Despite its German ownership, Bentley remains the epitome of British automotive craftsmanship, inexorably linked to very real dynamic talents. The new-generation Flying Spur may place a greater emphasis on comfort than its predecessor, but the majestic sedan’s athletic prowess remains undiminished – even on China’s twisty, crowded roads, as DEON SCHOEMAN finds out.
It’s just after 9am, and my view over the long, probing nose of the new Bentley Flying Spur is hardly promising: all five lanes of the expressway heading north-east out of Beijing are jam-packed.
I’ve just left the (proudly self-proclaimed) seven-star Pangu Hotel in the heart of Beijing’s Olympic Village on a driving route that’s supposed to include stops at the Great Wall, and more prosaically, one of China’s largest wine-growing chateaus – yes, that’s right: a chateau.
Right now, both destinations seem unlikely prospects. Not only is the traffic a nightmare, but the local driving tactics are, in one word, terrifying. Ahead of me, and three lanes to the left, a pick-up truck suddenly, and completely without warning, veers across three, four, five lanes and dashes down an off-ramp. Miraculously, it doesn’t collide with anything in the process.
Around me, the local motorists don’t blink an eye. There’s no anger or surprise. The faces are completely devoid of any expression.
I soon learn that the key to survival is to be resolute and unrelenting. Don’t allow a gap to grow between you and the car ahead in some ill-advised attempt at maintaining a following distance: in the blink of an eye, a tour bus will have found a way to squeeze into that space.
Want to overtake? Make the move – hard, and fast. Don’t bother indicating your intentions: nobody does, and nobody cares. And generally, the slow lane is the fastest.
Eventually, the traffic starts thinning out and there’s a bit of time to consider the car I’m driving – and the reason I’m driving it in the People’s Republic of China. This is the all-new, second-generation Flying Spur, a sedan designed to combine effortless, athletic performance with the sumptuous luxury and heritage-driven style worthy of the Bentley nameplate.
First unveiled at this year’s Geneva Motor Show – the kind of location perfectly suited to the exclusive, aristocratic demeanour of the car – the decision to conduct the super-sedan’s driving launch in China is, frankly, somewhat puzzling.
Not so, says Bentley. While the US still represents the brand’s biggest market, the Chinese appetite for wealth and luxury also extends to the four-wheeled arena, and specifically to large, posh (and some would say ostentatious) machinery. The Flying Spur, therefore, could become a regular sight on Chinese roads.
However, for now, the Bentley causes quite a stir. At an indicated 130km/h or so (the freeway speed limit is 120km/h), we’re purring along serenely when a nondescript hatchback comes hurtling up from behind, its occupants pointing excitedly at the car. There are lots of smiles and thumbs ups before they drop back into the Bentley’s wake.
Even the traffic police feel compelled to fall in behind us to take a closer look, but just as I’m getting ready to be pulled off, they drop back,
A big part of the Flying Spur’s appeal may be the heritage and the tradition of fine motoring epitomised by the brand – but in the 21st century, sophisticated technology is an equally important part of the bespoke motoring package.
For instance, without the on-board satellite navigation system, I’d never be able to find my way around the often confusing Chinese road network, where the criss-crossing of old and new highways can confuse even the most seasoned traveller. And once you’re on rural roads, any sign of English signage disappears completely.
Perhaps more important, in pure motoring terms, is the technology employed under the skin. The W12 engine, with its three W-configured rows of four cylinders each, remains a marvel of modern engineering.
For its execution in the new Flying Spur, the Bentley engineers have tweaked and fettled the twin-turbocharged, 6.0-litre powerhouse to deliver a colossal 460kW of maximum output, combined with a crunching 800Nm of torque. Those figures make the Flying Spur the brand’s most powerful production sedan ever.
The rest of the drivetrain matches the W12 for sophistication: rear-biased all-wheel drive with a 60:40 rear/front torque split, four-way adjustable air damping, and an eight-speed automatic gearbox with manual override and shift paddles mounted behind the steering wheel.
Until now, I’ve let the auto transmission do its own thing, leaving me with one less thing to worry about as I manhandle the Bentley through the traffic. But the satnav has taken us off the highway, through a toll gate, and onto the narrow, twisty and much quieter roads of rural China.
Time to switch to Sport and take command, then. Initially, I opt for a stiffer damper setting, too, but on these rutted, uneven and often potholed road surfaces, the extra tautness simply compromises overall ride quality too much. And besides, there’s little opportunity to drive the Bentley really rapidly.
Swapping gears with the shift paddles, allows finer control, especially in the twisty bits, but the shifts could be a little snappier, even at the expense of some refinement. It would certainly add a greater sense of involvement.
