Motoring: A legend in its own launch-time

The Arnage may be the first Bentley to be built on a moving production line, but its rarity is guaranteed. By James May
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In all the furore surrounding the sale of Rolls-Royce/ Bentley to Volkswagen, it's easy to forget that this latest Bentley, the Arnage, is still a wholly domestic product.

It is an almost completely new car designed and engineered in-house at Crewe for only pounds 145m. It is also assembled on the factory's first moving production line, yet is its most comprehensively hand-built car for decades.

Gone are the bought-in, fully assembled body shells; Arnage coachwork is welded in the factory. Yet it is also the first Bentley to be built in wholesale collaboration with a "rival" manufacturer, an expedient that pointed to the impending sale of the company. That manufacturer was BMW, tipped as favourite buyer until the 11th hour.

But the deal under which BMW supplied its 4.5-litre V8 for discreet modification will almost certainly be renounced within 12 months, and it seems likely that the number of 4.5-litre Arnages to roll out of Crewe will be low. Bentleys may be made one at a time but they tend to stay in production for far longer than mainstream cars. Classic car buying guides of the future may well record this variant as a rarity.

Don't let any of this put you off. The new engine is down on capacity by more than two litres compared with the outgoing, ancient pushrod V8, but you'd barely notice. True, the inexorable low-rev shove has been replaced by a relative peakiness, but twin turbochargers and a remapped electronic engine management system mean you will barely notice the displacement deficit.

Sixty mph, should you be so uncouth as to consider such things, is dispatched in 6.2 seconds and the Arnage will reach an electronically limited 150mph. This swiftness contrasts comically with its alleged 0.01mph progress on the new production conveyor.

The Bentley's stylists have performed the fashionable trick of making the Arnage look smaller than it is - it's in fact the same length as its predecessor, and is wider and taller. The impression continues from the driving seat, partly because the bonnet now drops away instead of jutting imperiously forward like the vaulted roof of a cathedral .

More impressively, the Arnage feels much smaller to drive. The steering precision will be a revelation to anyone weaned on a Turbo R or Brooklands, in which high speed often drew on the seamanship rather than driving ability of the helmsman. A much improved ride and greater body rigidity help matters - this Bentley now wafts where the old models could fidget.

Inside, long-standing Bentley fetishes and idiosyncrasies are evident and the unmistakable smell and touch of top quality abound. The veneer and leather are unadulterated, and such anachronisms such as organ-stop air vents and dash-mounted ignition switch remain.

Purists, though, may be saddened to find the wiper controls on a rather obscenely fat column stalk rather than some far-flung region of the dash - a result of customer pressure, apparently.

Less welcome changes have been wrought on the air-conditioning controls, a BMW digital display and fiddly buttons replacing the knurled-wheel bi-level arrangement of old. The previous system was joy and simplicity itself to use. Now you are required to stab buttons and watch digits like a demented accountant, the very people surely responsible for this horror.

But the new Arnage can only be viewed as a triumph. Its makers have skilfully trodden the fine line between making a car in a genuinely modern mien and retaining its aura as a traditional luxury good. Driving a Bentley is still an event rather than a journey. These are precisely the qualities that Bentley's new owners must preserve if the marque's unique reputation is to endure.

Bentley Arnage: pounds 143,000. 4,398cc, quad camshaft, twin turbocharged V8, 350bhp,413lb ft. Five-speed automatic transmission. 150mph, 0-60 mph 6.2 seconds, overall mpg 16.7.

Rivals

Mercedes-Benz S600 LWB, pounds 102,490. The biggest Benz has been blighted by its size; it appears the arrogant bloated plutocrat. Yet it is probably the most soothing way to travel overland.

BMW 750iL, pounds 75,050. Apparent bargain, at less than half the price of the Bentley. Best room in the BMW hotel, but not a unique experience.

Aston Martin V8 Coupe, pounds 150, 250. Since the arrival of the svelte DB7, the big V8 Astons have become an eccentric alternative to the likes of Bentley rather than true sporting cars. Enthusiasts only.

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