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

Scott Dahlquist
Front Dashboard View

No one would expect that the Bentley could keep pace with the Benz on a road like Highway 1, but we forget that the Arnage is not an antique. It was essentially all new upon its introduction in 1999, a symbol of a promising new relationship with BMW and a statement by the Bentley engineers that they knew a little something about good handling. So the Arnage has computer-controlled adjustable dampers, traction control, automatic ride-height control, and hydroplaning detection, not to mention massive brakes and big, big Pirelli P Zero tires. The Arnage also has been engineered in Britain, a country where narrow, bumpy country lanes are a daily experience and every car needs accurate steering, lots of suspension travel, and dependable handling. The Arnage is utterly delightful to drive quickly on a winding road. Of course, it's tall and relatively soft in roll, so the body leans more than Americans are used to. But it will haul the mail. At the same time, this car's enormous weight always can be felt through the controls. You have to remember that the driver does business here in strictly an advisory capacity, and some real learning is required before so much weight can be balanced during braking and cornering.

The S-class is certainly a design breakthrough for Mercedes. The sweep of its bodywork and the detailing of the lights bring a new warmth to the cars of Stuttgart. The interior is especially interesting, as the style and presentation have a soft, almost Italian look. This is a very successful attempt to soften the edges of the traditional, austere Mercedes style, a lesson learned from Lexus, we think.

Front Dashboard View

The car itself also reflects lessons learned from Lexus, because it always manages to be luxurious as well as capable. At the same time, there's no diminishment in its utility, as the broad door openings, expansive rear-seat area, and driving dynamics prove. This is a car that you can live with on a daily basis, a car that adapts easily to any automotive task. It is, of course, always clear that you are driving a car with everything on it, for the traditional German approach to luxury has been to add features and technology. Everywhere you look, the Benz is doing something for you--guiding you to your destination, keeping the air temperature comfortable, reclining your seat, and both opening and closing the trunk lid for you.

The Bentley looks as if it's from another age than the Mercedes. The enormous, flat-faced grille and platter-size headlights remind us of Bentley's victories at Le Mans, and, although those triumphs are beyond the recall of living memory, the Bentley's face is as classically familiar to us as a martini glass. The Arnage's bodywork, swept by the wind like a Gordon Crosby illustration from the 1930s, lives up to this standard, while the interior's leather and chrome evoke the atmosphere of a British clubroom. And the view over the magisterial hood makes driving an occasion.

The Bentley also has an unmatchable aura of exclusivity that surprises even us. This is partly a function of its English style, a combination of soft luxury and refined sophistication that car companies around the world have been trying to imitate with a conspicuous lack of success. It's partly the statement the Bentley makes, an expression of pride that's almost a boast. And it's partly the Arnage's ability to back up its imagery with a driving experience that is at once different and relevant.

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