Meet the Brit pack

These big-bore British GTs exert a powerful patriotic pull and will never be more affordable. So which one proves to be Britannia’s best buy?

Words Nathan Chadwick

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eing British these days is a peculiar experience. Our society is more politically and socially polarised than ever, but if there’s one thing we can all agree on as petrolheads, us Brits can build great GT cars.

Yes, Bentley may be owned by Volkswagen, Jaguar by Tata and Aston Martin by a mixture of Germans, Americans and Kuwaitis, but the Continental GT, XKR and DB9 are infused with so much British DNA it’s a surprise the exhausts don’t play Elgar.

Instead they play the blood-and-thunder GT tune, but with three different instruments: a W12, a V12 and a V8 in a 32-cylinder salute to rapid, refined onward progress.

But there’s more to this test than simply holding up the British stiff upper lip – we’re a nation of bargain-hunters and currently these three represent fantastic value for money. Buying one now means you’ll have a great selection of decent, low-mileage, well-historied examples to choose from.

ut which one is most deserving of your Sterling? Time to head out into the Great British outdoors to see which one deserves a knighthood.

Jaguar XKR X150

Engine: 4196cc, 8-cyl, DOHC Transmission: RWD, 6-speed auto Power: 414bhp@6250rpm Torque: 413lb-ft@4000rpm Weight: 1665kg

Performance

0-60mph: 4.9sec Top speed: 155mph Economy: 23mpg

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Jaguar XKR X150

At £50k cheaper than new, can you get a better GT for less?

As pretty and great to drive as the old XK8 and XKR are, the aluminium-bodied X150 series cars helped open a brave new world for the Jaguar brand. No longer mere retirement presents for the superannuated generation, the new XK and XKR were truly desirable, sexy cars.

The X150 is the true definition of a modern classic – it was the first example of the brave direction designer Ian Callum was taking, while at the same time managing to evoke the rich history of previous Coventry creations.

The beauty wasn’t just skin deep – the first XKRs came with a supercharged 4.2-litre V8 that packed a 414bhp punch, but by 2009 it had a supercharged 5.0-litre eight cylinder with 503bhp. That’s a hell of a lot of pace, considering you can call a decent 50k-mile 4.2 yours for £18k and a 5.0 for seven grand more.

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And the bargain price doesn’t mean a low-rent experience. Okay, so the wood treatment is a little heavy-handed, but this interior has aged rather well. We like the J-shaped gear selector, we admire the soft, squishy leather and we adore the clean, simple cabin. Every surface feels good, if not totally solid. It’s still a bit of a squeeze for taller drivers, but there is more room than in the old XKR, despite rear seats that are best left to the tiniest of offspring.

Twisting the key summons forth a deep rumble; fruitier than you might imagine but still unlikely to upset any society tea parties from a car park away. And as you move away ever so gently, it becomes clear that the very best qualities of Jaguars past are still very much in place.

The ride comfort is supreme – yes, the CATS Computer Active Technology Suspension settings may have stiffened the dampers and springs over the standard XK, but the XKR brushes off bumps with aplomb, and without any wallowing. There’s plenty of pull from the 4.2-litre V8 in the car we’re driving today. In full automatic mode, the six-speed gearbox floats through the ratios without fuss. Everything feels effortlessly smooth.

Sliding the gearlever across to Sport mode doesn’t make the XKR uncouth either; you can feel the car become keener to kick down and hold onto revs, but it’s not as if it’s necked a bottle of single malt and gone feral. It’s still distinctly Jaguar, but what it really wants you to do is pull on the paddle shifts and let the V8 roar.

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Upshifts and downshifts are quick without being characterless; peak torque comes in at 4000rpm but you’ll ride the 413lb-ft of thrust all the way to the redline, the V8 roaring like a group of enthusiastic rugby spectators. It's properly engaging, and up to a point, the XKR will let you have fun with the chassis.

For 95 per cent of the time, the XKR is absolutely great; though the steering is a little light, there’s just enough information through the slightly too-thick steering wheel to give you confidence to push on, and there’s plenty of grip from the 285/30 R20 rear tyres to keep you in line. However, should you wish to play a little harder, the Jaguar reveals its only real weakness. Initial turn-in is great, but once the steering is loaded up the XKR lacks tactility when you’re really pressing on. Because the car is so competent up to that point, discovering this numbness the first time can be a little disconcerting.

But, in fairness, you’re unlikely to want to push the XKR that hard. In all other areas it's exemplary; there’s plenty of feel to the brakes and great visibility.

And now’s the time to buy – the 4.2-litre you see before you sold for £20,000. We’ve seen one for sale at £13,000 – but sub-50k mile examples start in the upper teens. These cars, with full service histories and plenty of receipts for work, provide your best chance of depreciation-free motoring.

