Grand-tourer battle: Ferrari 812 Superfast vs. Aston Martin DBS Superleggera

Two very different approaches
by Tom Ford | Jul 10, 2019

‘The same, then? Not at all’

If cars did Internet dating, the Ferrari 812 Superfast and the Aston Martin DBS Superleggera would be swiping right hard enough to crack a phone screen. They come from similarly aristocratic backgrounds, have similar outlooks on life, and even enjoy similar hobbies—hobbies that center around being head-swivel noisy, making people stare, and accelerating fast enough to edit distance in a jump-cut. A short film featuring painfully compressed vertebrae and anime-wide eyes. High-end? Both cost more than normal people can afford to spend on something they can’t live in.

If you want to be less metaphorical about it, both have front-midship V12s, both have horsepower figures that start with a seven, although the 812’s number is dangerously close to starting with an eight. Both are two-door grand tourers, both weigh between 1,600kg and 1,700kg. Both have a top speed of 340kph, and both manage to get to 160kph in less time than a hot hatch gets to 100...

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The same, then? Not at all. But this, it seems, is a story of context rather than lap times, so we had better start with some. The Aston is essentially a development of the DB11 V12, one beefed up with a host of new bits and an improvement of the 5.2-liter twin-turbo V12 to give 715hp and 898Nm of torque. The Superleggera bit hints at the generous use of carbon fiber to give a 72kg weight saving over a similar V12 DB11, and there’s a stronger eight-speed ZF auto ’box to cope with the extra power and torque, with more sporting—that is, shorter—ratios. The suspension is lower (by 5mm), and there’s new digital brainwashing for the Skyhook adaptive suspension as well as quite a few changes to the bodywork to create a car that stops passersby in their tracks. In fact, it renders most people incapable of speech, limiting them to appreciative grunts and soft, fond swearing. It’s also big, wide, and low, guttural and meaty.

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PHOTO: Greg Pajo

In the red corner, the Ferrari 812 Superfast is an equally honed version of the previous F12, with new ducts, vents, and slashes, and a naturally aspirated V12 that develops 789hp at 8,500rpm. The redline is 8,900rpm. Which means that when the Aston’s torque-inducing turbos are finishing their pounding delivery and looking for the next gear, the Ferrari is just getting going.

There’s a whipcrack seven-speed F1 dual-clutch gearbox, less torque than in the Aston (716Nm), and a wealth of electronic minders to help you manage all that power. There’s a strong familial feel to the limited-edition F12tdf in that it feels light, fast, and nervy, and it has a similar effect to the Aston on those that come across it—people seem to be overjoyed it exists. Though there are more than a few blown-out cheeks when they hear that this particular car, in the spec here, weighs in north of £350,000 (above P22.4 million). Just under £80,000 (roughly P5.13 million) more than the Diavolo Red Aston in the pictures.

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PHOTO: Greg Pajo

It’s the DBS that I spend initial time in, and the one that’s the most appealing for a multi-hour schlep to Wales. People like an Aston Martin. They buy into the brand: the styling, the vibe. The geometric spider’s web of the seats adds a touch of vigor into an interior otherwise dominated by a slightly uninspiring dash, but there’s nothing wrong with comfort levels, even with such devastating amounts of power available.

The auto slides through the gears without fuss; the ride is firm, but nowhere near full-on sports-car hard. And if you want to go, the DBS is more than capable. As in ‘make sure you pull all the way out before you plant the throttle’ capable, or you’ll accidentally bury yourself inside the car in front: Third and fourth gears, people, are an education. It’s also a car that feels heavy and relatively subdued, but one that sheds mass and languor as soon as you switch modes and start using the paddles. The engine is so deep-chested that you can make overtaking safer than ever before; the brakes are so strong and consistent that you never worry about punting what is a big car down a small road.

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It never feels small, as such. It’s not darty so much as supremely athletic, and makes you dangerously willing to go faster than you really should. Staring out from the dark interior over that long hood, you realize that this car is a fortress, and you don’t so much drive down a road as lay siege to it. To badly paraphrase, the DBS is a hammer. Every road becomes a nail.

PHOTO: Greg Pajo

The Ferrari is a different kettle of grand tourer, and to be honest, you’ll be working around more foibles than in the Aston. There’s a good deal more tire roar, more noise in general, the steering rack is accurate, nervous, and less suited to genial, rapid distance destruction. The ’box is fabulous, but it lacks the Aston’s slippery subtlety in town and it’s generally slightly jerkier and more highly strung—it’s not the most relaxing of things, and you never, ever, forget that it wants to go faster. From an initial standpoint, the Aston has more duality in its personality, a greater distance between ferocity and calm.

