Editor's Note: This is the first of eight automotive fantasies from our November 2013 print issue. We'll be publishing the fantasies over the next few weeks on automobilemag.com. Look for the issue on newsstands soon or download our iPad issue on September 26th to read them all.
Imagine if you were invited to escort the two most alluring models from the display stands of the Geneva auto show for a weekend in the Alps. It would be the privilege of a lifetime to be in the company of such physical grace, commanding intelligence, and breathtaking style. Instead of models, we spent a weekend with two cars, but it was every bit as good.
Just as the women on the display stands of auto shows around the globe invariably share a similar immaculate physique, so do the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta and the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series share a certain DNA. Years of automotive-style natural selection have arrived at a formula for the grand touring car, a personal vehicle in which two people might travel great distances at great speed in great comfort. As we walked around the F12 and the SLS in a courtyard in Bavaria, we saw the similarities between the two cars: high-performance front-mounted engine; dual-clutch seven-speed automatic transaxle; expensive carbon-ceramic brakes; and high-style aluminum-intensive bodywork. Yet there are differences as well: while the mighty Ferrari V-12 makes 109 hp more than the AMG V-8, the Mercedes has sleeker bodywork and a price that's $45,000 lower.
If you were comparing these exclusive cars from Maranello and Affalterbach with a stopwatch, the Ferrari F12 would have a slight edge over the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series. But just as if we were magically in the company of those alluring models, what really matters are the intangibles -- things like character and style, adaptability and balance, response and cooperation. We considered testing these cars on a fast racetrack, but instead a late-summer loop across the Alps from Bavaria through Tyrol to northern Italy seemed more appropriate. After three days and 867 miles, we have a favorite.
Even with 1353 hp at our command, reality intruded as our fantasy adventure began. First, there was the inevitable holiday traffic. Then there were the stops for fuel, as these two beasts gulp gasoline at a ferocious rate. After only 200 miles, the red warning light in the Ferrari called for a refill, and the Mercedes was almost equally thirsty. When we drove the way these cars beg to be driven, the F12's 6.3-liter V-12 would give us 8 mpg, while the SLS Black Series' 6.2-liter V-8 would deliver 9 mpg. When we observed the nearly ubiquitous 81-mph speed limit, the Ferrari improved to 15 mpg and the Mercedes did 17 mpg. These are the inevitable consequences of a Ferrari V-12 that makes 731 hp at 8250 rpm and 509 lb-ft of torque at 6000 rpm in tandem with an AMG V-8 that gives you 622 hp at 7400 rpm and 468 lb-ft at 5500 rpm.
While the Kacher boys, who had to be pulled out of these addictive grand tourers with force, pumped fuel, we took a longer look at these cars. The SLS AMG Black Series has been inspired by the GT3 version now competing in sports car racing, and it shows in the pricey aero kit that includes a deep front air dam with carbon-fiber dive planes at its edges, an elaborate rear diffuser, and a precarious rear wing. Although the presentation is about as subtle as a Lady Gaga video, it significantly enhances cornering grip.
The Black Series loathes curbs, speed bumps, and narrow lanes in parking structures, but as soon as you hit the open road, its dimensions seem to shrink and visibility is no longer an issue. The trunk is very small at 6.2 cubic feet, so your fantasy companion on a long trip should know how to pack lightly. Ferrari apparently better understands the kind of wardrobe it takes to get a person of style through a long weekend, because the F12's trunk measures 11.3 cubic feet.
Compared with the Black Series, the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta doesn't need provocative livery to make its statement. The F12 looks butch enough for a supercar, yet it is strikingly chic and is even more space-efficient than the larger Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano it replaces.
Thanks to clever aerodynamics that incorporate subtle ducts and scoops, the F12 generates almost twice as much downforce at 125 mph as its predecessor, even without a rear spoiler. When the F12 is driven at the limit from the top of a mountain to the bottom of a valley, two flaps in the front air dam open to direct cooling air to the brakes. Meanwhile, the short tail and the rear diffuser clean up rear air turbulence to help deliver impeccable directional stability at speed. By installing the engine aft of the front axle, the engineers have secured a weight distribution of 46/54 percent front/rear, comparable to the balance that makes the mid-engine Ferrari 458 Italia so responsive to directional changes.
Top speed really matters here in Europe, since civilian sedans typically cruise the high-speed highways at 125 mph. The Black Series with its 622-hp V-8 can reach 196 mph, although ironically this is 1 mph slower than the lesser SLS models due to the Black's numerically higher final-drive ratio for motorsport-spec acceleration away from corners. The AMG-engineered 6208-cc V-8 has a free-flowing intake system, hotter camshaft profiles, and a revised valvetrain to help boost output by 39 hp, although torque declines 11 lb-ft, to 468 lb-ft. The Ferrari F12's 6262-cc V-12 makes 731 hp, enough to carry it past 211 mph. The sprint to 200 kph (124 mph) is a memorable event of 8.5 seconds. In the Merc, the exercise takes about two seconds longer, but it keeps up with the Ferrari from there to 160 mph. We never saw more than 180 mph in either vehicle because of traffic or weather, so side-by-side speed tests were a dead heat most of the time. The AMG was always noisier and more nervous, though.
