“Competition” as it plays out on a supermarket’s soap aisle is as foreign to them as a dirt farmer in Louis XVI’s court. Bentley, cultivator of a leather-lined, deeply burled heritage, would seem to fall among these blithely competition-less brands – unless the year is 1927 and the setting Le Mans’ Mulsanne Straight.
So why would Graeme Russell, Bentley spokesman for the Americas, allow such cheap-tasting words as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar to leave his mouth?
The short answer is that Bentley’s world has changed. Landed gentry and sultans can no longer sustain a company like this, which is answerable to shareholders from Volkswagen, its corporate parent since 1998. Bentley must now do the necessary, if tedious, homework of defining competitors, pursuing production efficiencies and implementing expansion plans.
The latter task compelled Russell to deliver his comments not at Bentley’s base in Crewe, England, but in Beijing, China, where the automaker recently launched its latest model, the Flying Spur sedan – replacement of the Continental Flying Spur. Russell noted that in 2012, China commanded 55% of all Continental Flying Spur sales, a figure expected to rise with the arrival of the new car.
Entrenched notions of Western luxury hold little sway in China, a market gorging itself on previously forbidden fruits. European brands consequently operate on a much flatter landscape than they do in, say, Germany, and Bentley expects its Spur to be cross-shopped against fellow Brits like the Rolls-Royce Ghost and Aston Martin Rapide, but also against the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S600, Maserati Quattroporte, Jaguar XJL and BMW 760Li – executive saloons that elsewhere might not earn a second glance at the valet stand.
It does not take long in the presence of the Flying Spur to realise Bentley is underselling itself. The car is a creamy, boozy trifle of delights, starting with the interior.
The dashboard aligns with the leather atop the door piece with nary a millimeter of overhang. Even the stitches are in alignment. These are feats seldom replicated, let alone attempted, outside the confines of Crewe: Bentley-grade anal retentiveness. The steering wheel of the Continental GT Speed, among the most shapely in production, carries over to the Flying Spur, as does the general scheme of the dash and dials. Flying Spurs ordered with the optional Mulliner package get swish diamond stitching on the seats and doors.
That a Bentley should look imperious on 21in five-spoke aluminium wheels is an article of faith. But imperiousness comes cheap nowadays, with the Acura RLX and Hyundai Equus affecting the foreign-dignitary limo pose with credible results. Under new exterior design lead David Hilton, however, Bentley cuts through the ambient noise with an unexpected quality: aggression.
A Flying Spur as it grows larger in your rearview mirror is an unnerving sight. Outboard headlamps are larger than the inboard lenses, giving the Spur’s face a fierce, almost militaristic mien. Viewed from the rear, the car’s haunches seem to protrude wide from the fuselage in the manner of a Porsche 911 Turbo, but this is subterfuge; from the front, the haunches appear tucked and tight to the body. Clever.
Bentley has retained the big 6-litre, twin-turbocharged W12 found throughout the product range, here producing 616 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque, paired with an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission. Bottomless grunt is another hallmark of Bentleys, which have long compensated for their girth (the Flying Spur weighs a Range Rover-dwarfing 5,445lbs) with sledgehammer engines. But the W12 has velvet-lined piston cylinders; the violence of combustion enters the cabin as a muted multi-octave growl.
The violence gets transferred to the road, though, unambiguously. There is something deliciously absurd about a 5,445lb lounge accelerating from zero to 60mph in 4.3 seconds while massaging its occupants’ lumbar regions, but the Spur makes an addicting pastime of it. And depending on the driver’s temperament, that acceleration can be engrossing – column-mounted paddles come standard and act quick, and the transmission diligently holds the selected gear – or perfunctory, as simple as flicking the knurled gear knob down to “S”, burying foot and fixing eyes on the horizon.
The transition from a lolling pace to a pathological one, however, should be more seamless than it is. A pause precedes the flood of power from the twin-turbo W12. Porsche, Bentley’s corporate cousin under Volkswagen, cracked this turbo-lag nut several years ago by building variable vanes into its turbochargers, which directed exhaust gases more optimally – all but eliminating the disconcerting dead air. A shame, then, that Porsche’s engineers never slid a back-of-napkin sketch to their colleagues from Crewe.
Granted, Flying Spur customers in China would hardly notice a bit of turbo lag, distracted as they are by the new multifunction remote control and champagne cooler in the voluminous rear passenger area. Virtually all Spurs shipped to China enter service as private limousines, and these buyers were top of mind for Bentley’s engineers. Paul Jones, product line developer for the Flying Spur, said the car’s rearward roof pillar is massive by design, to ensure privacy.
These consumers, Jones and Russell claim, do not sleepwalk like high-net-worth zombies to the showroom; they must be won. As such the Flying Spur may be disqualified by buyers who appreciate a relative bargain. The Jaguar XJR is nearly as quick and roughly $85,000 less than the $200,500 Spur in the US, and the Maseratis, BMWs and Mercedes of the world are not far off the pace. And in China, Russell bemoaned a widespread pushback against ostentation, dating to President Xi Jinping taking office earlier this year: a potential crimp in Bentley's ambitious sales goals for the region.
Nobody said being a global player was pretty – however pretty the Flying Spur might look playing the part.
Vital stats: 2013 Bentley Flying Spur
- Base price: $200,500
- As tested: $212,500
- EPA fuel economy: 12mpg city/20mpg highway
- Powertrain: Twin-turbocharged 6-litre W12 gasoline engine, eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, all-wheel drive
- Standard equipment: Touch screen remote control, leather and wood interior appointments, power sunroof
- Optional equipment: Mulliner package (diamond-stitch leather, knurled shift knob, drilled alloy pedals, jewel filler cap, chromed Flying B strake, 21in five-spoke alloy wheels)
Editor's Note: This story has been modified from an earlier version.
There is something deliciously absurd about a 5,445lb lounge accelerating from zero to 60mph in 4.3 seconds.