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Ragtop Ramble: Mercedes SL63 AMG vs. Aston Martin DB9 vs. Bentley Azure T

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  July 21, 2009 10:30 AM

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An Aston Martin DB9 Volante, Mercedes SL63 AMG, and Bentley Azure T take in the sun in front of the Lars Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline. (All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

The scene was straight out of a little boy's dream: 20 convertibles perched on a dew-covered lawn, paint and chrome glistening, and keys to all of them in a crumpled, mildly greasy Dunkin' Donuts bag.

With strawberry frosted doughnut in hand, I headed to the far left side of the Lars Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline last Friday, where several dozen auto writers and PR heads gathered for a drive of exotic proportions: a romp to Kennebunkport and back to test 2009's latest convertibles.

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There was nothing shabby about the middle and right sides — Corvette, Phantom Drophead, Viper, two Z4s, among others — but over here were three machines touted in $1,000-per-day enthusiast drives, fender-to-fender: a $146,000 SL63 AMG, $200,000 Aston Martin DB9 Volante, and the knight-worthy $400,000 Bentley Azure T. I left the museum in a $50,000 Infiniti G37 Convertible — not a bad starter by any consideration.

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Keith Griffin of About.com holds the bag of keys, which were selected at random.

Infiniti did a commendable job cutting the roof off the G37 (and creating a new one). Its rear haunches are appropriately flared, and the shoulder line stays low and tight like on the coupe. Trunk space is limited to crushable items only; a thin fabric flap separates the tiny cargo hold from the massive folding roof. Day trippers won’t mind, and will like how pleasant the G37 is at a highway cruise, with minimal wind buffeting and surprising audio clarity from the Bose speakers (with clever tweeters mounted on either side of both front headrests). I didn’t pay much else attention to the G37 as I did the matte white SL63 AMG trailing behind me. At a rest stop near the New Hampshire border on I-95, I bolted toward the Benz’s driver to beg for the keys in exchange for mine. Incredibly, he accepted.

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Now the MSRP has nearly tripled. Mercedes freshened up the SL for 2009, tweaking the front end for a more sinister appearance and throwing in a brand new AMG-tuned 6.2 liter V-8 good for 518 horsepower. From the ducted carbon fiber valence under the bumper and subtle lip spoiler above, it’s clear this SL isn’t content with boulevard cruiser status. The steering wheel is squared-off at the bottom, just like on the Lamborghini Gallardo, and the cockpit is serious business with its dark chocolate leather, steering wheel paddles and several buttons and knobs for extracting maximum volume from the quad tailpipes.

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My co-pilot Chris Naughton, Honda’s Northeast PR manager, plugs in his iPod. But Michael McDonald is soon drowned out by the AMG’s brutal torque as we’re followed by the DB9 and hairy-chested Viper. As I merge to the far left lane, I’m not sure what’s crazier – being passed at 80 miles per hour by a Viper with cameras suctioned onto its windshield, or my accidental engaging of the cruise control stalk as I’m reaching for the turn signals.

It’s incredibly easy to reach incarcerating speeds in these cars, and soon we’ve all settled down into a swift cruise. The SL63 coddles but demands subtle inputs. The steering rack is quick, and throaty downshifts in S+ mode send your head forward. While the brake pedal was a touch soft in initial travel, the big rotors delivered linear, smooth performance. After a jaunt in the SL63, it’s plain frightening to think of the twin-turbo V-12 SL65 AMG, and hard to justify that car’s equivalent premium of a G37 Convertible. The SL63’s delicate balance, incredibly responsive 7-speed automatic and muscle car soundtrack make it the marque’s most desirable car, at least until the SLS arrives.

When we reach the Maine border at another rest stop, it’s time again to swap keys. A group of young men walking from the bathrooms peep at us with point-and-shoot cameras, and don’t move until we’ve figured out how to start the Aston Martin and exit out of sight. It’s not the most intuitive push-button start. After popping out several times, we realized the key fob needed to be pushed and held into its center dash slot for at least two seconds. The fob, capped with a clear glass-like enclosure, blends into the dash so well that a few drivers, forgetting to take out the key, thought they had lost it altogether.

