View the different silhouettes of these cars and you might wonder why we're comparing a mid-engined supercar, a front-engined grand tourer and a grand four-seat cabriolet. They may be wildly expensive, excitingly potent and capable of opening up in more ways than one, but the Aston Martin DBS Volante, Bentley Continental GTC Speed and Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 Spyder are about as comparable as an elephant, a rhino and hippo; they're rare, potent and capable of deploying all kinds of mayhem, but at heart these are different beasts.
But like the aforementioned quadrupeds, they are creatures of character. They are configured to provide the kind of richly intense experience that you have a right to expect when turning upward of $250,000 into a set of wheels. And gloriously disparate though they are, the capabilities of these three are more closely matched than you might think. All three set out to provide ultimates, of performance, luxury, dynamics, style and, above all, sensation. So which, we are wondering, is the most beguiling?
There's one contest that the DBS Volante wins straight away, and that's the race to strip for alfresco action; its fabric roof lofts, furls and sinks below the rear deck in just 18 seconds, to the Bentley's 21sec and the Lamborghini's 22sec. That's no surprise when you examine the roofs and their mechanisms, mind you, for there's at least double the fabric to pack aboard the GTC, while the Gallardo's conversion to rooflessness requires that the engine lid rise and reverse to allow its compact canopy to hide. The gymnastics performed by the Volante's hood need not be as ambitious.
The differences in roofing arrangements illustrate the differences in the conception of these cars. But the effectiveness of these approaches is not all we are assessing here. There's also the issue of whether removing the lids from these cars compromises the capabilities of vehicles that put out 500hp to 600hp apiece, lunge to 62mph in around five seconds, flirt with 200mph, and have sporting pedigrees and styling.
All three of these models have a few years behind them now – assuming that you consider the DBS to be a grander, reworked version of the DB9 – but are new in these guises. This is the first roofless Volante version of the DBS. Aston claims that it retains an impressive 75 percent of the closed car's torsional rigidity, while putting on a relatively modest 254 lbs.
Equipment includes active rear rollover bars and a Bang & Olufsen stereo that automatically alters its output when the roof is down. But mechanically this is the most conventional car here; its 510hp 6.0-liter V12 drives the rear wheels via a six-speed gearbox, which in this case is the optional paddle-shift automatic.
The Bentley also has 6.0 liters and 12 cylinders, although these are arranged in a W formation and boosted by twin turbos to drive all four wheels. The Speed option has recently been extended to the GTC convertible, gaining you 48hp and 74lb ft of torque, retuned Servotronic steering, lowered suspension, a more upright grille, a larger lower air intake and a new rear spoiler. Inside, the most visible alteration is the quilting of its leather upholstery, while radar cruise control and carbon ceramic brakes are options (the latter are fitted to our test car). They're claimed to be the largest of any production car's, and their 44-lb saving counters some of the convertible's 300-lb gain.
The Gallardo puts on 309 lbs to go roofless, though overall it's usefully lighter than the Aston and massively so than the Bentley. This is the Spyder version of last year's reworked all-wheel-drive Gallardo, with an all-new 5.2-liter direct injection V10 that's 40hp and 44lb ft more potent, and 18 percent less thirsty. Suspension and steering have been revised, as has the 40 percent swifter-shifting automated manual transmission. A minor restyling includes more emphatic front air intakes, new headlights, fresh tail-lights and a diffuser claimed to improve stability in fast curves.
And we'll be hunting plenty of these over two days in the Welsh countryside. Our mission for these cars is among the severest you can throw at a convertible, a trial guaranteed to tease out the flaws in any high-performance car burdened by the blow to its structural integrity that lopping its top of represents.
All three get off to a great start in the visuals department. The DBS is a fussier-looking confection than the DB9, and it loses the elegantly languid sweep of the coupe's roofline, but its long nose is still counterbalanced by a pert tail and a roof that neatly stows to create the classically glamorous sports car of a million dreams.
It has presence, but nothing like that conveyed by the Bentley's loftier mass and mesh grille. Like the Aston, the GTC looks as appealing with the roof up as it does uncovered, and its hood disappears with the tidiness to satisfy any obsessive compulsive.
The Lambo is a mechanical monster that appears to snuffle along at half the height of the Bentley. The roof is a bit hat-like, and its absence emphasizes a dramatic long-tail, short-nose silhouette. And in the case of this Gallardo, going topless allows you to get a faceful of an emergency-orange leather interior that's fabulously impractical and rather desirable.
There is a load more to like once you've dropped into the Lamborghini's road-scraping embrace. Its V10 bellows like a jungle animal, and with plenty of range, issuing a deep-chested chug under load at low revs until you reach 3800rpm, when it lets rip with a trumpeting yell that never fails to inspire.
Not that the Bentley is short of orchestral appeal, for the whomp and woffle of its rifled exhausts is a soundtrack entirely appropriate to its pomp. Oddly, the engine itself sounds more ordinary when revved, but its capacity for shoving the Bentley down the road at obscene speeds is anything but average.
