We live in an inverted world. Whilethe rest of the planet is suffering record snowfalls and unprecedented cold, we're living in the garden, eating everything barbecued and loving every minute ofit. But not for much longer.
As our northern cousins begin to tentatively emerge from their winter hibernationand stand, blinking, in the blossoming spring, we're heading in the opposite direction. We may have a month or two yet, but our retreat indoors is no longer far away, and recent southern gusts have given us an ominous foretaste of what'sto come. So how better to enjoy the precious cool of the remaining winterthan with a spot of alfresco motoring in three of the most gorgeous drop-heads ever to grace our roads?
And what a trio they are! A modern German marvel of devastating ability, a ravishingly beautiful Italian with the beating heart of a Ferrari, and a British land yacht, absolutely the last word in ultimate, hand-crafted luxury.
Three very different engines, of 8, 10 and 12 cylinders, three very different approaches to motoring enjoyment, with the only thing in common a removable fabric roof. Time to break out the sun cream.
First on the agenda was to get away from the choke and snarl of the city and find us some fast, sweeping bends. As so often seems to happen these days, all roads lead to Kalba, and so that is where our magnificent convoy went. Fuelled and refreshed, picnic packed, we donned our coolest shades and headed for the hills in search of enlightenment and entertainment.
Which was the ultimate convertible?Did chopping off the roof compromisethe cars' integrity? Which would offer the most enjoyable fresh-air experience? And later, which would make the most glorious noise when you floored it in Dubai's many tunnels? Only one way to find out.
Audi R8 Spyder
When Audi first unveiled the convertible version of its R8 supercar, a fairly substantial redesign saw the ditching of the controversial sideblades in favour of large side air intakes, a raised rear deck and a fabric roof with a vertical rear window borrowed from Lamborghini's Gallardo. That same deck meant another loss, the glorious view of the engine. Under that deck is more Lamborghini, its fabulous V10 engine here producing a galloping 525 horses at 8,000rpm. And finally, there's a valve in the sports exhaust that opens when you push the throttle, transforming the engine note from a muted rumble into a spine-tingling howl, all the better to hear with the roof down. Chopping the roof off has made for a more conventional looking and arguably prettier car, and the perfect weapon for a last blast in the sun.
We set off with Amit leading the way in the Gran Cabrio and he's clearly having fun. You can hear every shift and prod of the Maserati's throttle, it is wailing magnificently around the city like a chorus of Pavarottis. Absolutely nothing compares to an Italian on full song. Imran, in the Spyder, tries to compete but the more complex blare of the V10, whilst undeniably impressive, doesn't quite match the harmonics of the car in front. And me, in the one behind, well I'm far too polite to get involved in such childishness.
Roof down, we're mooching around in stop-start traffic, hunting for cameras and filling up with fuel and essential supplies. Suitably stocked with inappropriatefood and energy drinks, our multi-million dirham convoy heads back out intothe traffic.
Unfortunately, our Spyder was fitted with Audi's six-speed sequential gearbox, and whilst Audi promises millisecond changes from the shift-by-wire technology, there's still an annoying, head-nodding pause every time you shift up or down, especially in traffic.
Not cool, more so when everyone around you can see the effect. Time to hit those open roads.
We head out of the city on the E44 Dubai to Hatta road, along straight and congested five-lane highways. Roof-down in the Audi and there's very little wind buffeting even at these speeds, but you have a magnificent soundtrack to enjoy. That V10 is only inches away behind your right shoulder, and with the roof down you can hear every beat of it. Who needsa stereo anyway? Of the three cars here, the Audi is the most sporting and focused. It is in its element on the twisties, and the lack of a roof makes for fabulous all-round visibility. Exploring the limits of performance is a delicious form of sensory overload — not only can you feel the road surface in exquisite detail, but you are also completely aware of your environment, the warmth and smell of the air, the colour of the sunlight and sand, the envious stares of other drivers around you.
