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Bentley GT vs Ariel Nomad vs McLaren 570S

We took a very British trio to Dartmoor earlier this month. We nearly didn't come back

By Nic Cackett / Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Take the use of 'versus' with a pinch of salt here; this is not a triple test. Not in the conventional sense, at any rate. Better you think of it as a barometer of sorts. If such a thing could indeed be waggled at the output of the Great British sports car industry, and a reading of its health delivered. The reason for the waggling? Why, the latest Bentley Continental GT, of course; all-new, all W12-y and all the way back over here since we first drove it on the continent at the start of the year. Is it good? You betcha. It's got 635hp after all, and is so hand-bitingly pretty from certain angles that we had actually had to stop taking pictures at one point just so we could all stand back and marvel at it in the long shadows of the setting sun, dumbstruck.

As a result, putting it through the standard PH shoot-out, even against a worthy adversary, felt about as unnecessary as putting a comb through 007's hair. Take it from us, at the business end of being breathtakingly fast and fabulously well-to-do, the new GT is already tucked up in the fantasy footballer's garage, picking its rivals from its grille. Better then to usher it straight into the PH trophy room, where we keep two other markers of British sporting excellence - the McLaren 570S and the Ariel Nomad - and reflect on how lucky we all are to tread the pastures of this small island, with its unparalleled knack for growing automotive giants like Bramley apples.

Sensing an occasion of national import, God's Own Country laid on a month-long heatwave - which we neatly avoided by going to Dartmoor for two days. Still, who needs tropical weather when Bentley's artisans have spent endless man-hours beavering away at your immediate surroundings? What's the newest GT like to sit in? Empowering. Enriching. Enlightening. All the big, lovely E words, each of them confirming beyond reasonable doubt that handing them the equivalent of a small mortgage still buys you a hand-finished interior of considerable quality.

As it did with the previous generation, the manufacturer doubles down on the swept-back coupe theme by burying you neck-deep in material richness; the scuttle and belt line virtually at chin level if you have the driver's seat set low (which you absolutely should). The effect on visibility in a two metre-wide car is nigh-on catastrophic - but it has a bellow-like impact on the ego, too, accompanied as it is by the scent of high-grade animal hide and the glint of knurled switchgear. No point in fighting it, of course: this is, after all, the point. Private plane to private terminal to Bentley to basement garage to Grade II pile of bricks, and not a step broken between them. With that in mind, the best and truest thing you can say about the new GT is that it's expertly tuned to meet expectations.

Between Surrey and Somerset, nothing of much consequence is allowed to threaten the old-world-meets-new ambience. You sit low in the GT, but not actually low to the road. The seat under you is an all-inclusive affair: powered, heated, cooled, massage-enabled and mattress-topper soft. Under it there's three-chamber (count 'em) air suspension, which lets the body silently ebb and flow on the kind of primary ride that seems made from memory foam - only mildly undone on the A303 in this case by the optional 22-inch wheels, which emit a distant roar on the wrong sort of asphalt. Despite some modest weight loss, the new GT never feels light or anything less than large, but it is far too cleverly sprung to feel flat-footed and vastly too powerful to be thought unwieldy.

Instead it drives in a way that could succinctly be called its own: one part determined waft, three parts latent thrust. Sure, there's a bit more too it than that - there's an additional element of expensively honed dynamism plumbed into proceedings should you want to go to the trouble of unpacking it - but it's far easier to leave it in drive mode 'B' (for Bentley, naturally) and Mr Toad your way over the horizon.

On the other side, just off the A30, the red brick home of Ariel. No pomp and ceremony here, just brilliant things being done brilliantly. Case in point: the Nomad, an Atom extensively remade for green lane junkies. Ariel will blush to see it written, but in its own bare-arse way the quality of its construction is no less impressive than Bentley's handiwork. It too is a champion of human input: as with every contrast stitch and layer of lacquer, there is care and attention and ultimately affection in all those West Country welds and rivets. Half a million fewer moving parts to worry about perhaps, but the Nomad slots together like a Japanese wristwatch all the same - albeit the kind which lets you see the inner workings click and whirr.

Granted, it is slightly harder to get on. With the GT, its vast (and almost weightless) doors mean you pour yourself into the front like cream on cognac; in Ariel's vision for Britain, you're three stone lighter and as nimble as a Macaque. You'll likely be wearing more clothes, too. Were it mid-winter, deck shoes and shorts would suffice in Bentley's climate-controlled cocoon; the Nomad gets a windscreen as standard (mercifully) but still specialises in heavy-duty wind chill. And it's no less uncompromising elsewhere; there's enough lumbar support from the bucket seats to straighten out Forrest Gump. Its niceties are limited to the brushed metal of the Honda-derived gear lever and the Alcantara skin of the steering wheel. And yet the Nomad driver knows comfort no less assuredly than a GT owner.

