Bentley Flying Spur W12 vs. Mercedes-Benz S550 4Matic

EXTROVERT: Should you have the bank account, you may choose to drive this Bentley (right), a one-percenter car that says you’ve arrived.  INTROVERT: Well, hardly. But this Mercedes-Benz S550 (left) is a car that is comparatively affordable and equally elegant.
EXTROVERT: Should you have the bank account, you may choose to drive this Bentley (right), a one-percenter car that says you’ve arrived. INTROVERT: Well, hardly. But this Mercedes-Benz S550 (left) is a car that is comparatively affordable and equally elegant.
Bentley/Mercedes-Benz

Over the course of two weeks this summer, I had the good fortune to sample two of the most exclusive executive sedans in the marketplace today: the 2014 Bentley Flying Spur W12 and the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550. How do two cars that cost more than my first 1,500 square foot garrison colonial in MetroWest handle the rigors of a daily commute? Let’s find out, shall we?

First up was the Bentley. I’ll admit that like many one-percenters, I own a swimming pool in the suburbs. But unlike Mitt Romney, I have to clean it myself. After the worst winter in recent memory, I lifted the enormous blue tarp off my pool and glumly looked at a body of water as green as the cash stuffed inside Edward Johnson III’s mattress. I headed off to Village Pool to buy 25 gallons of chlorine.

The first really impressive thing about the Bentley—aside from the idea that THERE’S A BENTLEY IN THE DRIVEWAY—is the incredible size of the trunk. I’ve driven more than 50 new cars a year for the last 15 years and I can’t remember a vehicle with such an enormous boot. Where the Robert Krafts of the world would pack that yawning orifice with golf bags or the souls of other football team owners, I was shocked to learn that I could haul at least seven five-gallon containers of chlorine before I reached the maximum 16.6 cubic feet.

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I had a chance to sample the Flying Spur W12′s long legs on a trip to New Hampshire. There is something significant to be said for a 616hp, twin turbocharged W12 that’s capable of rocketing a 5,445 pound gentleman’s club to 60 miles an hour in 4.3 seconds. At one point over the weekend, somebody asked me what its maximum speed was. I took an educated guess at 175. Wrong. It’s electronically limited to 200mph. Two. Hundred. Miles per hour.

At $230,000, this is an entry-level Bentley. It’s a hundred thousand dollars more than the Mercedes-Benz S550. These two cars that are priced so far apart you could put two more cars— NICE cars—between them. Yet, they’re shockingly similar, and in many ways, the Mercedes-Benz is a better car. How does that happen? Where’s the hundred grand? We’ll get to that in a minute.

Instead of the Bentley’s W12, the Mercedes-Benz makes use of a twin-turbocharged V8 which generates 449 hp. Six fewer cylinders, 167 fewer horsepower than the Bentley. Yet, it gets up to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, just a half-second slower than the Flying Spur. Where the Flying Spur’s 167 additional horsepower will blast a gigantic hole in the air and get you to 200 mph, the Mercedes-Benz tops out at 130 mph, so if you’re regularly traveling at 130-plus—and really, who isn’t these days?—the Bentley has the edge.

Both the Flying Spur and the S550 are all-wheel drive, though Mercedes-Benz sells a less-expensive version of the S550 without its 4Matic all-wheel drive system, starting at $93,000. There are some differences in the transmissions, too, though both manage to shift imperceptibly. The Mercedes-Benz uses seven gears, the Bentley uses eight, presumably to scratch its way toward its double-ton top speed.

Fuel economy is dismal in the Bentley at 12mpg city, 20 on the highway. The Mercedes-Benz isn’t much better at 15 mpg city and 25 on the highway. This may serve as some indication as to why Tesla manages to sell 2,500 cars a month while luxury car manufacturers are experiencing hardly any gains at all at the top end.

I was hoping for the kind of ride that Steve Allen used to get while playing a keyboard in those Lincoln Continental commercials from the 1980s, but in the Bentley, the ride can be surprisingly harsh, thanks in part to 21-inch alloy wheels at the corners. The Mercedes-Benz is magic carpet smooth, stiffened up a bit by selecting the sport suspension setting.

The S550 also has a feature called—no joke—Magic Body Control that uses the car’s twin cameras to see bumps and react to them long before the car runs over them. At up to about 30 miles per hour, the car simply floats over everything—road irregularities, speed bumps, your neighbor—EVERYTHING without disturbing your ride to work. It’s pretty amazing.

It’s that kind of advanced technology that really puts the Mercedes-Benz in a completely different league than the Bentley, for $100,000 less. Another example is the massaging seats. Both cars allow all four passengers to experience the…pleasure? weirdness?...of one of those massages you get out of those chairs they sell out in front of Brookstone. But the Mercedes-Benz doubles down and provides active seat bolsters that firm up when you round a corner. Swing hard to the left and the right bolster actively hugs you tight to the seat. Turn hard right, and the left bolster gets in on the action. It’s really disconcerting at first, but within 10 minutes, you start looking forward to it.

So the Mercedes-Benz has the drop on the Bentley in terms of equipment, road manners, overall luxury inside. What’s up with the Bentley’s $230,000 price tag? Is a half-second quicker to 60, and a top speed of 200mph really worth the extra money?

What you get for $230,000 in the Bentley that you don’t get in a $130,000 Mercedes-Benz is the recognition that you are, in fact, driving a Bentley. Every car that passed on the highway contained at least one passenger craning his neck to see who was driving it. Parking it anywhere from the Ocean State Job Lot to Mexico City Taqueria was an event, resulting in sidelong glances, double-takes and full-on, open-mouthed stares. The Mercedes-Benz didn’t even merit a glance.

So the $100,000 question is, are you the kind of driver who craves attention, or are you content to fly under the radar?