A heavyweight with sprinter's speed

The latest Bentley is big, luxurious and very, very fast. But does it justify the £115,000 price tag? Sean O'Grady reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Bentley invited the world's hacks to Venice for the launch of its new saloon, the Continental Flying Spur. Venice? Yes, indeed. Venice. The one in Italy, without any roads. Even so, an invitation to see St Mark's Basilica and all the other beauties of this most romantic of cities is a hard one to turn down.

Bentley invited the world's hacks to Venice for the launch of its new saloon, the Continental Flying Spur. Venice? Yes, indeed. Venice. The one in Italy, without any roads. Even so, an invitation to see St Mark's Basilica and all the other beauties of this most romantic of cities is a hard one to turn down.

And who needs cars? One of the more wizened motoring journalists at the event told me that BMW GB once held a launch there without any - simply because the PR director in charge of the event loved the place so much. "We can drive them some other time," was the innovative spin, apparently. There was also a rumour about a Lada launch in Ireland that also took place in the absence of the vehicles concerned - because they hadn't arrived from Russia.

All this is grossly unfair on the Bentley folk. They laid on about a dozen of the new limos for us, roughly a million quid's worth of stock, just a short water-taxi ride away. From there it was a pleasant run up the autostrada and into the Dolomites, complete with beautiful blue-green lakes and miles of serpentine lanes.

So there was plenty of time to give the Bentleys a belt. They drove well, but were not without their flaws. The first thing to acknowledge is that they do indeed mark another step forward in founder WO Bentley's search for more power and more luxury. Volkswagen Group owns Bentley now, and borrows from the VW Phaeton/Audi A8 for the design, but the designers seem keen to keep the old man's memory and ideals alive. Crucially, only 10 per cen t of the cars will be made in Germany, and for only the first two years of its life, we were told. The Bentley works in Crewe seems safe.

Some 550bhp is developed from the 6.0-litre 12-cylinder engine. The 0 to 60mph time is about five seconds and the top speed almost 200mph. The famous Bentley "tidal wave of torque" from low revs is gloriously expressed, and all in all it is just what you'd expect for the £115,000 it will cost.

A good deal of money, that, and Bentley has been brave in pitching both its newest lines - the coupe Continental GT and this four-door version - just past the psychological £100,000 barrier. Brave, did I say? No. Shrewd.

The marketing people noticed that comparatively few cars existed in the heady, but not quite plutocratic, atmosphere of the £100k to £250k market.

Above there were Rolls-Royces, old-school Bentleys, the Maybach and the Italian exotica. Plus a Porsche. Below you found lots of top of the range BMWs, Jaguars, Mercedes, Range Rovers and the rest. But in between? Not much, beyond some AMG-tuned Mercs that, despite all their extra oomph, looked the same as the £50,000 versions. The Aston Martins and Bristols were there, but the gap in the market was clear. Bentley now commands 50 per cent of this 3,000-car-a-year niche, and as a result, is modestly profitable.

The great advantage any Bentley has over an S-Class Mercedes-Benz, a BMW 7-series or a Jaguar XJ (not to mention the A8 and Phaeton), is presence and prestige. There is plenty of equity left in that badge, and the Flying Spur adds more. The bodywork, shared with the GT until the front doors, has been skilfully extended and is well balanced. The best view is from the rear of the Flying Spur, where most of us will find ourselves.

More to the point, the interior is special - sumptuously finished with the usual swathes of leather and chunks of walnut veneer (mirrored and matched left side to right side). A "short wheelbase" Spur was ditched. Rightly. A Bentley must be spacious.

It seems harsh to point out that there are things lacking in such a carefully crafted artefact, but I'm afraid that Bentley has missed a few tricks with this one, literally. Where, for example, is the camera that will show exactly where you're reversing, as on the Lexus GS I tried last week? What about an electric boot-closing mechanism, as fitted to a Honda Accord Tourer? Why was I missing an adaptive cruise control such as on the the Mercedes-Benz CLS? Where is the rear DVD player that you find in a Kia Sedona? More toys, please.

And where's the composure? I'd go for the long wheelbase Jaguar XJ, around £40,000 cheaper, every time. The Jaguar is a more enjoyable, tighter, more controlled drive. Despite the impressive efforts of Bentley to keep weight down by using components such as aluminium sub-frames, the Flying Spur is heavy. It does feel marvellously assured at speed, it's just that it seems to roll around a bit, in non-technical lingo, and the VIPs in the back can find themselves discomfited if they happen to have a spirited driver up front. I suppose they would just have to tell the chauffeur to calm down.

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