The XKR’s brilliance is that it makes every long journey, whether you’re going to Biarritz or Basingstoke, feel a cinch at least, and at best something to look forward to. It’s usually the latter.

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Bentley Continental GT

Engine: 5998cc, 12-cyl, DOHC Transmission: AWD, 6-speed auto Power: 552bhp@6100rpm Torque: 479lb-ft@1600rpm Weight: 2385kg

Performance

0-60mph: 5.0sec Top speed: 199mph Economy: 20mpg

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Bentley Continental GT

Peerless refinement, eye-popping wallop – if you can live with the image

Some of you will detest the very presence of the Continental GT in these pages; ugly, boring, far too Germanic and tainted by Premiership footballers. We’re unlikely to change your mind – there’s a lovely Aston over the page, we’ll meet you there.

But if you’re open minded there’s much to admire and enjoy with the Continental GT. Love Dirk van Braeckel’s design or hate it, after more than a decade the Continental GT’s shape still makes a big impact. It has the beefy, conquer-the-world brutality that befits a Bentley – and it single-handedly turned a niche British company into one of the world’s leading luxury car powerhouses, and was the first truly new Bentley for decades. Excellent credentials for a true modern classic.

As to whether it's really a Bentley under there, well, the engine did inhabit other cars in parent company VW’s vast portfolio. But does the Aston feel less premium, given the engine is two Ford engines pushed together? Of course not.

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You tend not to think about this when you first fire up the 6.0-litre twin-turbocharged W12. You might give a quick thought to the figures, however. What lurks under that vast bonnet delivers 552bhp and a 60mph sprint in five seconds. Just seven seconds later you’ll be doing twice that, eventually running out of revs a smidgen before the double ton. Oh, and it weighs 2385kg – 720kg more than the Jag!

And as the bass-heavy throb from the engine permeates the background, you can take in the vast, beautifully finished interior. The quality is far beyond its competitors, all the controls are well laid out and though some of the switchgear feels a bit Audi, it’s solid stuff. You sit high, which doesn’t instil sporting fervour, but it makes long European journeys very easy.

The trip shouldn’t take long, whatever its length. To describe the Continental GT as merely fast would be the biggest case of underselling since the nation flogged off the Post Office for a song. Aided and abetted by the four-wheel-drive system, you’ll be on a Speed Awareness Course before you know it – at just 1600rpm you’re pulled towards the horizon like an unlucky fly on a lizard’s tongue.

Sadly, however, straight-line punch is about as exciting as it gets. A great GT car has to combine luxury, pace and grace with something to smile about in the corners. You can have fun with the Continental GT, but you have to be going so fast to get to that point, it’s simply not possible on the road without taking huge risks.

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When things really get rough the suspension struggles and the steering lacks feel. Happily, the huge 405mm ventilated front discs bring everything to a halt calmly and orderly. Despite the tiny paddles, pointing it onto a motorway, slipping it into D and relaxing feels like the right thing to do. While it may not excite as much as the Jaguar or the Aston, it’ll turn any long journey into a blissful experience.

The Bentley is our wild card, in terms of value growth. But it’s worth noting how successful the Continental GT has been, and even now as its replacement laps the Nürburgring in pre-production camouflage, it’s still selling well. If you buy a good, low-mileage example and look after it, you’re unlikely to struggle finding a buyer. To achieve the best return, avoid modified cars or those in white. Dark interiors are usually the best bet – some came in truly eye-bleaching shades.

What will help long term is that these cars are now getting affordable to buy, but still carry big maintenance costs. As good cars thin out, your well-maintained car will leap to the head of the value queue.

The Continental GT may not offer the whole GT package, but if you want a well-engineered, decadently luxurious long-distance mile-muncher with the wherewithal to out-punch everything else in its class, then the Bentley’s just scored from the halfway line.

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Aston Martin DB9

Engine: 4935cc, 12-cyl, DOHC Transmission: RWD, 6-speed auto Power: 450bhp@6000rpm Torque: 420lb-ft@5000rpm Weight: 1800kg

Performance

0-60mph: 5.4sec Top speed: 186mph Economy: 20mpg

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Aston Martin DB9

Genre-defining, man-maths defying, great looking... and it’s got that badge

British pride and Aston Martins go together so well. It’s not just the spy connection – the sexiness of Astons gives us all aspiration to be a dashing chap (or lady).

The Aston Martin DB9 was a sensation when it was launched, getting on for 15 years ago. While a clear evolution of the DB7 form, this did away with any notion of ancient Jaguar XJS floorpans, Ford parts bin interiors and driving dynamics seemingly first drawn on the wall of a cave tens of millennias ago. It seemed much more elegant than the brutish Vanquish and represented a whole new take on

what British design could be.

