We succumb to dodecaphilia. BY FRANK MARKUS July 2003 The number 12 is powerful, perhaps even more so than pi (3.142) or the so-called golden ratio (1.618). The Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia probably started it. They worshipped 12 astral gods, one for each of the 12 heavenly bodies of the solar system as they knew it. Subsequent pantheons in Greece, Rome, and elsewhere also housed 12 superior deities. Christians count 12 apostles; Muslims, 12 holy imams; and Jews, the 12 tribes of Israel. Chinese, Vedic (Indian), and Western cultures all recognize 12 months and 12 signs of the astrological zodiac. In Chinese medicine, there are 12 jing meridians of ch’i, or energy flow, in the body. And in modern-day secular America, Alan Greenspan presides over 12 Federal Reserve banks. We try cases before a jury of 12 of our peers and appeal federal cases in one of 12 circuit courts. We enroll in 12-step programs to kick nasty habits. We buy doughnuts and bagels in batches of 12, and on and on it goes. The number 12 looms supernaturally in the mechanical realm as well. Consider the V-12 engine. Back in the early years of internal-combustion research, this configuration was found to run with uncanny calm. Thanks to a natural balancing of the reciprocating and rotating parts, an even-firing V-12 is free of the first- and second-order forces and moments that cause vibration in many other engine types. The earliest military aircraft designers tooling up for the Great War were attracted to the power-dense V-12 because it posed less risk of shaking an airframe to pieces. By World War II, V-12s were the engine of choice in fighter planes, with the Rolls-Royce Merlin powering Allied Spitfires and Mustangs and the Daimler-Benz DB 600-series motivating Axis Messerschmitts (see sidebar). And the V-12 made just as good a civilian plowshare as it did a military sword, as wealthy drivers began learning as early as 1916 with the Packard Double-Six. As engineering has progressed through the jet age, the space age, and on toward the age of Aquarius, the 12-cylinder has survived as the automotive engine of choice for patricians, plutocrats, and power brokers the world over. GM is hard at work on a V-12 for a flagship Cadillac; Ford’s V-12 marks time under sporty Aston Martin hoods awaiting better days for a possible Lagonda or Jaguar XJ12 sedan reprise; Toyota builds a V-12 for its anachronistic, chrome-bumpered Century in Japan and might install it in a 2006 Lexus; and VW will soon crowd 12 cylinders into the space of eight in its forthcoming Phaeton W-12. BMW and DaimlerChrysler are the leading sellers of V-12 cars. Their ritzy Rolls-Royce and Maybach divisions each feature V-12 powertrains in cars that cost in excess of 300 large. For lesser moguls and magnates, or those who simply like to show a bit more stealth with their wealth, there are the BMW 760Li and the Mercedes-Benz S600. Both provide the same engine technology and 90 percent of the power of their Rolls Phantom and Maybach 57 stablemates for about four dimes on the greenback. In the case of the BMW, the new technology includes direct fuel injection (a U.S. first) that lowers cylinder temperatures to permit a higher compression ratio and thereby boost power by five percent over that of a similar port-injected engine. Valvetronic variable valve timing and lift do away with traditional throttle plates and their pumping losses to further increase efficiency. Mercedes ditched last year’s fuel-saving cylinder deactivation and took a somewhat blunter approach to power generation—it bolted on two 3K-Warner K24 turbos with intercoolers, blowing 14.5 psi into the S600 (or 18.9 psi into the Maybach). The pertinent numbers are: for the 760Li, 438 horsepower and 444 pound-feet; for the S600, 493 horsepower and 590 pound-feet. The impertinent ones are: for the BMW, 15 city and 23 highway mpg; for the Mercedes, 13 city and 19 highway. To report on the current state of the V-12 supersedan art, we pretended as though our 11th and 12th Vedic astrological houses (the ones governing income and expenditures) had endowed us with the wealth and power to acquire a quarter-million dollars’ worth of BMW and Mercedes sedans and park them in front of important buildings in the current seat of global power, Washington, D.C. (and if you like these photos of us, there are probably hundreds more like them in Secret Service filing cabinets across the capital). ----- Second Place - BMW 760Li We suspect this car’s interior may have served as an audition for BMW personnel hoping to be assigned the tasks of designing and crafting the Rolls-Royce