That's because, no matter which suspension setup you choose (there are three, of ascending seriousness/expense), it rides incredibly well. Not around town perhaps, where it is unapologetically firm, but up at speed the frantic bob of the coil springs is all about nullifying the road surface's irregularities at the wheel. What vertical movement makes it to the passenger cell is so shrewdly damped that it leaves the Nomad driver with a simmering sense of control - supple enough to let you settle into it, yet without a shred of soft-edged detachment. There's no float to the body whatsoever; no sense of a body at all, really - just you, the seat, three pedals, a gear lever, steering wheel, a digital readout, some scaffold poles and those four wheels, all undulating as one as Somerset turns inexorably into Devon.

The Nomad is so permissive in fact that for as long as the sun is out it easily rivals the touring potential of a Caterham Seven. Exceeds it, really, but for the flagrant whine of its supercharger. Oh, I forgot to mention: our Nomad is supercharged. You'll be wanting that bolt-onoption. The naturally-aspirated version is fine, but forcing air into the 2.4-litre i-VTEC engine is better. It buys you at least 55hp, and, not unlike the GT's W12, the improvement leaves a lasting impression. Of course, in the Bentley, it's all about slowly opening the sluice gate on 664lb ft of torque, and letting a near-silent, civilised trickle escalate into something growlingly momentous and unearthly. In the Nomad, things are typically more sudden. Its tuneless four-pot grumble is best alleviated by finding the bulkhead swiftly in low gear, which promptly turns the world upside down.

At higher revs, the blower goes from middling yowl to ear-piercing shriek, and has the car pitching back and scrabbling forward like an oversized Tamiya R/C buggy (funny that). It isn't quite as fast as the more serious iterations of Atom, but it's so unsparingly physical that the deficit seems a mercy. Lord knows what it will be like when its maker gets around to finding room for the physically larger FK8 engine in the back, as it has done with the Atom 4. As relentless as the McLaren 570S, perhaps, which we finally encounter a little west of Exeter. In it there is a beaming Cheshire cat made of sunglasses and teeth, suggesting that the drive from Woking hasn't been overly taxing. That's a good sign, because this particular car (a Spider, obvs) is outfitted with the £17,160 Track Pack that PH hasn't previously sampled.

What's changed? Well, nothing oily. There's still 570hp bellowing from the 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8, and - despite the obvious connotations - still the same settings in the springs and adaptive dampers. What you get instead is a small heap of expensive options that are significantly lighter than the standard kit. This includes the 'stealth finish' sports exhaust, a 12mm taller rear spoiler and the 10-spoke forged alloy wheels, the latter contributing a 4kg-per-corner shedding of unsprung mass. Inside, you get the carbon fibre bucket seats, clad in Alcantara. Ditto the steering wheel. And most of the dash. It's awash in furry black Italian trim, as a matter of fact. But the softness stops there - push a millimetre deeper and you'll hit bone.

In many ways it is no less skeletal than the Nomad, and despite the infotainment and HVAC systems and other creature comforts, no less business like. Its party trick is much the same, too - only more so because the way the 570S effortlessly absorbs bumps while hardly succumbing to body roll is downright baffling in a car that suspends you about three inches above the road. In its own highly taut way, it glides no less persuasively than the Bentley. And because there's no engine in front and the windscreen begins virtually at the top of the steering wheel, it's also fantastically easy to place on a country lane. On Dartmoor - or indeed, anywhere else in the UK - both factors eliminate concerns about the standard or scale of the road. You just get on with enjoying yourself.

The 570S makes this remarkably easy to do. There is a sense of occasion to driving McLaren's pocket super car, of course - how could there not be with those dihedral doors and malevolent V8 soundtrack - but no sense of intimidation or go-faster tension. The transition from just moseying along to going really quite fast indeed frequently occurs without making a conscious decision; there is no hyperactivity or coltish nervousness to overcome - it just starts working its contact patches a little harder. The advantages of its 570hp output and 1,486kg kerbweight mean it will go on to do this at extraordinary, hadron collider-like speeds if you so wish. But the real mind-boggler, and what sets it apart from the best of the rest, is that no matter how modest the pace, the Super Series car still seeks to fabulously reward the invested driver.

It manages to do this because the exceptional chassis has been mated to exceptionally well-judged controls. At everything above manoeuvring speeds, they fuse together like butter and caster sugar. Almost everything thereafter occurs with granular super-sweetness, from the initial weight and positivity of the hydraulic steering to the instant, linear response of the front axle. Cornering is an exercise in oneness, with feedback, grip, balance and incision all at an absurd premium. At road speeds, there's no knife-edge to the handling at all - just a flat, wide plateau of consistency where you frolic about in a hazy sort of bliss, clipping apexes and zapping straights. Even the V8, much maligned for its industrial tone of voice, could hardly be more efficient in applying the power exactly as you request it.

It's raw driving pleasure of the highest order: unstrained, yet scrupulous; serene, yet thrilling. Bentley, you suspect, had something similar in mind when it returned the GT's constituent bits to the drawing board. And thanks to 21st century electrical engineering and the weaponised surge of a 20th century power source, it halfway pulls it off. In 'Sport' mode, the car has double the spring rate of 'Comfort', backed by the closer attention of the 48v-powered active anti-roll bars. Structurally, the GT is less nose heavy than it was before, too, and feels it. Turn in is more astute and the all-wheel drive system won't send more than 17 per cent of the available torque forward in its most aggressive setting. The result is a better defined, palpably rear-driven sense of purpose - one endlessly embellished by the 6.0-litre twin-turbocharged unit's capacity for firing the car up the road virtually regardless of engine speed.