As the DB9 was launched, modern Britain had survived the false dawn of Cool Britannia in the 1990s and we were leading the way with architecture, film, music and art. The DB9, alongside other British brands, was part of what made being from the UK sexy.

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It may be an old design, but doesn’t it still look great? That swooping long bonnet, the perfectly judged mixture of feminine detailing and macho presence around the haunches. It’s a design classic.

And as we step into the slightly cramped cabin, it’s similarly new-Britain inside. Though you could specify old-school wood veneer and cream leather, many (like this example) foster a much more modern colour palette. And it’s here, unfortunately, that the Aston starts to blot its copybook.

Time hasn’t been kind to the materials and many DB9s have shabby interiors these days; the soft-touch surfaces of ten years ago have not stood up well to use, and the switchgear seems remarkably flimsy too. The gearbox paddles, for instance, feel like a couple of stale crisps.

But sat behind the perfect-width steering wheel, gazing upon the exquisitely presented dials, then down that long, sensuous bonnet, it’s difficult to care too much. There’s a slight sigh as you finger the key – which we’re sure comes from a Ford Orion – but a breath of relief as you twist it and press the start button. The 6.0-litre V12 coughs into life with a deep roar – this thing means business.

It certainly delivers on its aural promises – acceleration is electric as that V12’s bass-filled roar morphs into a howl as you rush to the 7000rpm redline. You’ll hit peak torque two-grand earlier, but you won’t be able to stop yourself from hearing all twelve cylinders sing. You’ll fly by 60mph in a smudge under five-and-a-half seconds, and hit 100mph in just under eleven seconds – quicker than the Bentley.

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Unlike the Bentley, the Aston shrinks around you as you build the speed; when new it was criticised for not being sporty enough, but right now, on tight B-roads, it feels just as capable as a BMW M car. Turn in is great, and though the steering is initially light there’s huge depth of feedback from the front and rear as you start to ask more probing questions of the chassis. Only in the tightest of corners do you feel the nose start to push wide – there is a V12 in front of you, after all.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? It would be if we were looking for a hardcore driver’s car. But we’re not – and as entertaining, engaging and exciting as driving a DB9 hard can be, it’s letting itself down in the true GT stakes. The DB9 simply cannot ride the bumps well; every little indentation in the road is transmitted through the steering wheel and seat. This may make for a great B-road battler, but it’s tiresome for long journeys. Less than perfect roads ripple through the cabin.

This doesn’t make us hate the DB9. You just remind yourself of the way it looks in the nearest shop window reflection, and then head off for more fun in the corners.

It’s also the car that’s most likely to retain and grow its value. Aston Martin sold a lot of DB9s, but not all have been well looked after. Finding a great example can be hard, so if you buy one and look after it, you’ll always find a buyer willing to pay a premium. The DB9 may be a flawed GT, but you’ll find it easy to forgive these issues if you’re a more spirited driver.

But is this enough to win our test?

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The Modern Classics view

All these cars are great. They showcase what the GT stands for in different ways, and all will provide joy for their owners. But there has to be a loser and a winner.

First to go is the Bentley. It’s a stunning technological achievement, the performance is simply staggering and the fit and finish is second to none. The only problem is that it all feels a little remote. It’s great if you want to get to Southern Italy as fast as possible, but other than notching ever-higher speeds on Germany’s autobahns there’s little here to excite. And people will still think you’re a footballer.

There are a lot of Bentleys about and prices do seem to be crawling ever lower. On the upside, those that like the GT adore it, which means there will always be a demand for the best examples.

Next up is the Aston Martin. It’s by far the best driver’s car here, with properly intuitive handling that puts it on a par with a BMW M car. Sadly, it also rides like one. Even worse, the interior hasn’t aged well. This all counts against it purely on GT terms. But it’s easy to forgive the DB9 – it’s sexy, sounds great, drives fantastically and for all its fidgety ride ‘comfort’, it’s a car that begs to be driven. It’s also the car that’s likely to provide the best investment.

Although there are lots of DB9s around, the very best will always be in demand, and will therefore attract a premium price. Buy well and you’ll sell well, too.

And the winner? It’s the Jaguar XKR – a true masterpiece and the absolute definition of a GT. It may not handle quite as well as the DB9, but unless you’re a hooligan you won’t notice. The Jaguar’s engaging without being uncouth, fast enough to excite, and is inexpensive to buy and run. It’s a car that’s already in demand – dealers report good XKRs never struggle to find new homes. This points to a strong future for the X150. Buy now and you’ll have the pick of the market; wait and your search for a good car will be much harder.

It may have taken the team from Coventry a while to build a truly Aston-beating GT after the E-type, but the X150 XKR really is the king of British GTs.