As Bentley's new Flying Spur goes on sale in South Africa this week, our UK correspondent John Simister tells us what to expect after sampling it in China
The scene is surreal: I'm in a Communist country, driving a new Bentley Flying Spur. Yet far from being a beacon of Western decadence among low-value uniformity, the Bentley fits perfectly into the streetscape of big Audis, six-lane highways and conspicuous consumption.
It's telling that Bentley's Beijing dealership is the company's biggest in the world. More Flying Spurs are sold in China than in any other country. Even stranger is that I'm able to drive it with neither chaperone nor even evidence of being shadowed, as I leave the smog-shrouded city centre and head for a section of the Great Wall.
Driving in China is about exploiting every traffic gap and abandoning all lane discipline. On motorways, lorries congregate in the middle and faster traffic filters past on either side. In the country, sweeping along valleys and up mountains, you never know what lies around the next bend but it could be a parked handcart, pile of bricks or impromptu gathering of locals.
No one seems to show any Bentley envy. But it is a covetable car, a remake now more distanced from its GT cousins. The idea is to make the saloon a luxury car in every way, without the underlying sense of sporting intent that sat uneasily with the too-noisy, too-bumpy old model. This makes perfect sense: Bentleys have historically been both luxury cars and sporting cars, but many Spur buyers prefer to be driven and to luxuriate in the back seat.
The suspension is around 10 percent softer, yet despite this extra cushioning, the Spur has also become the fastest, most powerful Bentley saloon yet created. Its 6-litre, twin-turbo, W12 engine generates 466kW, propelling this 2.5-tonne vehicle to 100km/h in just 4.6 seconds. Top speed is a rounded, and ludicrously high, 320km/h.
Is it beautiful? To these eyes, not entirely. The edges are crisper than before, but the tail is oddly bland and the straight lower edge of the side windows sits awkwardly above the curvaceous haunches. Inside, however, all is as tastefully indulgent as you would expect, with a choice of woods and leathers and an air of everything really being made from the substance it looks like.
But while there is no synthetic deception here, it's hard to stomach £1425 (R22 258) for contrasting stitching, £1675 (R26 163) for a two-tone steering wheel and £405 (R6326) for an extra boot carpet in a car costing £140 900 (R2 186 800) in the UK. South Africans will pay in the region of R3.95 million, depending on the exchange rate at the time.
A new feature is the hand-held remote control by which rear passengers can control various air-conditioning and multimedia functions. The sound system is impressive, too: playing “Revolution” from a Beatles CD bought in Beijing felt particularly appropriate.
To ride in, the Spur is supremely quiet and comfortable, except when the air suspension encounters a sharp ridge. To drive, it's less pleasing. That suspension has four stages of firmness but the range of variance is narrow. The accelerator has a stodgy action, and for all its potency, the engine vibrates perceptibly when worked with vigour. In fast bends its tyres squeal and scrub, and the heavy nose feels unwilling to commit to a cornering line.
Therein lies the enigma that is the Flying Spur. It's hugely fast but it almost discourages you from using all that pace. All it really gains you is the satisfaction of knowing the potential is there, and that it can play Tantalus with your chauffeur as you waft in comfort. -The Independent on Sunday
SA Price: R3.95 million (approx)
Engine: 5998cc twin-turbo W12, 466kW
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Performance: 320km/h, 0-100 in 4.6 sec