x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bentley's new Flying Spur is the perfect stress antidote

Bentley's Flying Spur has lost the Continental name and gained more luxury and refinement.

Tamed to emphasise its sumptuous status, yet maintaining speed and performance, the Flying Spur is Bentley's most powerful saloon. Courtesy Bentley Motors
Tamed to emphasise its sumptuous status, yet maintaining speed and performance, the Flying Spur is Bentley's most powerful saloon. Courtesy Bentley Motors

Legend has it that chicken farmer turned racer turned car builder, Carroll Shelby, used to demonstrate the performance of the AC Cobra by putting a US$100 bill on the inside of the windscreen, then saying to the passenger they could keep it if they could reach it while the car was accelerating. Bentley staff could probably do much the same with the Flying Spur, though they'd be better off betting prospective owners $100 that they couldn't sit inside a Flying Spur for more than a few minutes without reaching out to touch the dashboard - with the car stationary.

Which is the default in Beijing: stationary as a maelstrom of traffic surrounds you, a bit too close for comfort. Yet the Flying Spur is a cocoon of calm among the chaotic traffic in this ever-expanding and ever-busier city. It's really not difficult to see why China's wealthy are snapping up new Bentleys so quickly, as the near-silent, leather-swaddled, turned-metal and wood-veneered interior gives respite from the madness going on outside.

It really is more than just a car inside too; it's a Bentley and that makes it a very special place to sit, indeed. Whether you've opted for the warmth and mirror finish of a highly polished wood veneer, or that machined, turned metal on the dash and console, resisting the urge to reach out and caress the dashboard is an exercise in futility.

But then the interior should be special. After all, the Flying Spur exists in a rarefied price bracket. While pricing for the Middle East is yet to be confirmed, Bentley is talking about asking approximately Dh738,000 for the Flying Spur in the region. That's before options, of which there are plenty, so factor a good 15 per cent to 20 per cent on top of that - or more if you're really particular in your demands. Pre-options, that price undercuts its closest rival, the Rolls-Royce Ghost, and also puts it within striking distance of the highest-specified luxury cars from volume premium firms BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz. Indeed, Mercedes-Benz's Dr Zetsche is on record saying that the new S-Class will span a price range that takes it up to the bracket occupied by that Rolls-Royce. Good as the new S-Class is likely to be, it'll never have the cachet of the Flying Spur, thanks in no small part to production numbers for the big Merc being in the tens of thousands annually.

Take that into consideration and the small volume, hand-built Flying Spur actually looks conspicuously good value. Nothing but the Rolls-Royce Ghost can offer anything approaching the finery and attention to detail inside, Bentley's exacting standards beyond what could rightfully be considered normal and occupying the obsessive. The level and scope of personalisation is also in a different league to those mainstream, volume luxury cars, largely down to the fact that each Flying Spur is meticulously hand-built at the firm's production facility in Crewe, England.

Sumptuous hand-stitched leather covers any surface that's not richly finished in wood, machine-turned metal, chrome or deep, soft carpet. If the wood finish on the dash is impossible to resist, so too are the bull's-eye chromed air vents and their organ stops; ventilation and heating outlets and controls have never been more appealing to the eye or to touch. Add Bentley's claim that the Flying Spur, with 625hp, is the company's most powerful saloon (the even more expensive and exclusive V8 Arnage flagship lacks the Flying Spur's pony count, but betters its 800Nm torque output with a faintly ridiculous 1,000Nm of twist) and it looks doubly so.

That W12, twin-turbocharged engine is the same unit that powers the Continental GT and GT Convertible models in the Bentley range. The Flying Spur might then share its heart with Bentley's coupe and convertible models, but unlike its predecessor, it has been deliberately distanced from them in the product range.

The styling, still clearly familial with the company's other products, is more distinct, being longer, lower and wider, the assertive yet dignified lines befitting its badge. The tapering line on its flanks is a surprise and beautifully crisp, so sharp that Bentley had to change its manufacturing techniques to create it. The tighter, neater boot and fine detailing of the lights and front grille are reminiscent of art deco in their detail, yet purity of form. Then there's the dropping of the Continental name that used to precede "Flying Spur" on its predecessor, further underlining Bentley's repositioning of the Flying Spur as a product in its own right, rather than an accompanying model in the Continental line-up.

