In the Continental GT, VW produced a car worthy of the title super- luxury limousine. The Flying Spur will be a winner too, says Richard Feast
A THREE-WAY competition to separate the world's wealthiest motorists from their money began a couple of years ago. What it amounts to is a heavyweight contest to produce a world champion of posh cars. The contest is irrelevant to 99.99 per cent of car buyers, but it will last as long as cars and private transport exist because it involves three of the most respected car companies in the business, some formidable talents and large dollops of money. And, it has to be said, substantial egos.

None of the contenders considers failure an option. What would be far worse for each, though, is being seen publicly to fail. Oh, the shame.

So, after slugging it out in the opening two rounds, how are they doing?

The undoubted leader so far is Bentley, which confirmed its advantage last week by promising to launch the Continental Flying Spur saloon this spring. Rolls-Royce and Maybach have not been knocked out yet, but they are well behind on points.

The competition has its origins in the autumn 1997 decision by Vickers to sell Rolls-Royce and Bentley. After plenty of posturing and politicking, by the middle of the following year Volkswagen had bought Bentley and BMW had acquired the car-making rights to Rolls-Royce. Vickers shareholders counted their money. The BMW and VW purchases obliged Mercedes-Benz to respond. This being the proud German car industry, how could it not? Mercedes decided to resurrect a distinguished marque languishing in its corporate closet. Maybach, dormant since 1941, sold magnificent cars in the 1920s to clients such as the tenor Enrico Caruso, the heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

So the stage was set to determine whether Bentley, Maybach or Rolls-Royce could make the best super-luxury limousine. Really, though, the contest was between VW, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Bentleys and Rolls-Royces are officially British, but the ownership changes shifted the centre of gravity of the limousine sector from Britain to Germany, where Maybachs are made.

New product development times in the motor industry being what they are, the tangible results of this transformation did not appear until late 2002. First to market were the very grand Maybach 57 and 62, followed in early 2003 by the mighty Rolls-Royce Phantom and the elegant Bentley Continental GT.

The cars represent the acme of luxury motoring, the best that money can buy. They are not flashy, like Ferraris or Lamborghinis, though these cars can be equally expensive. Neither are they visceral performance sports cars, like Porsches or Aston Martins.

Instead, they are dignified, beautifully appointed carriages designed for effortless comfort and supreme refinement. They are statements about their owners' wealth, power and influence. Whatever one thinks of the designs, they are wonderful automotive creations.

Perhaps that's why the trio talked confidently of big sales numbers. Maybach and Rolls-Royce each predicted annual sales of 1,000 cars at a quarter of a million pounds a pop. Slumming it at the cheaper end of the market - a mere pounds 110,000 for a Continental at the time - Bentley said that annual sales would be around 9,000. The numbers seemed ambitious, given that Rolls-Royce and Bentley combined achieved annual sales of 3,300 cars on only two occasions in the seven decades they were together.

That was in spite of the fact that for most of that period the two enjoyed a duopoly in the limousine market after their competitors from the between- the-wars era had gone bust or changed direction. For most of the period after the Second World War, any wealthy potentate, president or pop star who wanted a distinguished limousine had a choice of only Rolls-Royce or Bentley. Even the best that Mercedes and BMW could offer were simply too common, and Ferraris were plain vulgar.

And yet, the number of Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners went into serious decline. In the decade leading up to their separation, their combined sales each year averaged around 1,600 cars. In the previous decade, the average was 2,500.

Despite this historic decline, the new guardians of the Bentley, Maybach and Rolls-Royce legends laid plans and invested on the expectation that their combined annual sales would jump seven-fold once customers were presented with some real choice. Competition drives up demand, but that seemed fanciful.

Rolls-Royce last year sold just short of 800 Phantoms round the world. New Maybach customers totalled "around 500". Bentley sold a similar number of its Arnage saloon, a pounds 160,000-plus model that VW inherited as part of the Vickers package. In other words, worldwide sales of these top-flight, silly-money limousines are fewer than 2,000 a year - which is below the level achieved when Vickers was the only game in town.

The most significant evolution in this rarefied sector of the car market came from VW. Against the trend in every other consumer field, it took Bentley downmarket with cheaper models and created a new market category. The term is relative, but at pounds 112,750 today, the Continental GT is probably the most affordable Bentley in history. The Flying Spur four-door version that goes on sale soon will be similarly priced. The pricing formula looks like a winner.

Bentley is waiting for the right moment to tell the world how many Continental GTs were bought in 2004, the first full year of availability. It will be an impressive number, in excess of 5,500. When the similarly priced Flying Spur reaches the market, Bentley should be on its way to those 9,000 annual sales.

Not all will come from Bentley's Crewe factory, in spite of the promises at the time of the VW takeover. VW will have some Flying Spurs assembled in its showy, glass-walled factory in Dresden rather than add a third shift at Crewe. But the arrival of the Flying Spur presents Bentley with a slight problem. At only a few inches shorter than the Arnage, it offers similar accommodation for around a third less money.

That is why Bentley is encouraging all Arnage buyers to stroll round to its Mulliner coach-building subsidiary. There, a standard pounds 160,000 Arnage can be turned into a personalised pounds 200,000 Arnage. Mulliner makes everything possible; the only limit is the customer's tolerance to financial pain. Bentley will, next month, also introduce the Arnage Limousine, a limited-edition version that represents the ultimate in Mulliner craftwork. Prices will be from pounds 270,000, which will make the model more of a Maybach and Phantom alternative. In addition, Bentley is preparing an Arnage convertible that seems destined to go on sale in spring 2006.

Bentley under VW, then, has evolved into two companies. One sells seriously expensive models that are hand-finished by Mulliner. The ultimate expression of that work can be seen on state occasions with the Queen riding in the back.

The other side makes more affordable two and four-door Continentals through something approaching mass-production methods. To most people, they are still pretty pricey, but anyone in the market for a top-model Audi A8, BMW 7-series or Mercedes S-class would have to consider the Continentals.

Demand for the GT indicates that Bentley has created a small (and lucrative) sector of the car market that was previously ignored. The success of this discovery will not go unnoticed by Bentley's competitors.

Cheaper Rolls-Royces and Maybachs would give Bentley some proper competition, for a start. Ford-owned Jaguar is in search of a new direction. With fewer sales and higher prices, Jaguar could migrate to Bentley territory. General Motors is trying - with some success - to return Cadillac to its former glory as the "standard of the world". It, too, is believed to be preparing a flagship model. Maserati, which already sells the pounds 70,000 Quattroporte, has the right heritage to become an Italian alternative to the British Bentley.

And no one should underestimate Toyota. It has the financial and technical muscle to produce worthy alternatives to the Continental. All it lacks is an appropriately upmarket image.

None of this will happen tomorrow. In a decade's time, though, it is unlikely that Bentley will have the "affordable premium" market to itself, as it has today with the Continental.