From the April 2001 Issue of Car and Driver.
This is not your routine Car and Driver comparison test. To just get our hands on these three cars at the same time—Ferrari’s new 360 Spider F1 and an Aston Martin DB7 Vantage Volante and a BMW Z8—we had to go a little out of our way—to Italy. Not just Italy, but to the ancient Grand Prix racetrack at Monza, where we could gather the hard performance numbers without attracting unwanted attention from the carabinieri.
Ah, Monza, home of the Autodromo Nazionale, the oldest Grand Prix track. It still follows the shape of the 1922 original. Some of the corners have been reprofiled, and several chicanes have been added to slow the modern cars, but with almost spooky accuracy it’s the same circuit that has been the scene of 65 Grands Prix. There is a 3.6-mile oval portion of the track that is no longer in use, and it is banked so steeply—38 degrees—that you can’t walk up it. The oval was last used in the Italian Grand Prix of 1961, and it made the times at Monza faster even than at Spa or Reims. The rough concrete banking is still there, quietly decaying as it is slowly reclaimed by nature.
This great racing cathedral was also the undoing of drivers Ronnie Peterson, Jochen Rindt, Taffy von Trips (and 14 spectators), and Alberto Ascari, all of whom perished in competition there. You can’t drive this narrow ribbon of blacktop, blasting through famous corners with the exotic names of Lesmo, Curva Grande, Variante Ascari, and Parabolica, or walk the old pits, where director John Frankenheimer filmed part of the ’66 movie Grand Prix, without sensing the ghosts that haunt this place. Most weekends, before the racing season starts in March, it’s open to the public. Bring a car, fork over 50,000 lira ($25), and it’s yours for 30 minutes of glorious driving.
After our testing at Monza, we lit out across the straight roads of the Po Plain and down the A26 autostrada that for a while allows a 150-mph cruising speed, then winds through mountains to the port city of Genoa, through tunnel after tunnel running high above the Mediterranean coast. And then we headed inland again, up the twisty Passo della Cisa, where on October 5, 1919, a young Enzo Ferrari finished fourth in class in his first motor-racing event, the Parma-Poggio di Berceto, a local hill-climb, in a 2.3-liter CMN. Add fine food and the constant excitement generated by our convoy of exotics as we passed through villages, and clearly, this was no ordinary comparison.
These cars, brilliant in all the great stuff—performance, handling, driving pleasure, and (mostly) styling—deliver almost obscenely poor fuel mileage. In a country where high-octane runs about $5 a gallon, low-to-mid-teens consumption thins your wallet in a hurry. And even if you’re willing to ignore the fuel costs, you can’t begin to explore the twilight zone in any of the trio without putting your license at risk.
All three exotics also display an exceptional level of packaging inefficiency. The V-12 Aston Martin weighs well over 4000 pounds. In fact, a 2400-pound Mazda Miata offers pretty much the same alfresco motoring on winding roads and provides the same level of grin factor. And it costs a fraction of the Ferrari 360 Spider F1’s $176,512, including more than 10 grand for the paddle-shift gearbox. Or the Aston’s $159,732 base price, or the BMW’s $134,455, including the gas-guzzler and luxury taxes.
And yet we love them all.
This is precious metal, the only circa-400-horsepower sporting convertibles on offer to dot.com or old-money millionaires, discounting the soon-to-be-replaced SL600 Mercedes-Benz and the way-over-the-top Bentley Azure. They are, above everything else, automotive indulgences, bought not because the 360 Spider generates marginally more lateral acceleration than the Aston does, but on purely subjective grounds. Hell, at this rarefied level, you buy the Aston simply because none of the neighbors’ garages houses a DB7 Volante. Emotions run high.
We immediately discovered, upon gathering them together for their first collective public outing, that these are very different automotive animals, their characters closely mimicking the national personalities of their countries of origin. The Ferrari is excitable, passionate, arousing the body’s every sense. The BMW is beautifully finished, as solid of body as it is strong of engine. The Aston Martin is reserved, tailored, rich in clublike leather and wood, and it spoils the passenger almost as much as the driver.
As always, we’ve ranked the combatants and emerged with a clear winner—no prize for guessing, as we were in Italy, after all—but the distinctive personalities of these cars mean they transcend objectivity. We’d perfectly understand why you’d want to buy any one of this gorgeous threesome.
Third Place: Aston Martin DB7 Volante
The Aston is the elder statesman of this group. Even though the Vantage V-12 has only been around for two years, the enchantingly curvaceous DB7 dates to 1994.
