Engine capacity: 6-litre W12
Power output (bhp @ rpm): 616 @ 6,000
Top speed (mph): 200
0-60mph (seconds): 4.3
Fuel economy (mpg): 19.2
CO2 emissions (g/km): 343
There’s a dangerously overloaded motorised rickshaw veering towards me from my right, a new Audi with red military plates up my backside and a minibus full of tourists heading to Tiananmen Square squeezing into a tiny spot in front of me. My head is turning like a swivel-eyed motoring hack in hot water as I think to myself that Beijing’s crowded streets are probably not the best place to test the latest £140k luxury saloon from Bentley.
The Flying Spur is a 5.3m-long limousine with a monstrous 6L W12 engine (best not to think about its emissions) and, on Beijing’s polluted streets, the potential for scraping its beautiful dark cashmere paint or mangling its five-spoke alloy wheels is high. Thankfully, in China the rules of the road follow the principle that might is right and the Crewe-built Flying Spur isn’t short of might.
Most car launches I attend are in glamorous locations such as Dagenham or Castle Bromwich, but I’m in Beijing because it turns out the Chinese love the British-built Bentley. It’s a bit of a corporate vanity exercise, too, as Bentley reminds its shareholders just how well it is doing with 22 per cent growth last year alone, much of that down to China. Last year, for example, it sold just 125 Continental Flying Spurs (the car the new Flying Spur replaces) in the UK, but shifted 1,164 of the luxury monsters in China. You have only to look at traffic for five minutes to realise that China is the automotive future – practically every second or third car in central Beijing is a luxury German, American or British model with a well-dressed twentysomething at the wheel. This obvious inequality (the other cars are old lorries and three-wheelers) is one reason the Communist Party is planning to ban luxury car owners from using red military plates on BMWs, Audis, Bentleys and a whole host of other luxury makes. After all, which local official is going to be brave enough to give a general’s car a speeding ticket?
It is only outside Beijing, in the Chinese countryside, that I can finally take stock without crippling fear of a prang. From the rear cabin – where most buyers spend most of their time – the Flying Spur is so smooth and quiet that the entire People’s Liberation Army could parade past and you wouldn’t hear their jackboots pounding. It feels genuinely handcrafted, too, with acres of hide and a week’s work of craftsmanship alone in the three football pitches’ worth of thread-cross-stitched leather. There’s even a touch-screen control to alter the temperature and fire up the rear-seat entertainment system. I mean, who wants to drive on these roads when you’ve got a touch-screen to play with and a two-bottle champagne cooler?
That said, Chinese roads are an infrastructure engineer’s dream, both smooth and wide, and it’s only the fear of a tuk-tuk coming the wrong way around a blind bend that keeps my speed down when I take the wheel. The Flying Spur is the fastest Bentley saloon ever but can be thrown around with ease despite its vast size and weight. Some will complain that with the focus on the Chinese market, which favours comfort, some of the driver-focused handling experience will have been compromised and there is some truth to this, but the steering is direct without being overly light and you quickly get a feel for how the car’s mass will behave. Realistically this isn’t a car for hooning around in.
Most of these luxury behemoths will end up driven by Chinese chauffeurs rather than owners anyway, which is great for the UK’s trade deficit but I can’t help thinking it’s a shame the Flying Spur won’t truly be driven as it can be. But maybe that’s changing; one Bentley executive told me that full-throttle track days are starting to catch on in China. And, if I were a young Chinese princeling who didn’t care about the paintwork, I think I’d be quite drawn to driving Bentley’s fastest ever saloon round a track. Now, where do I find a red licence plate?