When it comes to showing off, there's nothing out there to beat a stylish cabriolet. To be specific, an Italian cabriolet. A couple of Brits come close, but save the Audi R8 Spyder, no German roadster fits the bill. At least that was the case until now. BMW's E64 6 Series cabrio was a best-seller, but it somehow never caught our fancy. After all, Chris Bangle had that uncanny knack of polarising opinions. But with its latest third-generation 6er, Munich earnestly wants to change this.
It feels the new kid on the block is a compelling enough alternative to Italian and British masters of pomp and pageantry. So when we got hold of a 650i drop-top, we thought there's no better way to test it than pit it against two of our all-time favourite show-off cars — the Maserati Gran Cabrio and the Jaguar XKR. An Italian, a German and a Brit in a three-way face-off to find the most enthralling convertible.
With three different takes on a V8 — a howling normally aspirated Ferrari-derived mill in the Maserati; a muscular supercharged heart in the Jaguar; and a turbo V9 in the Teuton — we knew it would be an interesting exercise. All three offer the notion of four seats, though only the Maserati provides anything more than token accommodation in the back, and what it offers there it completely sacrifices in the world's tiniest boot.
Now in its fifth year of production, the 2011 Jaguar XK has aged remarkably well. It still looks as fresh as the day it was launched, if not better, and the XKR convertible which I've got my hands on gets lots of envious looks — even when parked next to Sony's gorgeous Gran Cabrio or Jonathan's brand-new 6 Series.
It boasts menacing headlamps and a set of tasty LEDs while the large oval chrome mesh grille looks superb. LEDs also grace the rear end, and overall it looks suave and sophisticated. It somehow seems longer and wider than it actually is thanks to the sprawlingly gorgeous body. It measures 4,794mm long, 2,028mm wide and 1,329mm high and tips the scales at 1,800kg.
For Dh455,000, you expect everything to be top-notch. But when you get inside, a couple of things leave you disappointed. First of all, the 7in colour touch screen is not the most intuitive while the sat-nav reacts terribly slowly to your inputs.
Secondly, it's marketed as a 2+2. Ha! Anyone willing to get into the back needs their head checked. Apart from that, it is luxurious and comfortable. My XKR had soft-grain sport seats (heated and cooled) with contrast stitching, the same material on the steering wheel, doors, rear side panels, plus Jaguar suede cloth premium headlining. The seats also adjust every which way you want and include side bolsters that can be tweaked too.
Mechanically, it hits the spot. Its supercharged 5.0-litre V8 is a beast with 510 horsepower at 6,500rpm and 625Nm of torque at 3,500rpm. You certainly don't tire of the growl coming out of the quad exhaust tips, which is much louder than the crystal-clear 525W Bowers & Wilkins sound system. With the top down, the exhaust note is exaggerated to the extent that you end up driving with a smile that may as well have been painted on. The retractable canvas roof takes 18 seconds to be stowed, and with it down it looks simply ravishing. Adding to the looks are gorgeous 20in Kalymnos alloys and bonnet louvers with ‘supercharged' script. Just a dab of your right foot and this cat leaps to life. It comes into its own when you stop showing off and really start to drive it. It reaches 0-100kph in just 4.8 seconds which makes it quicker than both the Maser and the Bimmer and it handles nice and tight too, with pin-sharp turn-in. The traction control system keeps you in check no matter how adventurous you try to be. Even with the Competition mode switched on and Dynamic Stability Control turned off, it's hard to get the rear wheels to complain.
The ride is generally comfortable while it always feels as agile as a, well, cat. The six-speed auto swaps those cogs with ease but it's now showing its age compared with quicker-shifting systems. It's a tad thirsty with consumption figures of 8.6-litres-per-100km on the highway and18.9-litres in town, but to be honest, none of that matters when you look and sound this good.
The whole idea of buying a convertible is showing off. Although the usual drop-top customers have their stock excuses like "I love soaking up the sun" and "It's such a wonderful feeling to have wind in your hair", the plain and simple truth is the decision is purely driven by their desire to be seen and noticed by everyone.
So, to me, the car that best meets this criterion is the stunningly beautiful Maserati Gran Cabrio. With its long bonnet and the large distinctive grille featuring curved-in vertical slats with the trident taking pride of place, the Gran Cabrio is a pure work of art on wheels.
When it comes to turning heads, there aren't many cars out there that could match this drop-top Trident. Every bit of it oozes with character and soul, even more so than the understated and quintessentially British XKR, while the Bimmer completely lacks this aura of exoticism. The Gran Cabrio's 440bhp 4.7-litre Ferrari-derived V8 is the loudest of the lot — in fact a bit too loud and artificial. Although this positively adds to the car's crowd-pulling abilities, honestly, I think the Jag sounds more realistic. And sadly its performance does not live up to the glorious soundtrack or the arresting looks. At 1,980kg, the Gran Cabrio is 100kg heavier than the Gran Turismo, and the 0-100kph time of 5.3sec isn't impressive by any means. It's in fact the slowest to the mark as the BMW does it in 5.0sec and the Jag in a neck-snapping 4.8sec.
