From the established “old world’ (read that as Europe) to the happening new automotive universe (read that as China) is a journey best exemplified by none other than Bentley (among a few others) daring to having its Mercedes-Benz S-class and Rolls-Royce Ghost challenger put thru its paces by the world automotive media. Brave decision this or not but Adil Jal Darukhanawala suggests it is not just the fastest and most powerful Bentley ever but also to give its rivals a run for substantial money in class.
It was evident from the time we landed in Beijing to see that Bentley now is trying to not just cater to traditional thick-walleted customers but also to what is an emerging new category among global automotive consumers – the “little emperors.” And most of these li’l emperors come from emerging new markets like China, not because of their physical attributes but because they are the ones calling the shots with their cheque books and also getting what they want.
In an economic climate that swings wildly from despair to disaster, having consumers for cars sporting prices with even higher digits than telephone numbers means that Bentley and others in high places would continue to do well provided they offer newer tackle to these little emperors who talk big while also catering to their tastes with bespoke options.
The new Continental Flying Spur to give it its full name is just the third edition in Bentley history and for sure it’s second in the contemporary period. While the first Flying Spur emerged in 1957 more as an ever sportier manifestation of the S1 Continental coupe, the new Flying Spur is a completely all-new automobile from the ground up and not built as an adjunct to the Continental GT.
I say this because its predecessor was actually built in that manner, the Bentley engineers stretching the Continental GT to deliver a four-door, four-person automobile which went on to define a whole new segment and in the process turned out to be the best selling four-door model ever in Bentley history – 22,000 units were gobbled up by emperors, big and small!
The new Flying Spur is anything but one hewn from the same Continental block but it is surely a very polished bit of craftsmanship and it shows quite clearly on first visual contact. The proportions are evident, the car now appearing much wider and sitting lower as well while the roofline is now higher and more sedan-oriented, sorry make that limousine if not to offend the emperor set. The front end with its very prominent upright chrome grille and 3D arrow-shaped bonnet gives the right impetus to the wide stance of the car.
If you look closely up front the combination of large and small headlights with the jewelled LED innards has been reversed from previous Contis – this time round the larger headlight is on the outer edge of the front face giving a further accent to the subtle change of what is now a more settled look hunkered down for even greater aesthetic appeal. And that lower intake is now a full width one to give a larger balance and form to the classic Bentley grille. That it also helps distinguish the Flying Spur from the Continental GT head-on is but incidental!
What I personally liked about the new Flying Spur was the obvious lack of ornamentation and also the means with which the new panels have been sculpted to really fine creases yet with sharper radii highlighting the crispness of line to make that wide expanse of sheet metal standout. The one detail that caught my eye was the main character crease which begins upfront from just above the front wheel and has a nicely recessed undercut just aft of the wheel arch where a stylised ‘B’ resides to indicate the new Flying Spur.
This character crease runs to the rear where the next subtle hint of toned muscle does appear to flow over the rear wheel arch. And to complete the dynamic appeal of this huge hunkered down saloon, the C-pillar now has been stylistically raked to near fastback proportions. That same fastback-stance flows into the rear deck lid to present a much stylised boot, lower and longer than before. The horizontal (as against the vertically stacked units of its predecessor) single ellipse LED tail lamps plus the twin exhaust tail pipes add sporty accents.
One of the key aspects behind the entire exterior and the actual overall structure of the car is that the Bentley engineers might have shaped the car to reduce the heft, both visually and when measured on the scales – the new structure having been pared down by 50 kilos but what is really remarkable is that this hasn’t been at the cost of structural integrity. Using a combination of materials – high tensile steel, aluminium alloy sheeting, high grade polymer composites, the new bodyshell is 4% stiffer than its predecessor, lighter and its sleek shape helps in endowing the 2475kg mammoth major to spring and motor with alacrity.
A word has to be mentioned about some of the production techniques employed on executing those finely sculpted body panels with the VW Group’s absolute obsession for uniform shutlines featuring minimal clearance. The bonnet and the front fenders have been shaped using technology adopted from the aeronautic world – compressed air is used to shape heated sheets of aluminium alloy into the required form at over 500-degrees centigrade.
This superforming technique delivers not just the taut shut lines but also that close radii panels I mentioned earlier. All of this helps give the Flying Spur a fantastic coefficient of drag of just 0.29, something a sports car would die for, let alone such a huge stylised palace on wheels!
To style the new car was one thing and getting it to perform at the highest levels was another but then the Bentley engineers have done enough to tweak the settings for the springs, anti-roll bars and bushes. The suspension remains much as before in configuration – double wishbones up front while a multi-link set-up props up the rear with air springs on all four wheels.
The tweaks to the air bellows, bushes and anti-roll bars have made for a softer ride while there is new damping control software which in combination not just maximises impact absorption but also isolates the occupants from any jarring imperfections being transmitted from the road. In fact, I heard a story from Steve Davis, project chief of the new Flying Spur when asked how smooth was the ride quality of what is incidentally the world’s fastest four-door saloon. When asked if it does ride well he said: “Let’s put it in this way. I’ve managed to get the head of Chassis Engineering to fall asleep in the back!” That alone should suggest that it had passed the most stringent of all internal tests without much of a bother!
