I want it, but I don't need it

R O A D T E S T The Bentley Azure is absurdly expensive, but still offers good value, says Phil Lewellin

All things are relative. The new Bentley Azure convertible costs £215,000 - more than double the price of the most plutocratic Mercedes - but does not appear absurdly and indecently expensive if you have a private jet, a yacht the size of a battle-cruiser, and a £150,000 wristwatch. I know a man who spent £750,000 on a Rolls-Royce with non-standard equipment that included a motorised pencil sharpener. The drinks cabinet alone cost as much as a top Jaguar.

Attempting to reconcile Bentley's turbocharged ragtop with the average person's perception of value for money is a waste of time. The Mercedes SL600 is "better" in just about every respect, but this will not impress the person who sees something unique and wonderful in the Bentley. This car illustrates the big difference between wanting and needing.

Few of today's motorists were alive when Bentleys driven by Woolf "Babe" Barnato, Sir Henry Birkin and other wealthy amateurs won Le Mans five times in seven years. But the swashbuckling Bentley Boy image has survived, despite Bentley Motors having been owned by staid Rolls-Royce since 1931.

What the Azure does wonderfully well, in addition to massaging its occupants' egos, is to blend the marque's deep-rooted sporting traditions with the parent company's reputation for old-style luxury. Handcrafted burr walnut complements acres of Connolly leather and big, chromed air vents that would not have looked out of place on the Queen Mary liner in 1934.

But long gone are the days when only a millionaire could afford the likes of air-conditioning and cruise control. The fact that attention is drawn to the Azure having an adjustable steering wheel, unlike any other Bentley or Rolls, speaks for itself. That quite basic convenience is standard on an inexpensive Fiat Punto.

Developing the Azure from the Continental R coup involved beefing up the structure to compensate for strength lost by removing the steel roof. This increased the weight by the equivalent of two well-built adults, so a fully laden Azure tips the scales at about three tons. But performance is blissfully brisk, thanks to the turbocharged, 6.7-litre, eight-cylinder engine's power being boosted from 353bhp to 382bhp.

As for torque, the force on which reactions to the throttle really depend, the Bentley's figure of 553lb/ft is the greatest for any road-going car. The ability to accelerate smoothly and swiftly, even from very low speeds, has to be experienced to be believed.

The Azure's composure on challenging roads is impressive. Light but precise steering complements shrewdly set-up suspension and huge Avon Turbospeed tyres. The result is a car that, despite its apparently formidable bulk, gives a very good account of itself when faced with a sequence of corners. Contrary to the luxo-barge image, the Bentley is great fun to drive.

There is space for two back-seat passengers, not three. They sit cheek- to-cheek, because the car's sides curve inward, concealing the hood's mechanism. This most critical part of the design was entrusted to Pininfarina in Italy. It is fully automatic, of course: just press a button and the top stows itself under a flush-fitting metal panel and looks far neater than its predecessor.

Alas, the hood on the first Azure entrusted to me did not work until two engineers had consulted a wiring diagram the size of Texas. Bentley later provided a replacement that functioned perfectly, but anyone who had paid £215,000 for such a vehicle would have been fully justified in calling for Pininfarina's premises to be ankle-deep in the blood of ritual suicides.

COMPARISONS

Mercedes-Benz SL600, £98,330

Sleek looks complemented by the rock-solid engineering that is synonymous with Mercedes. Smooth, effortless performance from the 6.0-litre V12, which might have powered Rolls-Royces and Bentleys had the parent company not linked up with BMW.

Aston Martin Virage Volante, £147,862

As close as you can get to the Azure in price and British ambience. Aston's quality has improved since Ford bought the company. Much less passenger space than the Azure, but similar performance.

Ferrari 355 GTS, £84,864

A red-blooded, mid-engined, two-seater sports car rather than a luxurious grand tourer. Looks wonderful and is powered by an inspirational, 3.5- litre, 380bhp engine. The typical Azure buyer probably has one of these alongside the Bentley.

Suzuki Cappuccino, £11,995

Chic styling and high-spirited 657cc engine make this an entertaining runabout. You can buy 17 for the price of an Azure, and pocket £4,000 change. Just a thought.

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