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.
The Drophead Coupé, designed by Ian Cameron, retains not only all the Phantom's key styling elements but also its dinosaur proportions. Since the marketing department won't have it any other way, the trademark rear-hinged doors are part of the package, too. They may facilitate entry to the rear bench, but they're useless for any other purpose than the effect they have on bystanders. Since the doors are nearly impossible to close from the front seats, they're motorized and obey the push of a button. Quite frankly, the whole exercise is more comic than clever. Another dubious novelty is the trunk lid, which is split horizontally, Range Rover-style. Apparently, this arrangement encourages owners to stage tailgate parties, so you'll need a big champagne cooler and a ghetto blaster by Bowers & Wilkins. As every proper land yacht should, the Roller proudly displays maritime details such as an oiled teak rear deck, a timber dashboard, and sisal floor mats immune to that brief spring shower. Compared with the olde-worlde Bentley, the Drophead Coupé features a thoroughly modern cockpit peppered with retro touches such as a thin-rimmed steering wheel, a battery of rocker switches, and thumbwheel A/C controls. Miscues include a silly power-reserve gauge, fiddly seat adjusters, and prominent fixed quarter windows.
The Azure is everything you would want a Bentley to be, and more. More, as in deep-pile carpets, black on cream instrument faces, mirror-finish high-gloss wood, plus acres of the most elaborate leather. What you won't find in either vehicle is a wind deflector. That's bad news for back-seat passengers, whose wigs are rendered worthless as soon as the roof whirs open and the cyclone starts blowing. In the Bentley, the driver and the front-seat passenger sit low enough to weather the worst without needing a bottle of extra-hold hair spray, but in the Phantom, even the front thrones are subject to serious turbulence. In both cases, raising the side windows helps, but that mars the ultra-sleek looks. When erect, both tops create blind spots big enough to conceal a semi or two, so the available rearview camera is an excellent idea. Although each cruiser can be equipped with most modern conveniences, the Azure is let down by a prehistoric navigation system, a tilt-only steering column, and rather basic seats that can heat but don't chill.
A three-fifths-scale version of the Phantom would be the perfect plaything for the extrovert elite, but the full-size edition almost needs its own planet - or at least its own estate - to feel at home. Although one eventually be-comes almost immune to the obvious vulnerability of these mighty machines, the Rolls in particular simply hates parking structures (too narrow), parking meters (one isn't enough), valet parking (could we please see the insurance terms?), and even standard-size garages (leave the garage door open!). Finding a safe spot for the Bentley isn't easy, either, but at least the Azure doesn't have to shop at Big & Tall for road space. It still belongs to this world, if only just. Seen in isolation, it epitomizes grandeur, but next to the Phantom, it loses a few carats of sparkle, perhaps for the better. Speaking of carats, we mustn't forget to mention that the blue car costs about $75,000 more than the gunmetal gray one. No big deal in these circles, perhaps, but in real life, that's enough to buy a Porsche 911.
Mobility doesn't come on a grander, greater, and more glorious scale than a Rolls or a Bentley in open-top form. The spotlight that goes with this formula may not suit everyone's taste or wallet, but it's almost impossible not to be smitten by the rare quality of craftsmanship and by the custom build process that takes personalization to a new level. I caught myself sitting in the Bentley in the late afternoon sun, relishing the perfume of the leather, touching the cold chrome of the organ-stop vents, occasionally registering a faint crackle from under the long hood. Then I jumped into the Phantom, which welcomed me with a whiff of sisal followed by the scent of freshly oiled timber, rounded off by the distant ticking of a clock.
Picking a winner here is almost like choosing one piece of art over another. But personal preference favors the Bentley, mainly because the last thing my six-foot, eight-inch frame needs is enhanced visibility. Others may find the Rolls-Royce a better match. Both cars ooze pure indulgence and unrestricted extravagance. Nonetheless, the chosen few who waft down the road in one of Britain's brashest behemoths breathe exactly the same air as the guy in his Porsche Boxster or the gal in her Mazda Miata. Only that air might be half a degree warmer, since it has traveled over a significantly longer hood.