However here is what matters because we had been flown down to Beijing to drive the Flying Spur and to see a whole phalanx of these at ease in front of the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium, all decked out in the high trim Mulliner Driving Specification, waiting to hit the road to the Great Wall at Jinshanling and back to base was something which was both boon and curse.
Boon because there was a car with a twin-turbocharged W12 displacing 6.0-litre waiting to be put through its paces and curse because we saw not just electric scooters but also huge construction trucks thinking nothing about coming down the same stretch of road in the wrong direction! While it made me think of home, this was even more frightening, especially with a car in the region of around Rs 2.5 to 3.0 crores and also the thought of having to spend time exploring the Chinese legal system!
I need not have worried for the curse soon dissipated itself thanks in no small measure to the imposing stance and proportion of the Flying Spur but because it was also nimble and nippy like no other Bentley saloon I have ever driven. Let’s talk performance first because such a machine has to offer that grand tourer capability otherwise what use is all that opulence for four? The mighty W12 has been massaged to now deliver 616bhp at 2000rpm but torque is a whopper at 800Nm at the same engine speed! Stonking isn’t the right word, the thrust and the pull being in the league of the large express-train locomotives.
To manage all this power and torque from not being willed away but to be placed on to terra firma for strong and sure traction, the Flying Spur has the all-new 8-speed ZF-gearbox sending power to all four wheels which has the standard 40:60 split front to rear to begin with but clever electronics can have the rears handle upto 85% of the push and twist when the car is given its head! On the other hand the front can handle 65% of the torque without upsetting the steering or the handling and yet tracking true as befits the class of car it is.
We never got the opportunity or the means to hit 200mph which is what Bentley claims the Flying Spur can do but what we surely can state is that the car is so rapid that even if it was doing 200mph we wouldn’t have felt or experienced anything but the serene manner in which the car whooshed through the Chinese countryside.
The manner in which the torque starts streaming from 2000rpm all the way to 6000rpm means it is a constant upshifting on the excellently quick-shifting eight-speed ‘box and there is no drama or massive punch in the solar plexus as this polished behemoth surges on one unending wave of torque! And it has excellent performance figures in the way you can go from a near crawl to warp speeds: zero to 60mph is achieved in a scant Ferrari-aping 4.3 seconds while zero to 100mph from standstill is a near shade under 10 seconds! No car with this much mass has ever been so supremely quick yet with the manners that are exemplary beyond belief.
While so much for outright pace and sprinting ability but the truckloads of power and torque help make short shrift of passing large articulated trucks and slow rumbling traffic with but an imperceptible feel of the cogs shifting as the rev needle sprints in an upward arc. While power is everything here, it just couldn’t have been able to accomplish its prodigious forward thrust without the control wrought on by the tweaked suspension which now benefits from a slightly wider track front and rear.
The grippy Pirelli P-Zero rubber helps with both the traction and the control while the sweet steering gear (hydraulic still when the world and its granny is switching to electric assist!) is most confidence inspiring. Heck, even when you dab down on the brake pedal, the mighty rotors grab but with finesse and it would take probably a stupid manoeuvre of panicky proportions to upset the Flying Spur.
And while the onus is always on providing the smoothest of rides to the fat cats or the Li’l Emperors who would be the target audience specifying this car for their new garages, it wouldn’t be a Bentley if it wasn’t meant to be powered to the hilt by the man behind the wheel.
And that’s where clever electronics again take over, switch on the Sport setting and the ride gets stiffer and as the speedo needle begins to trespass into serious illegal realm, the ride height automatically lowers to help it punch to its 200mph / 320kmph top whack! The engine sadly doesn’t have the aural note of say a Ferrari or a Lamborghini V12 and there is just the hint of a muted growl which was a bit of a downer for me.
So it has been established that the Li’l Emperors could motor mighty quick in this large-sized top end saloon one has to follow that up with how comfortably cool they could be while being whooshed at triple ton speeds? Well the strong brand characteristic so typical of Bentley craftsmanship has taken another strong step forward and the abundance of wood, leather and quality trim help mark this one not as a opulently outfitted interior but just right for the occasion.
However, two things are manifest: more is never enough and so Bentley also offers Flying Spur owners with the Mulliner Driving Specification trim set which includes diamond-quilted seats, sporty drilled alloy pedals (straight from its GT3 Continental maybe!), choice of 21-inch two-piece alloy wheels along with of course a knurled shifter knob, jewelled filler cap and a choice of exterior shades.
Prices are mind-numbing for many to fathom but since we are light years behind in our bid to join the Li’l Emperor league, we will only have to take the Bentley product planners at their word to understand why a champagne cooler at about two lakh rupees is such good value to go along with the deep pile lambswool rugs, a snip at just about 80 grand!
This is a car not out to fleece but because the target customer group wants it that way and that’s the name of the high end prestige luxury car segment the world over. Excess is nothing but here in the Flying Spur it is only the start. Also as I was saying, there never can be too much a good thing and if the performance from the W12 isn’t enough, then wait a few months for the Flying Spur Speed, a car with even more oomph from its motor which will have it singing in ever greater clarity. Not for nothing therefore that Bentley equips its Flying Spurs with the stupendous Naim audio system which literally rocks provided the Li’l Emperor likes his music that way! Couldn’t be a better way to fly than in this winged B!