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Honda's Northeast PR manager Chris Naughton takes some photos of the Aston Martin DB9 Volante before the final stretch to Kennebunkport.

But once started and past the goofy P-R-N-D buttons spanning either side of the key slot (our own John Paul likened it to a 1962 Chrysler), the Aston delivered butter-smooth shifts from its paddle-shifted 6-speed automatic, no matter that the tachometer was spinning counter-clockwise. The DB9’s mission is quick speed without making a scene, unlike the raucous SL63. That means a very hushed exhaust tone at city speeds, which caused me to press the “N” button to light up Kennebunkport with some proper noise from the 6.0 liter, 470 horsepower V-12. On the highway, acceleration isn’t as violent as in the Benz, nor as visceral as the half-price Jaguar XKR Convertible, but the speed comes along just as easily, along with a racket of wind noise.

The other exotics in our fleet, however, can’t touch the DB9 on design. The way the doors swivel upwards several degrees, uncovering even more hand-stitched leather along the dashboard’s hidden sides, is just one treat. The arching single piece of wood (endangered and from Africa, hopefully) is stunning, as is the jewel-like design of the instrumentation and delectable 20-spoke wheels accenting a clean-cut body profile. Its performance is impressive, but as a whole the DB9 is too sedated. For pure beauty, the Aston has no equal.

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Car Talk's John Lawlor, right, talks to passengers in the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead.

It’s time to go ultra-snotty on the way back. Automobile Magazine’s Ezra Dyer has just left our surfside lunch spot, the Colony Hotel, in the back of the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead. So I head to the back of the Bentley Azure T, which aside from the Phantom (and perhaps the Continental GTC) is the only convertible on the market that can actually fit four actual adults. Legroom is generous, and the rear armrest easily holds small items like a digital camera snugly in place. Red leather covers everything, a perfect contrast to the layers and layers of silver paint on this Old World convertible.

The incredulous stares from passersby are as intense as the sun as Keith Griffin of About.com takes the helm through Kennebunkport. Sitting in the Azure unveils my inner New England snob, and before I know it my scalp is flat on the plush headrest, my right arm hanging off the Bentley’s flanks, and all of a sudden I’ve welded an iPhone and a popped collar. And I’m yawning, because the Azure is the world’s best mattress.

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The author attempts to look rich in the Bentley Azure T.

Soon Keith and I trade places, and he’s snoring in the front seat even in stop-and-go traffic on I-95 south. You can’t feel anything from the Azure’s suspension – even the worst of ruts don’t reach the cabin or upset its occupants. Braking and accelerating are akin to slathering whipped butter on a bagel. Passengers could assume the Azure isn’t built to hustle – it’s nearly three tons and the tachometer’s 500 r.p.m increments look straight off a bus – but when the driver leans on the gas, everyone gets thrown back by the V-8’s colossal 738 pound-feet of torque, enough to rush the Azure to 60 miles per hour in 5.2 seconds. It’s an effortless endeavor, and a very warped take on physics. But when you’re piloting a convertible worth the value of, say, a few dozen cars rushing past in the opposing highway lane, it’s entirely reasonable.

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The day’s winner was the Mercedes SL63 AMG. It doesn’t have the jaw-dropping presence of the Aston or Bentley, but offers the best combination of supermodel looks, supercar sound and speed, and a somewhat attainable price. Even if most people can’t tell the difference between SL trim levels, the AMG’s lucky driver won’t ever forget.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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26 comments so far...
  1. Is that a tomtom/garmin gps stuck to the windsheild in the Aston??? No factory nav on a 100K+ car? honestly, what could ugly up a beautiful car more than that? the factory couldn't have sent one with nav? huh. I'll take the SL please. Very nice..

    Posted by Cole Reamers July 21, 09 12:02 PM
  1. all rich toys for the rich boys...........

    Posted by LittleTimmy31 July 21, 09 12:56 PM
  1. You neglected to mention that the SL 63 pictured here is the IWC edition

    Posted by r July 21, 09 01:23 PM
  1. Re "The author attempts to look rich in the Bentley Azure T." Key word, attempts. Pretty funny! Sorry, Clifford.

