2001-2006 Mercedes-Benz S600 Sport and 1999-2005 Bentley Arnage Red Label

Scott Dahlquist

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.

Various Front Grill Views

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.

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