As we peel off onto the E55 towards the Sharjah/Kalba road, this becomes even more apparent, as the farms and camels around the towns of Al Madam and Al Malaiha begin to make their presence felt. Still, it's a very scenic road with a couple of good twisty bits that give photographer Stefan plenty of opportunities to get interesting angles of the cars. We spend the rest of the afternoon hopping from one car to another, re-arranging the convoy and doing the car-to-car stuff. Here, the Spyder feels every bit as solid as its closed cousin. There's no trace of scuttle shake, and the extra weight of stiffening and roof mechanism doesn't blunt the performance in any discernible way. In short, it's still a monumentally capable car, but arguably even better-looking than the standard version, and certainly more versatile. Truly, it is a car that would make you wish winter was twelve months long.
Specs & racing
- Model R8 Spyder
- Engine 5.2-litre V10
- Transmission Six-speed auto, AWD
- Max power 525bhp @ 8,000rpm
- Max torque 530Nm @ 6,500rpm
- Top speed 313kph
- 0-100kph 4.1sec
- Price Dh579,000
- Plus Brutal performance, raucous exhaust note
- Minus Sluggish transmission
Maserati Gran Cabrio
The car that I have been most wanting to drive is actually the one with the fewest cylinders. Mind you, this has an engine borrowed from Ferrari, and boasts 440bhp — that just tells you what exalted company we are in.
In fact, I have been waiting to drive this particular car ever since Middle East and Africa Maserati man Umberto Cini promised me a go when we met at Yas, many moons ago. Finally, that dream is realised. And it doesn't disappoint.This particular car is beautifullyappointed in cream leather and blonde wood, a lovely combination of sleekly modern and slightly retro design. Across the top of the dash is a rich swathe of dark red leather which continues around the top of the cabin behind the rear seats. Very comfortable.
Fold the top down, and you discover one of the more serious shortcomings of the Gran Cabrio; the boot space, or rather the lack of it. Between the stowed-away roof and full-size spare, there's just about enough room to slide a toothbrush down one side and a credit card down the other, and that's it. Suppose you could always sling your suitcases on the back seats...
On the move, another difference becomes apparent. The Audi R8 feels as solid as if it had been CNC-machined from a solid billet of aluminium.
The Rolls in turn feels like you're driving an English country mansion. The Maserati? Well, let's just say that compared to the other two, it feels a little al dente. Not that this detracts from the driving experience. The Gran Cabrio has a lively, immediate, responsive feel, an eagerness to turn in to a corner, an enthusiasm to sprint forward like a saluki scenting the desert that isutterly enthralling.
So I spend my time ripping up anddown our road between the corners, hunting for that perfect curve, diving into the underpass and powering through just to hear that magnificent soundtrack, relishing the purity of the steering and poise provided by the classic sportscar layout of front-engine, rear-wheel drive. Maserati itself says the balance is49:51 per cent front to rear, or 48:52with the roof down. How delightfully precise! Of the three, our Maser isthe most glamorous, the most beautiful and possesses an appropriately Latin temperament.
Specs & ratings
- 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
- 0-100kph 5.3sec
- Price Dh600,000
- Plus Sleek looking, raspy V8
- Minus Feels slightly underpowered
It is only when you're taxiing on boardan Airbus A380 that you begin to appreciate just how massive the plane really is. Maximum takeoff weight is nearly 600 tonnes (though the wing is actually designed to lift 650 tonnes), and although the plane flies beautifully, all that weight is very apparent in the way it moves on the ground. Quite simply, it is the smoothest-riding aircraft in the world. There may be bumps and creases in that taxi-way beneath you, but you certainly don't feel them. All you are aware of is the faintest of distant rumbles, and a real magic-carpet ride.
Which is almost exactly the same sensation as you experience in the Phantom. Chasing the R8 and the Gran Cabrio through traffic was a breeze, and nothing had the slightest impact on our Drophead's patrician demeanour. At nearly three tonnes, this is perhaps not surprising, but there is good reason why every other luxury carmaker aspires to ride like a Rolls — it really is superlative, lissom, silent and unperturbed.
There is another aspect to this ride that may be familiar to anyone who's been on a long journey in a train.
After a certain amount of time staring out the window, you begin to feel that it is you and the train that are stationary, and the rest of the world is turning beneath your wheels. That's exactly the kind of relaxed detachment you'll enjoy in the Rolls with the roof up. But this is a Drophead, and the only way to travel is top down.
