply. It's insanely fast, too, the speed accompanied by a wondrous, bellicose growl, a V-12 engine aria an octave or so deeper than the Aston's.
The 493-horsepower Mercedes is the surprise here. It's brutally fast, sounds like a big V-twin Ducati in heat, and is actually a better track car than the Ferrari or the Aston. There's so much midrange urge that it threatens to overwhelm the rear tires at any opportunity. However, the steering isn't as communicative as the four other cars', and we dislike the artificiality of Mercedes' Active Body Control. The simple answer to that last problem is to turn the ABC off, at which point the car becomes livelier and more pleasing to drive hard. It doesn't quite entertain or connect the way the others do, however, and is the athlete of this bunch: all the talent in the world but a bit lacking in personality.
These are five rocket ships for the road. With them, you're paying for the expertise in fine-tuning that comes from small groups of passionate, dedicated engineers and test drivers, who spend all their time with incredibly fast, potent weapons. There's a reason people like Dario Benuzzi and Roland Kussmaul have been employed by Ferrari and Porsche for so long. They just know, instinctively, what's right, as do the engineers who design the cars.
Don't expect a winner here. We would have any combination of these cars in our garages, just as we would have Louis XV and Chippendale furniture in the same room, or a Rembrandt and a van Gogh on the same wall, or a Chateau Latour and a Puligny-Montrachet with our supper.
It's remarkable how national characteristics shine through. The Mercedes and the Porsche have all the performance in the world, yet they are rational, practical choices. A 911 Turbo could be used all year round, parked on the street, and taken to the shops or onto a racetrack. It's the same deal with the Mercedes. These two Germans combine reliability with startling ability for what amounts to a bargain price.
The Italian cars and the lone Britisher are far more precious and have more character. They are special experiences; you take them out only when the planets are aligned properly and you feel like having a treat. They are perfectly usable every day, but such practice would somehow diminish their luster. The Ferrari and the Lamborghini are machismo made of metal, extroverted cars that stamp their presence on onlookers. The Aston is more restrained, more British, but utterly bewitching nonetheless. To data freaks, it's the least impressive car here, yet its ingredients gel wonderfully on the road.
At the end of a sensational two days, we all wanted different cars. I couldn't choose between the Porsche and the Aston and the Ferrari. I love the Ferrari's brio, the Aston's looks and engine, and the Porsche's raw speed and practicality. The Lamborghini is simply too over-the-top for me. DeMatio was completely besotted by the Ferrari. Sherman covets the Lamborghini. Kacher would have the Porsche, because it's the best compromise. And Goddard chose the Mercedes; he was intrigued by all that performance in a convertible. At this level, it comes down to how a car connects with you. All five supercars are magnificent, further evidence that the early twenty-first century is the best time to be an automobile enthusiast. Car lovers have never been so spoiled for choice--and never more so than at the top of the performance tree.