The formula is British traditional: front-engined, solidly built, with quality furnishings. That might suggest that the DB7 Vantage Volante is an old person’s car. Not so. As the performance figures show, this convertible has the power and exuberance to run with the best. It is a weighty beast—at 4264 pounds, some 200 pounds heavier than the coupe—but it can still sprint to 60 in five seconds flat, even with an automatic transmission. Top speed is limited to 165 mph. (The Vantage coupe we tested last year is unrestricted and ran 182 mph.)
Remember that this mighty 5.9-liter V-12 is effectively two Ford Duratec V-6s, although the aluminum block and heads are produced by Cosworth, which also assembles the Vantage engines. The motor in this Volante felt really strong in our acceleration tests on Monza’s main straight. Its 398 pound-feet topped the torque on hand in the BMW and Ferrari, and it made great music as well as impressive numbers.
It is the only car here with a conventional automatic transmission—a ZF five-speed, in this case supplemented by Touchtronic, which provides manual shifting via buttons on either side of the steering-wheel spokes. This is a convenient arrangement, but when running to the redline, we found that the transmission responded sluggishly to the button commands, allowing the V-12 to pick up another 300 rpm before the shift was completed.
On ordinary roads—if we can call the twists and turns through the Italian hills ordinary—the Aston grips and stops well and handles precisely, but it’s too heavy and bulky to be truly agile. A softer suspension setup than the Vantage coupe’s doesn’t help, resulting in greater body roll and limiting performance in sudden maneuvers such as our lane-change test. The benefit is in ride comfort, which is superior to that of the other cars here.
The DB7’s forte is high speed on the highway.
This is a car that cruises effortlessly at 120 mph while remaining rock steady. It would be our choice of the three for a 1000-mile dash across the European continent, which is what we did, bringing the car from its English homeland to meet its rivals in Italy.
Second Place: BMW Z8
True-blue enthusiasts tend to be suspicious of cars that make too much of a fashion statement. There’s always the inkling that the flashy looks are there to distract the discriminating driver from less than perfect mechanical underpinnings.
BMW’s Z8 certainly looks sufficiently flamboyant to raise such concerns. Its muscular vintage lines are as rakish as a Borsalino hat, and when you slip behind the wheel, you are transported back in time.
That steering wheel, for example, employs spokes built up from steel rods, as in a mid-’50s MG. The dashboard forward of the wheel is bereft of instruments because they all reside in a central pod angled toward the driver. At night, those gauges are illuminated by a yellowish glow that looks as if it were produced by a bulb from Thomas Edison’s day.
Yet underneath its sensuous curves and polished chrome accents, the BMW Z8 is impressively modern and sophisticated. The chassis consists of an aluminum space frame, which provides a foundation for the front and rear suspensions, borrowed from BMW’s redoubtable 5- and 7-series sedans. The sculpted body panels are formed from lightweight aluminum.
The finished product weighs just under 3500 pounds. That’s a mass that causes no difficulties for the Z8’s 394-hp, 4.9-liter V-8 powertrain, which is transplanted virtually unchanged from the powerful BMW M5 sports sedan. The combination produces enough thrust to light up the rear tires at will, but there’s still sufficient traction to rocket to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds and click the quarter-mile traps at 110 mph in 13 seconds flat. That’s as quick as the Ferrari up to 60 mph — and at higher speeds, the Z8 actually pulls ahead! The electronically governed 155-mph top speed comes up in a big hurry.
Csere pointed out that “the company isn’t called the Bavarian Motor Works for nothing.” The Z8’s builder could also just as easily be called the Bavarian Clutch and Transmission Works, judging by how smoothly those two driveline components do their jobs. “Not that you need that many shifts,” Winfield said. “It pulls from anywhere on the dial.”
The chassis is rigid enough to harness this thrust without any creaks or groans.
The suspension also makes good use of its wide and grippy 18-inch Dunlop SP Sport 9000A tires. But despite this firm grasp on the tarmac, most of us felt slightly timid about pushing the Z8 to its limits.
“The feel of the car at speed doesn’t impart immense confidence, so you’re not encouraged to let it really hang out,” noted Winfield. Csere suggested that “it doesn’t generate the cornering mastery of the Ferrari.” But Robinson found that the Z8 was “easier to drive quickly immediately than the Ferrari.”
We all agreed that the convertible top was perhaps the BMW’s weakest point. With the roof erected, the Z8 was easily the noisiest of the three cars on the highway, with wind roar becoming prominent at 70 mph.
Lowering the top is easy enough, requiring only the press of a button on the console. But fitting the tonneau is a two-person job requiring a particularly difficult, and largely invisible, insertion of two retaining fingers into a pair of narrow slots recessed between the two seats.
