Consumption doesn't get much more conspicuous than this. And if the $750,000 combined price of the Bentley Azure and the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé is mind-boggling, so too is the ostentatious visibility of these similar and yet very different monolithic cabriolets.
Switching from a sedan or a coupe to a convertible is like swapping a pinstripe three-piece suit for a pair of swimming trunks. You're exposed, almost naked. And the world ogles and scrutinizes you, points fingers and turns heads, makes comments that you hear loud and clear, because there's no separation to protect the princes from the underlings.
Even at the very summit of Prestige Mountain, there exists a clear distinction - the Bentley Azure looks just as unattainably expensive as the open-air Rolls-Royce, but in real life, its flash factor is literally dwarfed by the Phantom Drophead Coupé, which is eight inches longer and four inches taller. Although they occupy the same tiny niche, these two cars are almost antagonistic in character and build. The Rolls is BMW's interpretation of ultimate English luxury. It has German genes and an English tailor, which makes it cosmopolitan enough to attract a truly global clientele. The Azure - along with its donor car, the Arnage - is the last surviving descendant of olde England. It has emphatically British genes but was recently adopted by German parents, so this latest iteration is both uncommonly well put together and still absolutely timeless. Despite its classic radiator grille, the Rolls is the infinitely more modern automobile. Its aluminum spaceframe construction yields a curb weight of 5776 pounds, which undercuts the smaller Bentley by 165 pounds. Its air suspension gives a whole new meaning to the overused magic-carpet metaphor. Its normally aspirated V-12 engine epitomizes refinement and is actually more environmentally friendly than the twin-turbocharged, eight-pot Bentley powerplant. In terms of absolute performance, throttle response, and torque delivery, however, eight cylinders provide a much more intoxicating mixture than do twelve. The Bentley V-8 wins the sprint to 60 mph by a thin margin (5.6 versus 5.7 seconds, according to their makers). The V-8 also propels the Azure to a notably higher top speed (171 mph versus 149 mph), and its muscle is both more broad-shouldered (645 lb-ft of torque versus 531 lb-ft) and much more accessible (peaking at 1800 rpm versus 3500 rpm).
Together with the different vehicle architectures and chassis setups, these diverse engine personalities define the character of the two sun-worshipping chariots. The Bentley is for boys - a racer at heart, it has an itchy accelerator, an almost snappy six-speed transmission, and a voice that's more cloak-and-dagger than silk-and-velvet. The Rolls is for gentlemen - an almost noiseless gliding machine, it changes gears with a pause and with pursed cogs, and its nominally superior 453-hp (3 hp more than the Azure) powerplant prefers to produce more refinement instead of more grunt. While the Bentley is quicker over any autobahn or back road, it's also more old-fashioned in the way it handles and rides. Its steering feels meatier, always ready to tug in and fight the apex. Its suspension is more brittle, less compliant, and ultimately less well-behaved. Its roadholding capability lacks the casual excellence of the Rolls, which benefits from a longer wheelbase, a wider track, fatter twenty-one-inch wheels, and a control-arm suspension conceived this century. But the biggest dynamic asset of the Rolls is its steering. Although it may be a little light, its interest in the job far exceeds sheer politeness, and the car's turning circle feels Mini-like tight compared with the archaic, shiplike Azure's. Thus, despite its extra girth, the Rolls is quite unexpectedly a more relaxed downtown driver. It's easier to point, instantly assumes the appropriate flow of motion, and convincingly reclaims the world rights to the coveted term splendid isolation.
To some, this surprising degree of everyday usability makes the Roller better to drive - but there's more to the story. For instance, the brakes aren't as sharp and confidence-inspiring as the smaller rotors fitted to the Bentley. Directional stability is more subject to crosswinds and pavement grooves. And the depletion factor that haunts the rather small, twenty-one-gallon fuel tank melts credit cards even faster than the drinking habits of the Azure.