Both of these cars feature dual-clutch seven-speed automatic transaxles from Getrag, but different programming applies. The Benz permits you to choose from four shift programs: Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus, and Manual. The Ferrari offers a choice of five settings from the manettino switch on the steering wheel: Wet, Sport, Race, traction control off, and stability control off.
The Ferrari's transmission really begs you to put the car through its paces, as the large, smooth shift paddles change ratios with superquick urge, and the gearing precisely matches the torque curve. Forget automatic mode, since it is slow to respond, reluctant to downshift, clumsy, and even ill-timed. If you prefer to let a transmission do the thinking for you, go right to the Mercedes. Its Sport Plus mode is so good at faking engine orgasm between ratios that you'll never touch the shift paddles. Sure, the action is completely electronic, but the perfectly timed engine misfire when you lift off the gas pedal, the angry blat-blat from the V-8 (which mimics heel-and-toe downshifts), and then the kick from the clutch engagement during foot-to-the-floor upshifts will all get under your skin.
After weaving our way through the metal maze on the A8 highway from Munich to Innsbruck, and after then meandering through a cycling contest all the way to the end of an idyllic green snake better known as Ötztal Valley, the time finally came to let the F12 and the SLS loose. On the approach to the Timmelsjoch summit, light drizzle set the scene for a waltz through no fewer than eight second-gear hairpins with a panoramic view of the valley.
With the transmission in Sport mode, the 3710-pound SLS Black Series will scramble for traction because it wears Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s with treads shaved down to semislick, race-ready depth. It's crucial to warm up all four tires; otherwise, the gripless fronts will understeer you into oblivion. The 4003-pound Ferrari is better prepared for these treacherous conditions. Its own Michelin Pilot Super Sport road tires hang on longer, power oversteer is less pronounced, and there's a confidence-inspiring creaminess in the predictable way the tires break away at the limit of grip. Both cars have limited-slip differentials with the ability to electronically vector torque from one side of the car to the other.
If it were off-season for tourists, we would have crisscrossed south through the Dolomites, where the map beckons you to legendary passes like Stelvio, Pordoi, Rolle, and Falzarego. But with the whole of Italy taking three weeks off, it was wiser to divert to more remote twisties such as the Altopiano dei Sette Comuni and the Catena del Lagorai. Here, where the asphalt seems to date back to Hannibal and his elephant entourage, the roads are barely wide enough for two vintage Fiat 500s, and the ancient route winds through the majestic mountains like a monumental gray serpent.
The Ferrari feels at home in this habitat despite the constrained straightaways. Its steering is quicker than that of the Benz by a full half turn of the wheel, the turning circle is marginally tighter, and the 107.1-inch wheelbase (longer than that of the Benz by 1.6 inches) leads to less chassis squirming in the corners. Redlined at 8500 rpm, the 65-degree Ferrari V-12 produces more power than the 90-degree Benz V-8 can manage before it signs off at 8000 rpm, and the V-12 also unexpectedly serves a slightly larger portion of grunt at low- to mid-range rpm.
To qualify for the badge of a Black Series, the big, bad Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG has received a more muscular setup for its chassis, including two-stage dampening, a stiffer front antiroll bar for quicker steering response, tighter bushings, lightweight wheels, a different assist profile for the steering, and special tires. This recipe works wonders on a racing circuit, but it is not entirely ideal for the real world, in which the road has ridges, dips, potholes, cattle guards, and railway crossings.
Whereas the SLS driver can adjust the suspension calibration from sadistic (Sport) to masochistic (Sport Plus), the F12 driver can summon heavenly comfort simply by engaging the button for the damper setting on the steering wheel. No matter to which position the manettino might be set, this puts the suspension in its softest calibration. This useful setting does not mean soft and wobbly but instead more progressive and stable. Where the SLS Black goes through crash-bang-wallop motions like a racing car, the Ferrari uses more wheel travel and body movement to absorb the punishment from the pavement.
Germany is autobahn paradise and Austria is a picture postcard, but Italy is friendly to fast cars. When you get stopped by a policewoman for delving into triple-digit territory on a rural highway, she asks, "Which car wins?" Although the Italian economy is deep in the doldrums, the love for beautiful exotic cars hasn't waned, so the sound of an angry Ferrari engine still draws a crowd even in the middle of nowhere. The V-12 is vocal at idle, then vibrantly baritone as it fills its lungs with intake air, and, finally, ferociously noisy when the optional LED-type rev counter in the upper arc of the steering wheel illuminates its entire range. Since the 6.2-liter V-8 in the SLS AMG Black Series received its acoustic certification in Stuttgart instead of Sicily, it is not as expressive when it revs up, but it does have a dark and evil voice, as Teutonic thunder and roar are accompanied by Italian bawl and bellow.