The long five-layer fabric roof folds itself silently away beneath the beautiful teak deck inspired by J Class yachts, and we slip the quay for a spot of luxurious wafting. Sadly, the effect is rather spoiled by some unseasonably hot weather, so rather than endure having my bonce simultaneously sand-blasted and burned, it was back up with the roof and out onto the open road.
In fact, it is really quite cosy in here. Once the door has sighed shut, the steering wheel whispered gently towards you and the engine purred into barely perceptible operation, it is a very nice place to be.
Driving is surprisingly simple. You don't select a gear, simply a direction — forward and reverse are the only options offered to you — and like a boat leaving the dockside, ever so gently you begin to move. It is at first difficult to comprehend just how large the Drophead is, and it's only when you look sideways at the driver of a Land Cruiser in the next lane that you begin to comprehend. This thing has enormous presence to go with its stature.
Yet despite its size and patrician nature, the Drophead is also enormous fun to drive. Under the bonnet is 6.75-litres of V12, and in a sign of changing times, the power it produces is no longer merely ‘sufficient', but a very specific 453bhp at 5,350rpm. Couple this with a thumping 720Nm of torque, and the regal lady in front of the bonnet hitches up her skirt and positively sprints to 100kph in a most unladylike 5.8 seconds. That's fast enough to embarrass a surprising number of ‘sportscars'.
Digging into the higher reaches of the Power Reserve meter is decadent fun, and keeping up with the supposedly more sporting R8 and Gran Cabrio is disarmingly simple in a car so large.
Fortunately the brakes are every bit as impressive, hauling the Drophead to a complete stop without a murmur, and they feel capable of doing so all day without breaking sweat. The steering is similarly unruffled, in fact, it is possible to fling the big Coupé around with considerable verve and it never complains, revealing a surprisingly sporty demeanour that is completely unexpected and rather fun. Not that one would ever do such a thing, of course.
On the open roads, the Phantom is in a class of its own. Nothing else even gets close, though you would be surprised at the rate at which it can cover the ground on the twistier bits. Sure, it doesn't have the instant response of the Maserati or the relentless, endless urge of the Audi, delivering instead a sort of bungee-cord elasticity as monumental forces are generated somewhere far below, which then catapult you to the horizon on a tidal wave of torque. And I'm still only using80 per cent of the Power Reserve.
But it is as a boulevard cruiser that the Drophead Coupé really excels. There is quite simply nothing in the world to compete with it. Sure there are other faster, more nimble and entertaining cars, but there is nothing else that comes even remotely close to being as indulgent and gratifyingly hedonistic as a convertible Rolls-Royce.
Specs & ratings
- Model Phantom Drophead Coupé
- Engine 6.75-litre V12
- Transmission Six-speed auto, RWD
- Max power 453bhp @ 5,350rpm
- Max torque 720Nm @ 3,500rpm
- Top speed 240kph
- 0-100kph 5.8sec
- Price Dh2.3M
- Plus Luxuriously appointed
- Minus Feels every bit of its 2,695kg weight
The day comes to an end, as all daysmust, but we have one more thing to do and somehow the cover of darknessseems appropriate. We're all tired and a little sunburnt on top. Our cars have all got sand in places they probably shouldn't have. But we're all buzzing from the experience, and the last task of the day is still ahead. Amit is determined to find a quiet stretch of tunnel for a bit of video recording, and who are we to complain?
And in many ways the result sums up the day. There are 453 thoroughbreds under the Phantom's brushed steel bonnet, and though they charge hard, they speak in very hushed tones.
Audi has borrowed Lamborghini's V10, yet given it a somewhat Teutonic tone. And whilst the Gran Cabrio is the most obviously compromised car, its humble V8 sings with such beauty you'd forgive it anything.
Is there a winner? Not really. The Gran Cabrio is the most fun, the R8 V10 is the most able, and the Phantom is the most improbable. All are gloriously frivolous, dedicated to the pleasure of driving,a celebration of fun in metal and hide.
In any of these cars, it is much more about the journey than the getting fromA to B, and we had a blast. As days in the office go, they don't ever get much better than this.