    I am a member of the museum, how do I get in on a dream day like this? Let me guess, but not insulting the author? :-)

    Clearly some of the "experts" aren't anymore knowledgable than the rest of us. ;-)

    Posted by Marie July 21, 09 01:56 PM
  1. The new M.Benz SL63 is a car that I really had to get used to. At first glance it easily dethrones the Pontiac Aztek as the Ugliest Car in the World

    ....but looking at it a second time and throughly I can appreciate there is nothing like it. The one and only.

    The headlights do have an identity complex, sharp or round; how about both. If that is the only thing that changes in a future mid-generation refresh I would be happy. The new E-class lamps would fit nicely.

    Posted by Andy July 21, 09 02:13 PM
  1. not sure how anyone compares an aztec to an sl-anything - talk about a flare for the dramatic. the new SL's are beautiful, period.

    Posted by FJ July 21, 09 03:38 PM
  1. The unharmonious lines of the new SL are jolting but seeing as this is the new design laguage for many companies I have to either learn to like it or be left behind with classical styling I'm accustomed to.

    I'll have to visit the M.Benz site again and look it over more before totally trashing the thing. Did the designers do anything to the rear from the previous gen? It just seems like it was hit here and there with updates but not enough. Like two designers could not agree on something so they drew lines and one guy went avante garde and the other guy kept with traditional Benz styling.

    A car mentioned that is significantly cheaper but is virtually perfect inside and out is the newly redesigned Z4.


    Posted by Andy July 21, 09 05:17 PM
  1. I too do not like the styling of the sl63. It has me scratching my head. Compare it to any car and it comes up short. Take your pick, the Audi for example. Beautiful.

    Posted by scl July 21, 09 05:40 PM
  1. i'd do unforgivable things for an aston martin...not the most powerful or the best handling exotic, but man what a beautiful line of cars

    Posted by matt July 21, 09 07:20 PM
  1. But they're all automatics. What a travesty! Why? Is that because auto writers can't drive a stick?

    Posted by nick July 21, 09 10:03 PM
  1. No mention of the Audi R8, so was there an American car there anyone liked..those europeans have everything

    Posted by Niall July 22, 09 06:52 AM
  1. What a waist! And that called a Car Review!? Marie is right – experts are long gone.
    BTW - Absolutely agree with Cole Reamers about NAV in DB9

    Posted by etch July 22, 09 08:43 AM
  1. Nick, you mentioned stick shifts. Most of these high end cars come equipped with 'Formula 1' type paddle shifters (faster shifts than manuals). Audi introduced the first true automanual transmission with DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) a few years back and now everyone is trying to copy them!

    I am suprised they didn't even drive the Audi TTS Roadster. This car is much nicer than the BMW Z4!

    Posted by Paul July 22, 09 10:38 AM
  1. I think MB is having a bit of an identity crisis... round or sharp edges? I have an ML (new style) which is a lot more 'boxy' on the outside, as opposed to the previous generations rounded mini-van look, however the interior doesn't have a single angle in it. Everything is round or curved... strange, I'd like to see the angular look carry on to the interior... Like the SL and the new E class mentioned above, I think MB is easing into this new angular look... thinking the interiors will follow suit soon. Although if the new GLK is any example of MB interiors to come, I think I'll be re-thinking another MB. (or an aztek! kidding...).

    Posted by Cole Reamers July 22, 09 10:45 AM
  1. Gee, my favorite dream car. How about one that normal people can afford? That would be good.

    Why the Globe continues to write puff pieces that cater to the super-rich is beyond me. I think your average reader worries more about buying groceries this week than any of these toys.

    Posted by David M. July 22, 09 10:49 AM
  1. I love the Aston Martin. It's a great looking car. But I wouldn't turn down the Maserati Gran Turismo.

    By the way, why is that so many people have to be so negative about everything? Yeah, we all know that the cars are out of reach for all but the very wealthy. But that doesn't mean we can't appreciate the beauty of a finely crafted automobile. Plus, who knows, maybe I'll win the lottery.

    Posted by Jeff S July 22, 09 11:20 AM
  1. I'd take a Chevelle SS over any of these ego strokers any day.

    Posted by Kevin G July 22, 09 12:02 PM
  1. I looked at this piece again. And then noticed one of my pet peeves in the photo of the Bentley Azure T: What is it with people who put the tops of their convertibles down but leave the rear quarter window up?