Repositioning and reconsidering; as while the Bentley still boasts a top speed of 320kph and a slightly mind-blowing (for something so big) 0-to-100kph time of 4.6 seconds, the Spur's focus isn't quite as sharp. It's not often a car manufacturer will admit to dialling back suspension settings, but that's exactly what Bentley has done with the Flying Spur. Spring and damper rates are reduced by as much as 15 per cent front and rear; likewise, the anti-roll bars are less firm and the suspension bushes are also softer. That's a concession to the criticism that the Flying Spur's predecessor was perhaps a touch too sporting, too firm and compromised in its ride quality to really be considered a proper luxury car, however sumptuous the surroundings might have been when inside.

That's evident immediately when pulling out into the madness that is Beijing's traffic, the Spur's responses more measured and softer, from the slick efficiency with which the new eight-speed automatic transmission deals with its numerous ratios, to the reaction of the accelerator pedal to the flex of your ankle.

The steering, curiously heavy and leaden at manoeuvring speeds, lightens on the move, though never quite loses its initial resistance. That weighting no doubt aids stability when the car is approaching its maximum speed, but it detracts at more normal speeds. The suspension changes have removed the harder-edged ride from its predecessor for a more supple gait, though sharper ridges and bumps in the road surface can still highlight that the air suspension sometimes struggles to completely smother. It has robbed the big saloon of some of its body and roll control too. There remains the opportunity to fiddle through four different suspension settings, but the reality is that the differences are marginal. Even in the firmest of the four damper modes it's clear that the emphasis is more on comfort than outright dynamic ability.

Relatively speaking of course, as the Flying Spur will hustle if you're in the mood, though there's more initial roll on turn in and pitch, and heave on braking and acceleration. Power is delivered to all four wheels as before, but with a greater 40/60 rearward bias. Not that you'd ever know it, as the Spur's nose is the first to give up its grip, signalled by the slight protest from the front tyres rather than through the lifeless steering. Reach that point and the Spur is travelling faster than most drivers will want to and any passenger in the back has any need to. If that's your aim, Bentley's as-yet-unconfirmed (but inevitable) Speed model should satiate your more hardcore desires, with greater focus and even more intensity.

Where this standard (and as yet, only) Flying Spur really excels, though, is in its refinement. For all the old Continental Flying Spur's visible and tactile luxury, it could be a little uncouth aurally. Not with the new Flying Spur. Even at speed there's precious little noise from the road rolling under those large tyres, while that lower, slipperier shape allows the wind to rush by with far less intrusion than in its predecessor. The twin-turbocharged, 6.0L W12 engine is all but mute until you push your foot to the floor. Do so and, after the briefest of pauses (as if the engine room's checking with the captain "Are you sure?"), the weighty Bentley delivers more performance than you could possibly want, or ever realistically need, backed up with a rousing, yet still dignified soundtrack.

All its power is delivered to the road via an eight-speed automatic transmission and that four-wheel-drive system. Traction is mighty, grip levels high. The eight-speed gearbox might be busy with all those ratios to choose from, but you'll not notice it inside, as the shifts don't obviously punctuate the effortless urge on offer from the Bentley's W12. There's the chance to take control of the gearbox via steering column-mounted paddles but, really, the automatic does such a good job of managing its ratios that there's little incentive or need to do so.

No, the real enjoyment from the Flying Spur is now to be had from its luxury rather than its mighty performance potential; amusing as it might be bending time and shortening distance by working that big turbocharged engine. As it stands, the Flying Spur is a confident change in direction for a brave new world. And it works, remaining a unique proposition at its price point and a better car for not chasing outright dynamic ability, instead focusing on luxury, refinement and comfort. It's a necessary shift in direction for the Flying Spur, retaining enough appeal behind the wheel but also improving as a car to be driven in. That's important, as despite the dropping of the Continental name, the Spur needs to succeed in the biggest potential continent out there - China - and customers there prefer to be driven rather than to drive. They won't be disappointed.

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