But the almost two-tonne bulk and the 48:52 front to rear weight distribution, together with the continuously variable gas dampers, keep the Gran Cabrio planted and sure-footed all the time. However, when it comes to build quality, overall refinement and technology, this Modenese beauty lags way behind the other two, especially the BMW, which is packed to the brim with electronic nannies, although I'm not sure if this is desirable or not.
Also, it's a shame that the plush and well-appointed interior, decked out in top notch Poltrona Frau leather and Carbalho wood, is let down by the not-so-robust build quality. Our test car squeaked and rattled over speed bumps and even slightly uneven roads. This was especially the case when the Sport mode was selected, which stiffened the suspension. Overall, if I'm judging these three cars by just their looks and the amount of attention they attract, the Maserati wins hands down. Although it still remains my favourite two-door, the Jag is the least good looking of the three, while the Bimmer looks remarkable in its own right, but stops short of exciting.
The BMW is the newest design, the most technologically advanced, the best built and the easiest to drive of the three. Game over? Not quite. The 2011 650i Cabriolet is certainly a design departure from the previous generation, losing the old jelly-mould roundness and bringing a much sharper set of lines to the party. But it's still not as achingly gorgeous as the Italian, or as butch as the Brit. The rear has been completely reworked with new lights and a much better resolved boot incorporating a small spoiler lip. A pair of trapezoidal exhaust tips hint at the power, but don't match the bravado of the other pairs' paired pipes. There's a beautiful new side crease running through the bottom of the door, and another higher waistline that incorporates the door handle. All very neat and precise, though the final result is not yet in the jaw-dropping league.
Instead, there's a generous amount of space (though you wouldn't want to spend too long in the back) and a decent boot, big enough at 300-litres with the roof down to take a couple of generous weekend cases. The interior is immaculate, with rich chestnut Nappa leather and contrasting stitching. It is a very driver-orientated cockpit, and there's even a head-up display.
Put your foot down and it gets even better. The 650i is blessed with a 4.4-litre V8 producing 407bhp and a whopping 600Nm of torque all the way from 1,750 to 4,500rpm. All this flows through an eight-speed auto ‘box which shifts almost imperceptibly, and while you can choose ratios yourself with either the stick or paddles, it works so well there seems little point. The ride is taut and well-controlled even in ‘Normal' mode, and there's no hint of creak or scuttle shake. Sport mode hardens everything but spoils the ride, though there's no doubting the exuberance of the response. Like all turbo motors, there's a sort of ‘bungee' effect about the way the 650i gathers speed, which it does very rapidly, a rising tide of urge that seems to draw you ever faster towards the horizon. You're going to need that head-up display, that's for sure.
Most of our time with the cars was spent in convoy, pootling around with the tops up and down whilst snapper Christopher did his stuff. When the road did clear and it was time to open the taps, the turbos muted most of the exhaust noises. The Jag had a lovely snarl, and the Maser bellowed away like Pavarotti warming up for the big note. The Bimmer is not going to attract any attention that way.
But this test was also about glamour and who got the most girls. So down to rattle across the cobbles of The Walk at JBR and see who turned the most heads. Turn on the top-end Bang & Olufsen surround sound system and you're immersed in music — 12 speakers and 1,000W of the stuff. Definitely the coolest sounds on our street, but still no girls. A few passers by clocked the fact that this was the new 6 Series and stopped by for a chat, but more went straight past. If only they knew how green this car is. I mean, who wouldn't be impressed with open-road figures as low as 7.8 to 7.9-litres-per-100km? OK, how about brake energy regeneration, an auto stop-start function, or electromechanical power steering? Still not persuaded? Oh well.
So which car wins? Truth to tell, we'd keep any of them in a heartbeat. They're all compromised in some way, and pointless for more than half of our year, but in the right weather and the right place there is no finer seat on the planet than the driver's perch in any of them. The Jaguar has the performance, and Maserati the style. But the BMW seems to have found the sweet spot between performance, style and technology. This then makes it our winner. But in the end, which one of these you'd choose will purely depend on whether you want to be ordered, persuaded or seduced.
Model XKR Convertible
Engine 5.0-litre supercharged V8
Transmission Six-speed auto, RWD
Max power 510bhp @ 6,500rpm
Max torque 625Nm @ 3,500rpm
Top speed 250kph (limited)
Plus Looks and sounds awesome, agile
Minus Not as nice as the tin top
Model Gran Cabrio
Engine 4.7-litre V8
Transmission Six-speed auto RWD
Max power 440bhp @ 7,000rpm
Max torque 490Nm @ 4,750rpm
Top speed 283kph
Plus A real head-turner with its gorgeous looks
Minus Price is a bit too high
Model 650i Convertible
Engine 4.4-litre V8, turbo
Transmission Eight-speed auto, RWD
Max power 407bhp @ 5,500rpm
Max torque 600Nm @ 1,750rpm
Top speed 250kph (limited)
Plus Superb build quality, technology
Minus Still not up there in looks