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But that’s not to say that you couldn’t use the Ferrari as a GT, or the Aston as a track car. Just that where the Aston sits in the upper echelon of insanely fast touring, the Ferrari feels like a racing car equipped with just enough luxury to do the same job. On the road, the Ferrari essentially winds you up where the Aston will soothe. An example: Both cars have enough power and torque to flummox their traction-control systems when things get rainy.

This is both amusing and completely terrifying. The Aston will simply stutter as the wheels spin: slip-stop, slip-stop, until sufficient velocity is achieved. The Ferrari, in Sport mode (one away from full Wet designation), will hit a white line in fourth and step hard. All I can say is that it’s a good thing the steering is so fast and precise, because otherwise, I’d have been buttered up a stone wall wearing a Ferrari steering wheel as a hat.

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PHOTO: Greg Pajo

There is a point at which really letting these cars breathe becomes entirely antisocial on the road. They accelerate so fast that you can literally appear from nowhere, and the gorgeous, swooping Welsh roads we’ve been driving on get very small and...sheepy...in parts. Add in more rain and some generous standing water, and the potential for a really embarrassing accident starts to get ever more likely. Which means we need to cut loose and head to a track where there are no speed limits. Or livestock.

When we get to Llandow Circuit, small as it is, the Aston Martin impresses again. All the relevant modes engaged, full-noise exhaust and suspension on full lockdown, and the DBS scythes around beautifully. The brakes are exceptional, the engine effortless. Obviously, there’s oversteer on tap, but when it happens, it feels manageable and relatively benign. And fun. Lots and lots of fun. All the promise of the road driving writ large when the car gets a chance to stretch its legs. There hasn’t been an Aston capable of this much in a very long time, and it feels glorious.

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The compromises for the on-road comfort side of things get more obvious here, though: The gearbox, so useful in town, won’t match downshifts to intent, so you’ll be found waiting for a gear when changing down multiple times into a tight corner. The engine is wickedly entertaining in the lower and mid reaches, but it loses something when really wrung out, both aurally and in terms of outright shove. You can see the compromises, but in my head, they’re good ones—the DBS isn’t a track addict, and I’d rather have it flavored this way as a GT.

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But then the Ferrari gets on track, and you forget everything. You forget the tire roar, the nervous steering, the price. You forget your own name, where you live, your next of kin. Although the latter suddenly becomes highly relevant. This is not a car. It’s a bomb with alloy wheels. In a world full of overstatement, I think I’m slightly underplaying it by saying that this Ferrari, with this naturally aspirated engine, is quite literally epic.

It revs like a superbike, dying out of its own stratospheric range like the rev counter is attached to a rubber band. It blips downshifts like an F1 car. It leaves black tire marks everywhere—not just when sliding—although that might have something to do with the ‘option’ tires Ferrari thought were necessary for our track jaunt. But it’s not really about the tires here. It’s about the combination of a genius naturally aspirated engine and shotgun gearbox coupled to a car that’s so viscerally intent, it seems unreasonable that your brain must be expected to keep pace with your body.

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At first, the information arrives in an almost overwhelming deluge. Like walking in to a noisy chatter-filled party from a quiet garden. But soon, the channels separate, become distinct. There’s subtlety, and nuance. You just have to get your head around the fact that there’s also 789hp fighting its way through the rear tires, and mostly winning. Slow corner? I applied possibly a millimeter too much throttle and found myself instantly facing the wrong way with a dazed look on my face. Fast corner? The 812 had me sweating, jabbing away oversteer with crazed concentration.

If you want to really go fast in an 812 Superfast with the traction systems disabled, you’d better have had several cups of coffees. And a partial lobotomy. On the road, you just can’t deploy full 812. But you also can’t deploy full DBS, either, so they’re relatively close to each other point-to-point on a real road. But on a track? The Ferrari leaves the DBS for dead. Then burns the body and salts the earth.

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PHOTO: Greg Pajo

As ever, it’s not that simple to reach a definitive verdict. But copouts are the easy option. If you asked me which car I’d rather drive to Monaco for 12 hours, I’d immediately say the Aston Martin DBS. It’s the better GT car. It’s a more rounded interpretation of the brief, and one of the best vehicles ever to come from Aston—a rare accolade when you think about it. Ridiculously fast, supremely comfortable in context, gawp-worthy style.

But if you asked me which car I’d rather own of the two...I’m sorry, but the Ferrari is the pick. I simply cannot believe that the naturally aspirated V12 will see many more iterations after this before they all get some sort of efficiently enhancing hybrid or forced induction. I can’t believe that Ferrari will get away with building cars so utterly manic. I can’t stop thinking that if I drove one every day, I’d do so for the engine and the gearbox, and damn everything else. I’d go slightly deaf for it. Arrive everywhere jerky and wound up for it. I’d buy more health insurance, and very probably end up crashing it at high speed. But hell, what a way to go.

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: Greg Pajo
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