cabin. There must be 12 miles of double stitching holding together the Alcantara headliner, the two-tone leather dash, and the gathered-and-perforated leather upholstery covering the doors and seats. The two-tone wood trim features marquetry unseen since Louis Quatorze. The front seats adjust 20 ways and massage their occupants’ backsides; the rears move 14 ways. All the seats are heated and cooled. LEDs provide soft orange, indirect nighttime lighting, including backlit V-12 emblems on the door-sill plates. By design or by accident, this cabin’s 12 earthly branches and elements of feng shui surely must be optimized, because the ambience is exquisitely harmonious. To equal the base 760Li’s level of comfort and style in a Mercedes requires purchase of another $17,950 worth of optional equipment. Nonetheless, the 760Li is somewhat less endearing to operate than it is to sit in. One of the most maddening traits—after one has completely acclimated to the funky controls that must be explained to valets and anyone else entrusted with moving the car—is the driver’s lack of direct control over most systems and functions. The buttons and stalks make requests, as if to Oz, and then something happens—or maybe it doesn’t. Most reactions seem slow, as when shifting from reverse to drive during a three-point turn in traffic, ordering a transmission kickdown by foot, or resuming a set speed with the optional ($2200) radar cruise control. Others are too quick. The automatic windshield washer kept squirting when we didn’t want it to after a brief accidental brush of the button (usually while reaching for the shifter), and the by-wire acceleration program makes it difficult to pull away smoothly from a stop or accelerate from low speeds without a power surge, a brusque downshift, or both. Perhaps it’s trickier to gradually increase valve lift than it is to crack open a throttle plate, or maybe further electronic tuning is called for. Tech editor Robinson put it thusly: “This car is always making assumptions about what you want or how you should drive. It would be better if some of those assumptions were right.” Sometimes Oz simply tilts. One day the car stalled going into reverse, and the navigation system refused to work. Next, the remote fob wouldn’t open the doors or trunk, and we got a message warning that the transmission’s park function “may be disabled—use parking brake.” These problems miraculously healed themselves, unlike when the rear-seat motors went offline (our local dealer says the driver’s power-window disabling switch also kills electricity to the seats). By day two, we were ready to enroll in a 12-step anger-management seminar, and we started to wonder whether powerful CEO types accustomed to barking orders and getting results could ever bond with this car. But then we left D.C.’s Beltway grind and stretched the 760’s sinews on some undulating Virginia byways, and the car came into its own, feeling at least 500 pounds lighter than its 2.5 tons. The Bimmer turned in sharply, cornered flatly, and kept all four tires pressed firmly to the pavement even on off-camber curves and whoop-de-dos that sent the Mercedes flying. Despite trailing the Benz 0.82 to 0.86 in lateral grip, the 760Li narrowly outmaneuvered the S600 59.7 mph to 59.6 mph through the emergency lane change. A slightly coarse ride quality is the penalty, although the BMW’s suspension was judged to be more compliant than the Mercedes’. Next to the mighty Benz twin-turbo, the 760’s high-tech V-12 struggles to impress, given that each of its 438 horses is saddled with almost two more pounds of car than the Mercedes horses bear. Acceleration trailed the Benz’s by 0.8 second to 60 mph (arriving in a quick 5.1 seconds), and the gap widened to 4.4 seconds at 130 mph. Floor the gas pedal to make a pass, and there is often a disconcerting pause as Oz weighs its options for gearing and valve lift. Note the 0.8-second difference in passing times. Of course, for those who will never sample an S600, the 760’s smooth surge of power surely seems more than adequate. We hear rumors that there is a crash program in the works to restyle the front and rear of the 7-series. We think a system upgrade and simplification of the controls are more urgently called for so the driver can fully appreciate the harmonious interior, the silken V-12, and that magical BMW chassis. Highs: Peerless four-throne interior furnishings, twisty-road manners befitting the Ultimate Driving Machine. Lows: Lumpy throttle-by-wire mapping, controls that coin the word “irkonomics.” The Verdict: A luxury sedan for drivers whose patience exceeds their wealth. ----- First