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

Scott Dahlquist
Full Front Grill View

The Bentley also has terrific down-the-road ability, a function of its terrific weight--there's nothing like 5557 pounds to iron out the bumps. The Arnage covers the ground with an unyielding, locomotive-like surge that's like nothing else you have ever experienced. While it is fashionably modern to pay homage to light weight, a low polar moment of inertia, and a low center of gravity, these aren't necessarily the right priorities for straight-line travel. The Red Label's turbocharged, 6.8-liter OHV V-8, with 400 horsepower and 616 pound-feet of torque, will reach 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, and the intercooler and transient boost control ensure that there's always plenty of midrange power.

Night driving also makes you appreciate a car's interior--the layout of the controls and the functional aspects of the features. Unfortunately, both of these cars have troubled tales to tell. The Bentley's retro-style point-source lighting for its bank of instruments makes the parchment-colored dials largely unreadable. And the overhead pin light that casts a night-friendly red glow on the center console doesn't make it any easier to find all the switches and controls (even the window controls aren't lighted, for gosh sakes). It's all summed up by the Bentley's navigation system, which is better than the Benz's system in display, map detail, and ease of use. But the flat screen levitates into view from out of the top of the dashboard, like a plastic Jesus, and it's so far away that you have to operate the system with a remote handset.

Full Front Grill View

The S600 feels reassuringly familiar in comparison, and yet night driving in the Benz makes you realize just how bewildering is the vast keyboard of buttons and knobs across the dash--like a cross between a Wurlitzer organ and the flight deck of a Boeing 747. Why do you push down on the rocker switch for the door locks in order to make the lock buttons pop up? We think there's just something about buttons that eludes German designers.

When you wake up in San Simeon, you first check the weather, because thick fog frequently rolls off the ocean, especially in the late spring and summer. We were lucky to find the castle well in view on its 1600-foot hill. This was a remote spot in the 1870s when William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) first came here as a boy and camped with his father, who had made the family fortune in Nevada silver mines. It was still lonely when Hearst began to build the "Ranch" in 1919 and eventually expanded his land holdings to 250,000 acres. And even though it's adjacent to California's famous Highway 1, Hearst Castle is still far off the beaten track. Except between July and September, the high season of motorhomes, you can drive from the nearby resort town of Cambria all the way to Big Sur and be little troubled by traffic.

At this sort of driving, the S600 excels. It offers every electronic driving aid the Mercedes-Benz engineers have been able to devise. There are anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, and skid control--and these are just the features that provide a safety net if things should happen to go wrong. One electronic device that affects your driving every moment is Active Body Control (ABC), a combination of conventional and semi-active suspension components for optimal wheel control and a proactive reduction in body pitch and roll. Some-times ABC feels as if it snubs the suspension up short and calculates things according to an in-flight turn-and-bank indicator, but it's generally unnoticeable and very effective. ABC simply expands the parameters of normality, so the S600 always feels normal, whether you're driving 50 mph or 100 mph. As a result, you can pick this car up by the scruff of its neck and really drive it, and that's not something every luxury car will permit.

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