The Battle of the 12’s

This was an escape that used to make a lot of sense when we first planned it: two big GT’s with thirsty V12’s, amazing looks, astonishing performance and comfort. Yet, they couldn’t be more different from each other: just like Italians and Germans. Think about the same thing, but done differently. A LOT differently. These are the two great GT’s of the 1990ies, the sportscars for the grownups. Practical performance that blinks an eye to fast grand touring, all wrapped in a stylish 2+2 package.

I couldn’t agree more with the great Car and Driver Journalist David E. Davis, who once said: “Everybody needs to drive a V12 at least once in their life”. There’s no point in being car enthusiast if you don’t love V12’s.  They are the pinnacle of internal combustion engines: they’re the most refined, complex and rewarding power units ever made. And let’s be honest: they’re a marvellous sight when we open the bonnet. I have never heard of one 12 cylinder who proved to be disappointing: they’re never short on power and torque, and they always have more punch than other engines. Oh yeah, and the soundtrack they provide is always fantastic to hear.

Let’s have a short history lesson. Between the two, the Bmw 850 CSi is now in the hot-spot for collectors. Not only it is rare, it is also the most desirable version of the 8 series, thanks to its fine-tuned 5.6 liter V12 by M-sport which was the basis for the legendary McLaren F1 supercar. The regular 5 liter S70B50 V12 engine was so radically modified by the M Division engineers that it became a completely new unit. Still retaining the single overhead camshaft and 2 valves per cylinder, the new S70B56 engine benefited from 5,6 liters, new pistons and reinforced components. The results were staggering for the time: 381 horses and 550lb of torque at 4000 rpm.

On the other hand, the Ferrari 456 MGT is pure theatre and drips charisma from every angle. It’s one of the best designs that Pininfarina has ever made on a 2+2 Ferrari. It looks completely different from the (sadly) unappreciated 400 series and its line is still beautiful as ever. Upon testing it for Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson said “It’s the fastest four-seater in the world. If you’re wondering about fuel economy, let me remind you that petrol is cheaper than milk. I’ll do you a deal: you don’t ask me how many miles to the gallon I am doing in my Ferrari, and I’ll won’t come around your house in the morning to ask you how much milk you’re putting on your cornflakes”.

Hedonism never needs questions: it is either enjoyed or not. The 456 It’s pure hedonism and communicates a rewarding sense of occasion: driving the 456 still feels like to enjoy the best GT in the world. Interior build quality is not flawless but the immense torque and unmatched power delivery of its 5,4 liter F116 are remarkably smooth and ferocious. Don’t be fooled by its quiet exhaust note on the outside: it is still capable of sounding like a proper Ferrari.
Despite from the awfully sticky controls, a flaw of all Ferraris up until the 612 Scaglietti, the interior is majestic: four seats clothed in fine leather and shaped in a beautiful design. And what’s more satisfying than hearing the glorious soundtrack of the engine and enjoying the metallic “click-click” of the transmission, while seated in pure comfort?

At the present moment, this Ferrari is cheaper than the BMW: yes, you heard that right. I never recall thinking anything like this, but the collector market has the 850CSi under the spotlight at the moment. If you fancy the BMW we used in this Escape, keep in mind that it could be yours for only 89.000 Euros. The Ferrari? Not for sale, but if you like spending the rest 39.000 in maintenance bills, petrol and tires, you’ve got a winner.
Saving the world from Co2 emissions is not the job these cars were designed for. After every acceleration on the 850 CSi, the fancy display on the center console, which was indicating the remaining miles before emptying the tank, was dropping numbers drastically. I could feel sorry for every endangered species I helped to wipe away from the Earth…but not this time.
Do you care about nicotine poisoning your body when enjoying a fine cigar? No, I believe you smoke and drive V12’s for the same sense of shameless enjoyment and don’t give a damn about consequences.

The 850CSi is exactly what you would expect from an uber BMW: dynamism and refinement are the keywords. It’s not sharp as the Ferrari and it does have a wonderful power delivery. The throttle pedal is quite sensitive and as soon as you touch it, the surge of torque feels immense. It revs only past 6000 rpm, but the long gearing permits the excellent characteristics of the engine to shine trough. For being a nearly 2-ton car, the 850 is incredibly agile and intuitive. It is best suited for fast corners, where it settles down on its suspension and carries its weight brilliantly through the four-wheel steering system. The steering is not as direct as the Ferrari’s but allows for fast direction changes and the weight transfer trough corners is never felt. Seating in the comfortable leather chairs inside reminds you of the clear statement this car made when it came out: fast, dynamic travelling with no excuses.
The 456 feels like a car designed for the same purpose as the 850, but…with more character. Besides the leather, it’s sharper, more responsive: dynamism paved the way for the unruly passion of a horse charge.

It has a slightly higher driving position, much better visibility, and its seats are comfortable and supportive. Like the BMW, the Ferrari is unquestionably the GT for grown-ups. Squeeze the rather heavy clutch pedal and the 456 will pull away without any protest. Driving it on a twisty road is rewarding and engaging: the transmission sucks the gear-lever in at every change with great precision and the handling is superb.
The ride quality is nicely balanced as it never feels rigid nor too soft, and the engine pulls strongly right from the bottom, filling the cabin with a wonderful sound. The 456 is a radically different car from the 850CSi, even though they were made for the same purpose in mind.
They’re both the ultimate expression of these two manufacturers. I couldn’t think of better expressions of a high-level GT from both these two companies. Both they’re the most sincere declaration of their Manufacturer’s philosophy and style.

No two similar cars could be radically different. The vitality of the 456 clashes with the dynamism and smoothness of the BMW. Both retain ferocious acceleration and stunning performance, yet they show it in very different mannerism.
So, which one would you bring home in the end? If you fancy a true collector’s car and a rarity that will always be a conversation starter, well, get the 850CSi. Not only is rare, but its distinctive “executive” looks are modern even 20 years after it was first designed. It’s one the best designs BMW has ever produced and the prestige of owning a V12 that is similar to the one used in the legendary McLaren F1 and one of the most intriguing GT’s ever built.
If you’re a traditionalist and do care about having the prestige of one of Ferrari’s best looking 2+2 GT’s and spending a lot in maintenance costs, well, the 456 GT is the one that you’re looking for.

Those two V12’s battling each other is sure a sight to behold: while for the vast majority of people, these two cars are just “old” and “dated”, they’re great driver’s cars which were made for enthusiasts and still appeal to them. It’s true that driving a V12 once in your life is a must: but driving different ones will become your mission in life. Long live the Twelves!

Many Thanks to our friends Mistral Motors

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