x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bentley's fastest, most powerful saloon is also its softest

China is the biggest market for the Bentley’s new luxury sedan, and its upgraded air springs are tailored for the limousine customer. Courtesy Bentley
China is the biggest market for the Bentley’s new luxury sedan, and its upgraded air springs are tailored for the limousine customer. Courtesy Bentley

When Bentley launched the last Continental Flying Spur eight years ago, it was, to all intents and purposes, a four-door saloon version of the Continental GT and it was always fit for purpose. Yes, the looks were slightly uninspiring but climb aboard and you were to be transported in stylish, luxurious splendour at speeds north of 320kph if you so wished. What its maker found out, though, was that most owners didn’t actually want to drive them.

So the market has spoken and Bentley has substantially redesigned the Conti four-door with the limousine market firmly in its sights, dropping the Continental GT moniker in favour of simply Flying Spur, something deemed necessary as the gulf between it and the two-door coupe is now quite dramatic. And unusually in this day and age, the new model trounces the old one when it comes to how it looks.

A complex shape, there are deep creases, broad shoulders, reworked and repositioned headlamps, a rear quarter light window design that’s been reversed and a completely new rear end. It’s still evidently a Bentley, naturally, but it has oodles more presence and, according to those who’ve already driven it, even more refinement.

Initial media drives took place in Beijing, China, and I was unable to attend but, right here, right now, I’m piloting one on roads that actually matter to us – roads that are clear, super smooth and dramatic in their location. My destination is Hatta and the route from Dubai to this mountainous fort town is perfect for getting the measure of this big bruiser.

The exterior is obviously different to its forebear but the Flying Spur’s interior, at first glance, appears to have changed very little. The overall design of the dashboard remains, with its two symmetrical panels, but there are subtle improvements, such as the new door caps that are solid timber and join the dashboard in a continuous line, which show real thought and terrific attention to detail that you just don’t find in mass production motors. The seats, too, have been redesigned and are extremely comfortable, as you’d expect, with multi-functionality. They do lack support under the knee, however (until you extend them at the touch of a button) and the rear quarters are utterly splendid.

Chassis-wise, much has changed in favour of the limousine customer (China is now the biggest market for these cars and almost all cars there like this are chauffeur-driven), and this translates to air springs that are softened by 10 per cent and 17 per cent front and rear, anti-roll bars by 13 per cent and 15 per cent and suspension bushes that are a whopping 25 per cent softer than before. The old model was never a crashing back-breaker so there was a real worry that this thing would handle like a bowlful of blancmange. Our fears were unfounded – this is a Bentley, after all.

The result is even more comfort and cosseting refinement, with only the most marginal increase in wobbliness. When a car weighs more than 2.5 tonnes, there’s very little anyone can do to disguise the fact once you start flinging it into the corners but, on these UAE back roads, I’m still able to make startlingly rapid progress without feeling seasick. It might have supercar performance statistics but it’s not really what a car like this is about and I find myself wondering whether Bentley should ditch the speed element, at least when it comes to this model, and turn it into a less compromised machine. Because when a car is capable of speeds and acceleration like this, it’s normally a focused driving tool, a surgical scalpel rather than a velvet-gloved fist.

Its engine is still a thing of wonder, offering six litres of quad-turbo 12-cylinder goodness in a W formation (this allows for a more shortened bonnet) and, when you open the throttle its voice is still heard, with a pleasingly gruff baritone. The 800Nm of twist it generates is enough to dispatch practically anything you might be sharing road space with, too. Its eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox shifts cogs without interruption or hesitation and, despite the inclusion of wheel-mounted paddles and a sport button, the new Flying Spur feels best left in the standard operating mode, the one where it does everything for you.

Perhaps its closest rival is the Rolls-Royce Ghost, the only car that can match this level of opulence and epic performance. But the Bentley is much more subtle and goes about its business with more discretion. It’s also significantly less expensive, although park the two next to each other and it’s the Ghost you’d no doubt be swayed by. Perhaps if Bentley forgot all about top speed bragging rights and turned the Flying Spur into an actual limo, the car could be the world’s best. For now, though, anyone who knows what this brand is capable of is waiting for the V8 version, which will undoubtedly be an even sweeter proposition than this one.

khackett@thenational.ae