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Power quartet: Ferrari California, Bentley Supersports, Mercedes SL63, BMW M3

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  September 8, 2010 02:10 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

The Ferrari California would rather cruise than attack a track.

To Europeans, the summer vacation isn't a way to blow off work. It's a vital human right.

You may remember that in April, the European Union, which forces employers to give out four weeks minimum, considered offering subsidized vacations to countrymen who couldn't afford a holiday in Barcelona or a hiking trip in the Swiss Alps.

I haven't gone anywhere this summer, and probably couldn't afford it, either. So instead of watching a DVD box set of Rick Steves, I was subsidized with four of Europe's fastest convertibles: the Mercedes SL63 AMG, BMW M3, Ferrari California, and Bentley Continental Supersports.

This is the European summer I've always pictured: good weather, beautiful roads, and cars beyond reach of the middle class. Even Glenn Beck can't hate this brand of socialism.

Not that it was perfect. I live in Boston, not Barcelona, where the potholed roads make meals of the large rims and low-profile rubber on exotic cars. Massachusetts, as a rule, won't fix these roads until a sinkhole rips through an interstate bridge (in August, that was twice in one week). Then there are the drivers, whose fickle wheel-flicking and seven-car tailgating chains are impressively frightening. I'm on edge when I take out the $77,000 BMW, but I'm reassured that if these idiots hit the Bentley, I'll be taking their houses.

Like any continental sojourn, my travel expenses ballooned: $414 of premium gas, curbside valet parking, and a car cover to duck the morning droppings from those cute little finches above my driveway. All four cars averaged about 11 mpg, no matter their weights or engine sizes. The Ferrari didn't last 24 hours without a refill.

The number 414 is also the minimum horsepower rating from each of these insane motors. That the M3 makes you work for every pound of thrust — there's only 295 lb.-ft of it, and horsepower peaks at a dizzy 8,300 rpm — it's not hard to reach. This 4.0-liter V-8 revs harder and faster than Ferrari's 4.5-liter, and when the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission is set to kill mode — one of five shift settings — you best stay on the gas. Should you back off in the middle of an aggressive launch, you'll bruise a few vertebrae.

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The California, introduced in late 2008, offers the kind of refinement you'd find in a Mercedes SL. It's the first front-engine Ferrari with a V-8 instead of a V-12, and the first Ferrari convertible with a folding hardtop. It's a softer, plusher alternative to the steroidal 458 Italia, but the crackling upshifts, race car controls, and price-gouging dealerships let you know it's a real Ferrari.

What of the German SL? In 56 years, Mercedes has refreshed this two-seater but five times. But it's not outdated or outclassed, despite the current model's 2003 vintage and 2008 facelift. There are two AMG SLs — this 518-horsepower SL63 or a twin-turbo V-12 SL65 — though the cheaper, lighter 63 is the better car, thanks to its newer 7-speed automatic and naturally-aspirated engine. It's a solid chunk of a convertible, and the glass-topped metal roof lets in the entire sky while sealing out almost all road noise. When I first tried the SL63 last summer and pitted it against the Aston Martin DB9 and Bentley Azure T for a day, the Benz won. Think of it as a discounted SLS you can order right away — nearly as fast, pretty, and certainly more comfortable.

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Driving the Supersports is like piloting a giant subwoofer. The twin-turbo, 6.0-liter W-12 performs in a hushed baritone around town, but when the drilled metal pedal is slammed to the carpet, a booming bass beat exits the twin tailpipes. No turbo whine or high-revving cacophony here. No tire spin, either, thanks to the all-wheel-drive. You feel nothing but a slight tug of a gear change, and even that is hard to notice. At speed, all 4,940 pounds of Bentley keep momentum like a mini locomotive, and the carbon ceramic brakes are so humongous they could stop an Amtrak engine.

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So what's the better holiday, a weekend yachting in Monte Carlo or a week of sausage and beer in Munich? As the wealthy rethink value and cut costs, it's no longer unthinkable to cross-shop these four convertibles, despite their steep price gaps and opposing demeanors. Even the cheapo M3 looks right at home in front of the Mandarin. Either way, when you're among this elite quartet, scaling up the window sticker doesn't always net greater enjoyment.

Need proof? Take a blindfolded passenger out in the M3, rip onto an interstate, and then get off the next exit, blipping the throttle with the steering wheel paddles. Eyes open, he'll be flabbergasted this is a 3 Series, the same entry-level Bimmer that's a four-cylinder, steel-rimmed rental in Europe. It's the best-handling car of the bunch, too.

Speaking of paddles, they're plastic in the Bentley and Ferrari, as opposed to the cold, hard metal on the Mercedes. The Bentley, in the comical effort to save weight on a two-and-a-half-ton car, has thin, non-adjustable seats that are no match for the SL's massaging, ventilating thrones, which also have a heating unit in the headrest to blow hot air on the driver's neck.

Other aspects pay no mind to price, like how the SL63's wet-clutch automatic becomes unsettled in stop-and-go traffic. I expected the Ferrari — long known for its herky-jerky racing transmissions — to behave this way, but its dual-clutch box was the smoothest here, and the most fun to use. You'd figure, too, that $285,000 would buy the best navigation system in the world, but the Bentley's — despite chipper British voice commands — is a complex, low-resolution mess. The head unit on the Ferrari is straight out of a Jeep Wrangler, save for a coat of silver spray paint.

Everything else is personal. Whether you fall for the California's sexy wheel arches or the wailing of the M3, the SL63's muscle car exhaust rap or the Supersport's unending thrust, no one will judge you on the content of your car. On your character, maybe, especially if you bought the pastel lemon Bentley with 20-inch black rims I drove.

Automakers, never satisfied, will likely make my summer look like a month in Muskogee as they bring out faster, wilder machinery next year, relegating these Euro supercars to status quo. In the depths of the recession, holding onto an old 2010 Ferrari in 2011 is more appropriate, anyhow. Me, I'm rebooking next summer — same time, same place.

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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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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