    People, it looks DUMB! In the old days when you had to run around and crank the windows down I could almost understand someone putting the top down and then rolling just their window down - but with power windows, how hard is to put the rear window down too? Leave all or the front windows up for wind protection. But just putting front down while leaving the rear side window up so it is sitting out in the breeze all by itself doesn't do any good - and even looks vulunerable like that. Not to mention lazy. Dumb.

    Come on people most of these cars about style. Let's look like you have some!

    Wait, wait. Ok, taking a deep breath now. I am calming down after taking that chill pill... Now, back to your regularly scheduled debate on Mercedes Benz mixed message styling of the SL where they angled up the front and left the rear all soft. I did like the original, more feminine styling, of the 2003+ SL better even though I thought it was a little plain when it first came out. Don't get me started on the CL.

    Posted by Marie July 22, 09 12:17 PM
  1. all while people are losing jobs left and right...way to have our priorities in order

    Posted by are you kidding me... July 22, 09 12:33 PM
  1. Why do we buy car magazines?
    To look at the pretty cars we will never be able to afford. The better mags have large, high difinition pictures of details, interiors and behind the scenes mechanicals. It feeds your curiosity and may spark inspiration.

    The priorities are just that. This, now this is indulgence. And its OK. Really.

    Did Audi make an R8 convertible yet? I did hear one was eventually going to be created. Too with the Maserati Gran Tourismo, convertible?

    On a vacation to Puerto Rico I saw my first Mercedes Benz SL roadster (2003-08 styling). It was a luminescent pale gold and it was stunning. The "Wolverine" claws on the sides and hood were striking too. I don't see them on the new one. Bummer.

    Posted by Andy July 22, 09 01:33 PM
  1. In Cliff's defense, he could only drive four convertibles. The Z4 (as well as the M3 and the Audi TTS) were there, but he wasn't able to get in them. Heck, he did a great job wrangling the cars he did. Maybe he'll get wheel time with that TTS down the road. And, I don't consider the Mazda6 a car for the super rich, does anybody else? Let the guy have some fun!

    Posted by Keith July 22, 09 04:09 PM
  1. Man, only Kennebunkport? I want to see if these things can handle real Maine roads. Next time, let's see the review of how they feel on Route 139 through Brooks, or 230 through Trenton. At the speed limit or more, please. Maybe even for the truly courageous, take the $100K cars for a spin across Maine on the Realty Road starting up in Ashland (anyone who has been out on these roads should get what I'm talking about). That would make for far more interesting material than the interstate.

    Posted by singletrack July 22, 09 04:33 PM
  1. There is Navigation in the DB9 - you can see the door for it. Not sure why the author wasn't using it !!

    Posted by RM July 22, 09 04:54 PM
  1. ALL Astons have a flip up nav screen. Its that square cut into the top of the dash. No idea why it wasn't being used because like the first commentor said that clunky thing on the screen shatters the look of the car. I would do almost anything for that Aston, or the V-8 Vantage, which is just as beautiful for half the price.

    Posted by Shaun July 23, 09 12:50 AM
  1. To LittleTimmy31, David M, and especially areyoukidding me: RELAX already. Unclench a bit before you hurt yourselves.
    What's wrong with reading about cars that you'll probably never drive? You (alright, most of us) WANT to drive them, and this is the next best thing - living vicariously through the author.
    And, "kidding", stop whining about people losing their jobs and comparing it to this article, who CARES? I'm laid off. Been that way for 6 months now, and I don't have a problem with this article. It's about the car, not the economy.

    Oh - and etch: it's "waste", not "waist".

    Posted by Crowlz July 24, 09 01:01 PM
  1. These fancy cars debut a lot of the new technology that will be in every car in a few years. In computers there are always people who have to have the latest and greatest. It's the same with cars. They pay more and they fund the development of this tech as it trickles downward into cheaper cars.

    It used to be that only fancy expensive cars had ABS and traction control, now these features are available in almost any car.

    The R&D that goes into your next car is funded by rich people when they buy these magnificent vehicles.

    Posted by F August 5, 09 03:47 AM
 

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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