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Thursday, 26 April 2012

Ferrari FF and Bentley Continental GT on the Silver Land


 On the Silver track.......

We come from the north, the brogue and the moccasin in the land of the bearskin boot, a southwards plunge through pine forests, chased by plumes of vortexing snow whipped up in our wake.

Neither time nor distance have any meaning out here. This is Sweden, and it's huge. It has its own pace and rhythm, and you get where you're going by being patient. You can't rush Sweden.
4RM has earned the FF its place here. Ferrari's first-ever 4x4 has no mechanical link between the front and rear axles; instead, power for the front axle is taken from the forward end of the engine crank, re-geared and fed through a pair of clutches. In total, the two front wheels can handle up to 30 per cent of the V12's 651bhp and, if the occasion demands, one wheel can handle 195bhp.
The Bentley is more conventional, but where the torque-sensing centre diff previously distributed the W12's force equally fore and aft, the new model gives the rear wheels responsibility for 60 per cent of the work. Unless, of course, there's some slippage, in which case some electrical toing and froing means almost all the torque can be sent either way.
There is slippage. In two days of solid driving, our wheels don't touch tarmac. The Swedes don't grit, salt or otherwise treat their roads, they simply rely on the right equipment. Studded tyres and light pods that beam Close Encounters-style over brows and through trees. Our 4x4 grand tourers have neither of those things. We have soft leather hide, widescreen satnavs, rear DVDs, killer sound systems, mood lighting and butler arms that genteelly hand you the seatbelt when you clamber in. In short, we have luxury and technology in an environment designed to punish and break such needless fripperies.
The sheer comfort means I feel like I'm watching Sweden spool through the windscreen without actually being here, the separation between life out there and life in here is so vast. I choose to remind myself occasionally, opening a window and letting -10 degrees suck the life out of +22.5 degrees. But this is what a grand tourer should do, isn't it? Stomp majestically, effortlessly onwards, unphased by its surroundings, dismissive of the road conditions.
The Bentley is especially good at this. It's more muted than the Ferrari: the engine woofles and rumbles, the ride is gentle, the noise levels low. It takes me a while to realise this is chiefly due tothe road surface. The semi-compacted snow is like driving on a duvet, absorbing almost all tyre noise. As far as ride and refinement go, it doesn't get much better than this, and the Conti GT is loving it. It whumps up to speed and sits there contentedly for hours on end until I get bored or the tank empties.
The speed doesn't vary because the scenery doesn't change. Northern Sweden looks precisely like mid-Sweden. It doesn't have the high-altitude drama of the Alps, nor the sweeping majesty of the Scottish Highlands. It's humbler than that, like most of it could be conquered in a pair of stout walking boots. But that, it doesn't take long out here to realise, would be a foolish (and possibly fatal) enterprise.
Sweden has bite, not through its height or slope angle, but its remoteness. We drive for hours and, aside from the road, see scant evidence of life. So much so that I start to take comfort from the small things: the welcoming closeness of the endless trees, watching the spindrift glow red in the rear-view mirror when I hit the brakes.
And through it all, the milky-white road curves onwards: no need to change gear, barely a village to interrupt the flow. Village is the wrong word for these huddled habitations though. People might be living in proximity, but each of these russet-red clapboard houses, buried up to the windowsills in snow, seems isolated. These are settlements, nothing more.
Bet those dwellings are snug inside. The soft lighting that glows out through uncurtained windows suggests as much, as does the curl of smoke from chimneys. Isolated they may be, but these are the sort of doors you could knock on in the dead of night, if, say, you'd beached a Bentley on a snow bank, and be assured of a shovel and a helping hand.
Earlier, at a fuel outpost, I'd been advised to screw the towing eyes into the cars, just in case. I'd also been warned about elk. Apparently the nice, firm snow banks either side of the road are perfect moose-y mattresses. Other than the landscape itself, they're one of the few hazards out here. I'd be hard pushed to crash into anything else as solid as an elk - the trees rarely stray close enough to the road, kept at bay by the mounded snow.
The main hazard is me. Earlier, the 80kph speed limit had looked impossible to breach, but now, utterly gobsmacked by what a set of winter tyres is capable of, speeds have risen somewhat, and the cars start to move around on the snow. Even with the manettino pointing at the snowflake, the Ferrari is fabulously exploitable. You can use the torque, feel the front wheels nibble at the available grip so accurately, and know that if you overdo it, it'll be the back that loses traction first.
You can play with the Ferrari in a way you can't with the Bentley. Weight distribution is the Conti's undoing. The twin-turbo W12 is slung out ahead of the front wheels, and, if you fail to be mindful of that, it will drag you nose-first into the scenery. But get the front wheels hooked on line, and you can use the torque crescendo to bring back neutrality - under power, it feels almost as rear-biased as the FF.
Later, for comparison, we try the Ferrari on studded tyres and the Bentley on normal summers. The Ferrari is yet more positive and grippy, actually digging into the surface; the Bentley is practically undrivable. I barely make it out of the car park - 40kph is plain terrifying, and the Conti requires a tow to make it to the ice lake. Once there, it slithers straight into the scenery, while the FF with studs provides one of the all-time great motoring experiences: all wheels spinning, sliding around like a WRC car, V12 yelping. I fall in love with Ferrari's ultra-versatile shooting brake all over again.
But I digress. On their winter tyres, our luxury cocoons hauled through Sweden with ever-increasing ease, past an Ikea catalogue of names: Storuman, Skarvsjoby, Lovberga, Krokom. For this drive, over these distances, it was the Bentley's gentle mannerisms that fitted Sweden better - it had greater natural affinity for its environment, did the distance stuff so well, wasin no way the hippo on ice I'd feared it might be.
Kall lies right in the centre of the Scandinavian peninsula. We arrive at night, edging into a car park full of stuff I can't wait to drive. Yet I can't believe any of them will impress me as much as this opulent pair has through this alien landscape. Out here, where the answer to the cold is thicker gloves and the fastest route between two points is a snowmobile, it's hard to imagine the question that would have this Bentley or Ferrari as its answer. But this adventure didn't need justification, it just needed to be done.
The whole journey has covered by BBC Topgear.

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