Motoring: Fat cat? Here's the cream

Roger Bell pits Bentley's flawed masterpiece against the refinement of BMW

BENTLEY CONTINENTAL T

You have limitless funds, hedonistic tendencies, a penchant for the discreetly outrageous and a lust for power, space and showmanship. What car do you buy? A Mercedes-Benz S600? Too staid, though a snip at pounds 103,000. A Rolls-Royce? Slow and unadventurous. A Ferrari 456 then? A tad highly strung. No, what you require is Bentley's pounds 220,000 Continental T.

Value for money does not enter into the reckoning. And just as well, because the Continental T - a sort of GTi version of the roomier, less extrovert Continental R - is a long way short of perfection. It is like a flawed diamond: magnificent yet defective under examination.

Damon Hill has less engine torque - mid-range oomph if you will - to play with in his Formula One Williams than the driver of a Continental T, propelled by a turbocharged V8 powerhouse that rumbles like distant thunder when asked to muster 400 horsepower. Performance is astonishing. Fuel consumption? Don't ask. With hard driving, it's into single figures.

Ride comfort has been sacrificed for crisp handling and tenacious grip. On smooth roads, it glides serenely like the QE2 in the doldrums. On pocked urban roads it feels more like a jet ski on choppy waters. The hidebound cabin is magnificent in its opulence. It is also ergonomically flawed. The doors are heavy, the switchgear a mish-mash of styles and materials, the parking brake a ghastly foot-applied contraption.

The impeccable finish is nothing less than you'd expect. For all its splendour, though, this rumbustious Bentley would not top my shopping list given a lottery jackpot. You need to be the part, not act it.

BMW 750iL

Luxury cars do not come much quieter or more refined than BMWs hi-tech 750iL. None in my experience has so many bells, whistles and gizmos, either: double-glazing, liquid crystal TV, Ceefax and Teletext, onboard navigation, global phoning, Albert Hall acoustics, interstellar computing power, air conditioning, CD, powered seats, trip computer, cruise control... Technical overkill? Not if you're a gadget freak.

Benchmark refinement starts with a creamy-smooth engine - claimed to be the world's most efficient V12 - that is so hushed you can barely hear it above the swish of tyres on tarmac. Performance is strong - almost as strong as the Bentley's - fuel consumption on the right side of outrageous. Supple suspension gives a smooth, boulevard ride but not the sharpest of handling.

Comfort, safety and stability are the priorities. Every conceivable safety device, including twin airbags, anti-lock brakes and traction/stability control, has been built into this technical tour de force. Stretched limos apart, big saloons don't come much more spacious than the long-wheelbase 750iL, which provides an extra six inches of fat-cat legroom in the back over the shorter, cheaper 750i. Acres of bovine hide and polished timber give this German wondercar an air of opulence and luxury. Yet there's something clinically Teutonic about it, something that arouses more respect than passion.

Specification: Price pounds 70,850 (pounds 65,850 with standard wheelbase). Engine: 5.4-litres, 12 cylinders, 24 valves, 326bhp at 50OOrpm, 361lb ft of torque at 39OOrpm. Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive. Top speed (governed): 155mph, 0-60mph in 6.5sec. Fuel consumption: 10-25mpg.

THE VERDICT

Although these two have similar goals - to get you there quickly in sumptuous style - they are not really rivals. You could buy two BMW 750iLs for the price of one Continental T and still leave change for a villa in Spain. The Bentley flaunts its pedigree so arrogantly it's easy to overlook its flaws. Here is mobile massage for the biggest of egos, a car of huge character and dynamism. For the plutocrat who wants Rolls- Royce exclusivity in a sporting package, it has no peers.

The BMW is so discreetly styled, so mainstream, it stirs little emotion. It is an enormously impressive and capable car. Compared with the Bentley, more refined, smoother, quieter, less thirsty, more comfortable. By any objective yardstick, the BMW is better. But then what has objectivity got to do with matters of the heart?

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