Of course, the GT's limiting factor is less accelerating its 2,244kg than it is slowing it down - and the closer you approach the car's limit, the more apparent its considerable mass becomes - especially in this kind of lightweight company. On Dartmoor it's rather like riding a shire horse into battle, big and emboldening, but possibly not quite as well suited to the place as one of the small, semi-feral ponies that rove about the landscape looking for journalists to chew on. Cue the Nomad: hardy, stout and free-roaming by design. It ought to be handicapped too by its lofty ride height and all-terrain tyres - and compared to the 570S, of course, it is - but Ariel's 670kg off-roader settles so brilliantly on its Yokohama Geolanders, and telegraphs what grip there is so well, that it's virtually impossible not to relish throwing it into hard corners and up over crests.

And then, when you're bored of that, there's always the option to slip the surly bonds of tarmac and take to the sunlit silence beyond. Easier said than done in the UK, of course; even somewhere as vast and as remote as Dartmoor is closed off to virtually all motor vehicles. Finding the right sort of byway needs an OS map and a detour before the long trek home on the last day. But, boy, was it worth it. Everything we'd been raving about on the road - the unassisted steering, the weight balance, the docility, the directness, the feedback, the mobility of the back end - all felt half glimpsed and under appreciated once the gravel and swirling dust had finished laying everything bare. And that was after less than a mile. Had it gone on for much longer, and been laced with hairpins, we might never have re-emerged from the tree line.

We did though. After all, there were a Bentley GT and McLaren 570S to drive home in - or 'Comfort' and 'Sport' as we dubbed them (no-one could quite decide whether the Nomad should be 'Off-Road' or 'Track'). Both had given us the same fizz at some point in the preceding 48 hours. How could they not? The same core value runs through them all like a seam of coal. It is made of pride and expertise and fitness for purpose, and powers all that is good about each. Ariel originally tried to make the Nomad on the cheap - but could not, because it would not have been perfect. Bentley delayed the GT's launch - a massive, costly imposition - because the gearbox was not up to snuff. And McLaren is, well... McLaren, where attention to detail is treated as a guiding principle. Each car puts its driver in direct contact with the integrity and talent of the people who built them. Not one seems like the anonymous product of a conveyor belt. And not one would be as it is without the passion or skill or emotional investment of its makers.

Each reflects the preoccupations of the people who buy them too, of course - and that's no less lovely. Because it means there's still a time and place for pomp and ceremony, for speed and ingenuity, and for the bright-spark of originality. It is a broad church, ours, one welcoming of new members. Lest we forget, Ariel was founded in 2001, and McLaren Automotive in 2010. They have done things differently but, within their differing means, they have both innovated and experimented endlessly. They have made mistakes and learnt from them immediately. They have grown at a sustainable rate and made a considerable mark abroad. And they have both produced cars - the Nomad and 570S high among them - which easily rank among the most memorable of the last decade.

As has Bentley. The GT's place in the early 21st century is well-established. Sure, some of that reputation has been earned for it by footballers and lottery winners, but the car became aspirational for a very good reason: it was unique, exclusive and seemed to arrive fully-formed. Let's not forget either that while Bentley's heritage maybe as old as the hills, its modern incarnation - i.e. the Volkswagen era - only started in 1998. Even with Wolfsburg's money, there was no preordained guarantee of success. And yet the GT became the best selling car ever built by Bentley; a claim it would not be able to make if customers hadn't immediately bought into the idea that, even with all the shared technology aboard, it still epitomised the 99-year-old principles of the winged B. The new one, better all-round yet cut from the same cloth, is a worthy follow-up. Grouped together with the Ariel Nomad and McLaren 570S - and the best of the rest from Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lotus, Caterham, Morgan, Mini, Rolls-Royce and others - they encapsulate all that is great and good about the liveliest, quirkiest, coolest and outright best automotive industry on earth. In short, they all win. Which means you, me, we - the customer - does, too. Rule Britannia.

5,950cc, twin-turbocharged W12
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 635@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 664@4.500rpm
0-62mph: 3.6 seconds
Top speed: 207mph
Weight: 2,244kg
MPG: 23.2
CO2: 278g/km
Price: £159,100 (£205,640 with options)

2,354cc, four-cylinder (supercharger optional)
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 238@7,200rpm (299 with supercharger)
Torque (lb ft): 221@4,300rpm (251 with supercharger)
0-62mph: 3.4 seconds
Top speed: 125mph
Weight: 670kg
MPG: Decent-ish
CO2: Yep, got that
Price: £50,000 with options

3,799cc, twin-turbocharged V8
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 570@7,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 443@5,000-6,500rpm
0-62mph: 3.2 seconds
Top speed: 204mph
Weight: 1,486kg (DIN)
MPG: 26.6
CO2: 249g/km
Price: £164,750 (£220,550 with options)

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