With the tonneau in place, the Z8 looks gorgeous, but airflow in the cockpit is not very well managed. Even with the wind blocker in place between the two headrests, gale-force backdrafts abound. If the day is cold when you put the top down, you will appreciate the powerful seat heaters.
These top-down shenanigans are directly related to the Z8’s vintage, upright stance. “You seem to sit on this car, rather than in it.” Several of us who liked the Z8’s vintage fashion statement “loved the interior treatment and finish” and found the steering wheel to be “a work of art.” Hutton complained about the “awful ‘spring’ steering wheel” and “the blank space where I want the rev counter and speedo to be.”
Robinson summed up the Z8 as “a hugely refined and sophisticated Cobra.” That’s about right, and if that blend appeals to you, the BMW Z8 is very hard to beat.
First Place: Ferrari 360 Spider F1
In our September 2000 issue, Ferrari’s 360 Modena F1 coupe took on Aston Martin’s DB7 Vantage and Porsche’s incredible 911 Turbo, and won. But is that any reason to expect a similar victory from Ferrari’s 360 Spider in a contest with these two elegant competitors, given that convertibles are required to fulfill a different set of expectations?
Obviously, the answer is yes. Ferrari has somehow taken all the sensory delights from the Modena and transplanted them, undiluted, into the Spider, and then capped the whole deal with a convertible top that proves irreproachable in appearance and operation.
It isn’t just that the one-touch automatic operation deploys and unfurls the top in a spectacular dance of levers, covers, and flaps. It’s also that the car looks great with the top up, and it drives with the solidity and isolation of a coupe.
Then, when you consign the top to its lair beneath the gleaming hard tonneau covers—completely concealing its presence under a long rear deck—the loss of a roof profile and its critical C-pillar volume is balanced by such visual details as roll hoops, fins, and a glass engine cover.
Equally important, the aerodynamic characteristics of a top-down Spider are extraordinary.
Whether it’s due to the long, raked windshield or the little mesh wind blockers you see in the mirror—or a combination of both—the Spider provides a remarkably draft- and buffet-free environment.
Climb from the BMW Z8 on a chilly day on a fast autostrada, and the Spider feels like a warm and secluded refuge from the elements. Said C/D’s normally skeptical editor-in-chief: “The 360’s top-down cockpit comfort is unbelievable. At 125 mph, a sheet of paper sitting on the passenger seat doesn’t even flutter.”
Plus, you can carry on a conversation without yelling yourself hoarse at speeds that would have you on a Cops episode in the U.S. Better yet, you can dive into one of the many tunnels that enclose Italy’s coastal autostradas, flick the left-side paddle for a two-gear downshift, and let ‘er rip to the redline. This produces a wail like that of an F1 car from the ’70s and even has the guys in other cars laughing like schoolboys.
Peter Robinson wrote: “The Ferrari should get 11 out of 10 in the fun category.” He’s right. Everything in the Spider has been crafted to provide maximum fun. The engine rasps, snarls, and howls its way to the 8500-rpm redline, ticking past 100 mph in 11.7 seconds on the way to its redline-limited top speed of 175 mph. The steering wheel thrills with messages from the front wheels and transmits its responses to your hands in genetic code. And the F1 transmission—although requiring some practice to achieve optimal smoothness—allows you to play boy racer without the need for any tricky pedal boogie.
Being mid-engined, the Spider turns in with an immediacy that is notably different from the two front-engined cars. Unlike the Z8, which kind of swings the nose around the driver, the Ferrari rotates car and driver in one piece. With excellent road feel, strong brakes, and its mass centralized between the axles, the 360 will corner very hard indeed, offering linear response at the helm until the meaty Pirellis begin to push wide.
To keep a driver’s enthusiasm from overreaching his capabilities, the Spider has ASR—a stability program—that steps in to cut the power and selectively apply brakes to control yaw. A sport switch alters the threshold of the stability system while also altering the variable-damping shock menu.
Thus, Ferrari’s electronics protect the inexpert driver and cater to the expert at the same time. When you add this contemporary technical sophistication to a car that offers a surprising amount of passenger space, decent ergonomics, fairly generous room in the front trunk and behind the seats for luggage, plus peerless visual and tactile delights, you end up with a car that is paradoxically versatile and charismatic. As Hutton noted: “The surprising thing is that it is the most extreme car, yet it’s also, in many ways, the easiest to use.” Putting it another way, that means we have a winner on our hands.
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Source: Reviews - aranddriver.com