Where the great green amphitheaters below the alpine passes open up and the wide plains begin to spread their colorful blanket of crops and pastures, the cool mountain air fuses with a heavier warmth that pushes northward from the Adriatic Sea. We headed for Vicenza, now traveling on much smoother roads. One of the lucky Kacher sons -- Max, 23, or Sebastian, 29 -- led the way in the F12. Monitored from the Mercedes close behind, the Ferrari looked absolutely invincible as it weaved through the ubiquitous Fiat Ducato vans, Piaggio Ape tricycles, and assorted minicars with the ease of a chariot pulled by 731 horses. But every time the young eyes checked the rearview mirror (we love this part), the father's face loomed large at the wheel of the silver bullet. Here, there's no doubt that the broad-shouldered SLS Black can keep up with its red rival. While the F12 won't shine unless whipped through the transmission ratios by the keyboard at your fingertips, all it takes for the Benz to play grandmaster is a firm stab at the throttle.
Miraculously, the autostrada from Piovene Rocchette to Vicenza was as deserted as a Walmart parking lot at midnight. But this short, twenty-mile stretch to the busy A4 turned out to be a rough bit of blacktop with yawning expansion joints, deep anti-hydroplaning grooves, and a glistening surface polished by too many summer suns. The SLS made a bid for the front in a third-gear on-ramp but struggled to maintain its composure. While the front end bit the pavement, turned in, and followed a slightly ragged line drawn by many tired slabs of concrete, the rear end rolled and yawed in protest. Despite wide wheels and tires (wider at the rear than the front), the Benz drifted away from the optimal cornering arc. The chassis is just not compliant enough to work with the driver on such a rough surface, and there's too much excitement for body and mind. Herr Benz is a little portly, has heavy steering, and is quite proud of his muscle-building brakes.
Meanwhile, la macchina rossa irons out these idiosyncrasies in the road surface with remarkable grandezza. It is a wiry, light-footed swordsman with quick reflexes and easy yet precise handling. The F12's steering did feel a little light to us after three days on the road, and the hyper-sensitive brakes bite so venomously that every deceleration has a dash of emergency action. On the other hand, the Ferrari feels more maneuverable than its dimensions suggest, and its responses are sharp, like a proper sports car rather than laid-back like a GT.
Time to prepare for the final stop, so we let the sizzling engines cool down, silenced the Ferrari's crackling brakes, and put the Benz's poltergeist suspension to rest. During an extended aperitivo and then over a rustic dinner washed down with local amarone, the Kacher clan discussed, disagreed, and decided. As the grappa finally arrived at the end of the meal, the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta had edged the Mercedes-Benz SLS Black Series into defeat, and here is why.
The Ferrari goes faster and rides better. It has a softer edge, yet its performance, roadholding, and handling remain hard-core. On the debit side, the infotainment is not up to date, the transmission programming needs more sparkle in automatic mode, and a smooth getaway from a stop and a fluid crawling pace are not a forte.
The Mercedes-Benz has many of the same transmission issues as the Ferrari (managing the durability of a dual-clutch design matched with so much horsepower is very difficult), yet its gearbox software works better. The chassis is perfectly entertaining at the limit as the steering, the brakes, and the suspension form a cohesive whole. Nevertheless, this race-calibrated car is too harshly sprung and dampened to be a great road car, and it fights a bit when it is pushed hard.
So go ahead and buy that Ferrari F12 Berlinetta. It will take two people as far as your gas card can carry you, and if you just happen to be in Geneva at auto-show time, there's no telling what might happen.
Ferrari F12 Berlinetta
|Engine:||48-valve DOHC V-12|
|Displacement:||6.3 liters (382 cu in)|
|Horsepower:||731 hp @ 8250 rpm|
|Torque:||509 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm|
|L x W x H:||181.8 x 76.5 x 50.1 in|
|Track F/R:||65.6/63.7 in|
|EPA Mileage:||11/16 mpg|
|0-60 mph:||3.6 sec|
|Top Speed:||211 mph|
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series
|Engine:||32-valve DOHC V-8|
|Displacement:||6.2 liters (379 cu in)|
|Horsepower:||622 hp @ 7400 rpm|
|Torque:||468 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm|
|L x W x H:||182.9 x 77.8 x 49.7 in|
|Track F/R:||67.0/66.0 in|
|EPA Mileage:||13/17 mpg|
|0-60 mph:||3.2 sec|
|Top Speed:||196 mph|