Place - Mercedes-Benz S600 The Mercedes S600’s interior may not be as chichi as the 760’s, but the rest of the car has ch’i up the proverbial jing-jang. Drop the hammer at any speed below 40 mph, and the brakes go to work controlling wheelspin as your neck muscles strain to keep your head level. The acceleration seems just shy of g-sled, cheek-flapping strong and is sufficient to whoosh the S600 to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds, to 100 in 9.7, and through the quarter in 12.5 at 115 mph. That’s neck and neck with a slightly racier 12-banger—the Ferrari 575M Maranello —and the Benz wins the drag race by a 10th! And that peak performance is gained by simply flooring the accelerator. No brake-torque or wheelspinning histrionics required. That’s the beauty of the S600: Despite its bodacious brawn, it’s a gentle giant. Engage the transmission’s “comfort” mode, and a second-gear start launches the car smoothly enough to prevent spilling a brimming café latteccino. Only in certain full-throttle upshifts and downshifts does the heavily reinforced transmission deliver an uncharacteristically firm kick. And when it comes time to undo the inertial damage done by the 12 pistons under the hood, 12 more pistons (four per corner in front, two each in back) go to work clamping AMG-size front and rear rotors. Repeated stops from 70 mph took 164 feet (two less than the Maranello). And yet, delicately applied, they can also arrest 70 mph without sloshing a back-seat martini. This car’s finesse is incredibly endearing. The turbos spool up instantly and imperceptibly, providing rheostatic power delivery. The brakes feel completely linear and intuitive at all speeds (a trait the first few Sensotronic brake-by-wire Benzes we’ve evaluated made us nostalgic for). The steering is similarly instinctive. It feels less aloof than most other Mercedes in its transmission of intimate road details, and it’s every bit as forthcoming about these details as the 760Li. The active-body-control suspension’s hydraulic over coil springs keep the car just as level as the BMW’s active anti-roll bars do in sport mode, but softer rebound damping allows a bit of float over some roads—this is especially true when running in the suspension’s comfort mode. This ride bias, however, doesn’t translate into cloudlike cushiness, thanks primarily to the rock-hard Y-rated Michelin Pilot Sport tires. Those tires helped generate an impressive 0.86 g of lateral grip at the track, but all things considered, we’d probably be inclined to trade some of their ultimate performance away for more all-seasons-oriented tires. This would improve the ride quality and quiet an annoying road roar that nearly shouted down the stereo on certain concrete superslabs. Still, one imagines that at least a few customers trolling in this market segment may consider themselves potential targets of kidnappers, terrorists, or assassins, and for them the Benz is the clear choice (probably wearing even harder run-flat tires). The 760Li may be able to scoot through the curves a bit quicker, but the S600 is the rig for swiftly accelerating beyond the accuracy range of an assailant’s firearms. The traditional console-mounted side-to-side quasi-manumatic shifter would be much easier to use under the pressure of hot pursuit, too. Ease of operation is the S600’s second most endearing quality. The COMAND system that controls the car’s navigation, entertainment, and communications systems has been simplified somewhat for 2003 so that mastering its use no longer ranks up there with one of the 12 labors of Hercules. Nine buttons at the bottom of the screen now provide direct access to frequently used functions such as the map, stereo mute, and screen dimming. When the nav system is not in use, a single CD can be played in the dash slot, saving a trip to the increasingly archaic trunk-mounted changer. Simple pictogram buttons on the doors control the seats. Conventional buttons tune the radio. It’s all so familiar and functional. True, our S600 was a “stripper,” equipped only with an optional heated steering wheel ($400), and it cost $2165 more than the heavily optioned BMW. But if you’re a player in this league, you’ll pay this and more, cheerfully. Trust us, the thrill of smoking a Ferrari 575M in a stoplight drag race will rank right up there with such executive hobbies as industrial espionage, hostile takeovers, and coups d’état. Highs: Absolute power, corruptive torque, infallible brakes, decisive handling. Lows: Authoritarian ride harshness and loud tires. The Verdict: The ideal commuter capsule for those whose lives are a power trip.