The Aston's exhaust sounds intriguingly reedy at high revs and has a bass bellow that encourages thorough exploration of the power curve. It needs stretching to give its best, and more than the peakier Gallardo, because the Italian car weighs less. The Lamborghini offers more immediacy to its power delivery, though nothing like the earth-moving might of the Bentley, which steps off the line with startling zeal.
The Bentley's huge thrust is enough to trigger irrepressible grins, but it's the deft way that the GTC can be threaded at an improbable country-road pace that amazes. It is nimble, precise, supple, stable and eager, boosting your confidence with exquisitely judged steering effort.
True, this praise is applied partly in the context of its bulk, but even in absolute terms this car handles with astonishing aplomb. It's the sheer unlikeliness of it that charms, and it delivers all this with almost no quiver or quake; the shudder of a front wheel hitting a pothole is almost its only vibratory foible.
For contrast, step down into the Gallardo. The drama of this car is so much more obvious, yet there is real sophistication to be uncovered. And that's at its most mighty when you're hard-charging a fast, sweeping curve in the quest to hear the V10 climax at a yelling 8200rpm. It's the Lamborghini's pulse-calming stability that's so impressive, a stability unfazed by dips, crests, a mid-bend trimming of line or even by the sudden need to brake. And its all-wheel-drive traction out of corners is chewing-gum-to-shoe grippy.
Still more striking is the Gallardo's agility, because its darting athleticism is in a different league from its challengers. It's sharp, relishes mid-bend trajectory changes and devours curves.
The Aston encourages no less ambitious advances. It feels more compact than the others (though it's not, in length and width), its conventionally sporty driving position is less intimidating, its exhaust sounds come-on wanton and its bigger paddle shifters are easier to locate in the midst of your wheel-whizzing ambition. And there'll be need for yet more whizzing if you're reckless with the ESP off, because two-wheel drive allows tail slides that are both a temptation and, with this kind of power, an intimidation.
Yet the DBS can be hustled with ease, despite steering that feels decisively less well connected than those of its rivals and feedback through a seat that does more to distance you from the action. Aboard the Lambo and even the Bentley, your sense of the road below and your interaction with it are more complete. In the Aston, you're less well connected.
There's plenty of tactile transmission aboard the Gallardo, whose messaging service is direct, instant and unequivocal. And not at the expense of ride. This is the firmest car here, even when the adjustable suspensions of Bentley and Aston are at their stoutest, but it's never uncomfortable.
The Aston is more absorbent in its normal setting, occasionally jostling in the sport mode that you'll select for a hard drive, and rarely uncomfortable. But it's restless enough to prompt shameful squeaks from the fold-out sat-nav screen and a worrisome creak from the structure.
Aboard the Bentley you have four suspension settings – unnecessary, in truth – but even in the most extreme it advances with some serenity, and the milder settings are admirably cushioning.
More likely to upset your calm is the challenge of braking in these cars. The worst is the Lamborghini; its panic pedal is so distant from your right foot that it's likely to hone your left leg braking skills. It needs a very stout shove, too. So do the Bentley and Aston, but less so, and both have sensibly positioned pedals.
Despite these foibles, and paddle shifters that are too small in both Bentley and Lambo, this trio will consume a road with rapid-attack fluency that's utterly exhilarating, more so because you can do it roofless. The whirls of air are well managed in all three, although those in the back of the Bentley are going to have their hair magnificently mussed. The Bentley's rear seats are comfortable but confined, especially for legs, but you'd need to lose those appendages to have any hope of occupying the back of the DBS. The Gallardo, of course, is for two only.
On one hugely important level, all three of these cars are winners: none is significantly compromised for being a convertible. The most astounding is the near tremor-free Bentley, while the Aston and Lambo rarely get the shudders, even if the Gallardo's doors rattle. And in every case, the removable roof deepens your enjoyment. Only if you regularly cruise at three-figure speeds would refinement issues impinge; the GTC and DBS turn noisome, hoods up, at 100mph, the Gallardo 20mph earlier.
But there are two winners here, and one loser. The Aston doesn't feel special enough for its price, does not have an extraordinary dimension to some aspect of its capabilities. It's electrifyingly quick, it makes intoxicating sounds and handles its potency with impressive aplomb. But it connects less completely with its driver, disappoints with areas of patchy finish and, in this company, fails to amaze. You could enjoy much the same experience for far less money, with a Jaguar XKR perhaps, or Aston's own V8 Vantage Roadster.
The Gallardo delivers far more vivid sensations with its speed, grip, agility and stability, explored amid a nerve-charging soundtrack. It's extreme, effective and hugely desirable, if less glossily finished than the GTC.
The Bentley is a more useful car, a car that you could use daily. But with this comes the magic of its assumption-confounding agility, refinement, power and indulgently rich high-end finish. Its appeal is vastly different from the Lamborghini's, yet you cannot say that one is better than the other. In both, you get cars to marvel at. With the Aston, sadly, you don't. Words: Richard Bremner/Autocar
Photos: Charlie Magee/Autocar