The Independent Road Test: My other car's a private plane: Gavin Green tests the incomparable Bentley Brooklands and introduces a group of city cars which, for pounds 85,000 less, will also get you from A to B

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It is symptomatic of the perilous condition of Rolls-Royce that its important new model for 1993 is hardly new at all. One of the major changes on the Bentley Brooklands, the latest entry-level car from the company, is revised door trim - hardly justification, you would have thought, for a new name (the old entry-level Bentley was called the Eight) and a bells- and-whistles press launch.

Ironic, too, that Rolls has chosen an abandoned racing circuit - a symbol of past British glory - for that new name. Rolls, owner of the Bentley badge since the Thirties, is an expert at milking its own heritage and tradition. A few records set at Brooklands back in Bentley's golden days provide the justification.

Other changes to the pounds 91,488 car ('bottom of the range' means one thing for Rolls and quite another for every other car maker) include a four-speed automatic gearbox supplied by General Motors (which also provided the previous three-speed). The change lever is now in the centre console rather than on the column. The computerised Automatic Ride Control has also been updated, to improve both ride and handling.

The bonnet loses its central chrome strip and the chrome chicken-wire grille of the Eight - one of its nicest features - has been ditched. In its place is the usual vertical spoked grille, as used on the pricier Turbo R. There are other minor tweaks, and that new door trim (now fluted). When it comes to newness, that's it. The bad news is that 'new' really means rather old. The good news is there was not much wrong with the old Bentley.

The Brooklands is not better than a top-line Mercedes-Benz or BMW - for to say something is better is to say it is comparable, and a car made by Rolls-Royce is vastly different from anything else. A Rolls is a luxury car rather than a normal saloon that has been made luxurious. There is an important difference.

Driving any Rolls or Bentley is a quantifiably different experience from driving a Mercedes or a BMW or anything else. In the British car you luxuriate in a leather-and-wood palace, hand-stitched and hand-carved by craftsmen. You sit on seats as thick as the priciest lounge chairs and just as comfortable. You work beautifully tactile switches, mostly made from chrome rather than plastic. You sit up high, with an imperious view of other road users. You not only see the difference between this car and all others; you can smell it and feel it.

The flashiest and priciest German cars are, essentially, the same in character as a Ford, a Toyota or a Rover. They are 'normal' cars, albeit better conceived and better engineered. Even the priciest Mercedes may be faster, more comfortable and quieter; but it is still a car. A Rolls or a Bentley is not really a car, it is a luxury object which just happens to double as transport.

That involves compromises, certainly. This Bentley Brooklands, which rides on tauter suspension than the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit on which it is closely based, does not handle as sharply as a modern German car: it is too heavy and too high. The Bentley has more wind noise at speed because of its poor aerodynamics. Its shell is less rigid because it was conceived before computer-aided engineering, so you feel a slight shudder every time you hit a ridge. Fuel consumption, of course, is more slurp than sip.

Minimal though the changes may be, the Brooklands is a noticeable improvement over the old Eight, and over the pricier Mulsanne S which it also supplants. The four-speed automatic changes more seamlessly: propulsion is now an uninterrupted gush rather than three slightly staggered steps. And the revised computer settings for the ARC suspension have helped ride at both low and high speeds.

As always, this Bentley is best - and most appropriate - when driven slowly, when the driver can appreciate its unfussed, soothing demeanour. Rushing this regal car somehow seems at odds with its purpose. But when you are late, or feel like some excitement, the Brooklands does a surprisingly good job of quick motoring, although the cause is not helped by its big flat chairs, which offer almost no side support.

If you can buy it, you will do so for its specialness, for its luxury. No Rolls or Bentley can accurately be called 'the best car in the world'. But 'the king of cars' is a fair description.

Specifications

Bentley Brooklands, pounds 91,488. 6.75-litre V8, undisclosed horsepower. Four- speed automatic transmission. Top speed 128mph, 0-60mph in 9.5sec, average fuel consumption 14.8mpg.

(Photograph omitted)

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