Still, it’s the effortless acceleration that really impresses. Remember, the Flying Spur tips the scales at just a few kilos short of 2.5 tonnes. And at 5.3m long and 2.2m wide, it’s not exactly compact, either.
Give it welly, though, and the Flying Spur is very quick out of the blocks. The benchmark 100km/h mark comes up in just 4.6sec. Keep that right foot floored, and another 4.9sec will see the speedo needle whizz past the 160km/h mark. Top speed is a breath-taking 322km/h.
Even more impressive is the opulent sedan’s in-gear tractability. Regardless of the ratio selected, flooring the loud pedal extracts a growling crescendo from the W12 up front, accompanied by an effortless lunge towards the horizon.
The effect is astounding, like watching a prop forward outsprinting Husain Bolt. The Bentley buys more time when there isn’t any left, creates gaps that simply wouldn’t be there in a car less talented.
By the same token, the brakes are also up to the task, matching acceleration with fade-free bite and unwavering retardation. In short, the Flying Spur accelerates and stops with the enthusiasm of a car half its size and weight – useful when you encounter a slow scooter on the apex of a blind corner at speed …
Of course, outright velocity is completely immaterial when you’re tip-toeing your way through tiny rural villages, where the Bentley looks as alien as a spaceship to a population still reliant on push carts, bicycles and three-wheeled scooters. This is not the neon and LED-lit China of Beijing or Shanghai, but a time-warp landscape that hasn’t changed dramatically in centuries.
Fitting then that we end the first 200km of our driving experience at the very epitome of China’s grand history: the Great Wall. Near Jinshanling, the ramparts and stairways are a giant snake of hand-dressed stone and mortar, slithering its way up, around and over crests and through deep, trough-like valleys.
The sense of history is disconcertingly palpable, and I’m sure I can hear the marched, measured steps of patrolling soldiers, and the threatening clang of armour, echoing in the distant hills and valleys.
In such historic surroundings, the classic styling of the Flying Spur looks just right. The front end is pure aggression, with the filigreed mesh of the grille framed by LED-decorated circular headlights. A short front overhang and the way the wheel arches are filled by the big alloys and low-profile rubber add to car’s overall presence.
The rear view is much softer, more extended, allowing space of all that rear legroom and a cavernous boot – or at least a potentially spacious one. The example I’m driving has an optional fridge and big subwoofer boxes, which reduce boot volume somewhat.
Chiselled style lines, a narrow side glass aperture, and muscular bulges over the rear wheel arches contribute to a presence that is imposing and muscular, but also clean and contemporary, with no opulent excess. Yes, it’s big, but in a handsome and distinctive way.
My return trip to Beijing serves up some quieter, twistier sections where the surface is good and the Bentley can be pushed harder. For all its size and bulk, there is an inherent agility that instils confidence.
In the tight, even the rear-biased all-wheel drive can’t prevent the understeer from wanting to push the nose wide, but when the twists become curves and sweeps, the Flying Spur responds with glee, tucking into the corners, and remaining nailed to the chosen line.
The softer damping adds a veneer of refinement that benefits comfort without compromising road manners, underscoring the fine balance between performance and luxury presented by this car.
All too soon, we’re back on a five-lane highway, heading back towards Beijing. And as the traffic thickens and congeals around us, there’s little option but to switch back to fully automatic, engage cruise control, and take stock of the bespoke and crafted space that is the Flying Spur’s cabin.
It’s a toss-up between whether you want to spend more time in the front, or in the back, of this interior. In fact, I would bet that many owners will savour the prospect of relaxing in the expansive space and revelling in the plush comfort that the rear accommodation offers.
Depending on options, it can also serve as a multi-speaker surround sound cinema on the move, complete with high-end amplification from another high-end British brand, Naim Audio, or as a mobile office, complete with Wi-Fi connectivity.
The optional Mulliner package adds quilted leather and an even stronger sense of tailored exclusivity. The equipment list is uncompromisingly full house, and the fittings and switchgear express that slightly quirky mix of tech and tradition that is a Bentley hallmark.
It’s easy to become disconnected from the motoring reality when you’re cosseted in such comfort – but Beijing’s afternoon traffic soon brings that euphoria to an end. It becomes a matter of survival, trying to thread the big car through the smallest gaps, and going toe-to-toe with anything from minibuses to articulated trucks.
It’s with a mix of relief and regret that I arrive back at the Pangu hotel’s grand entrance. Relief because my R3.95-million steed is still in one piece. Regret because it also marks the end of my time behind the wheel of a majestic grand tourer.
The all-new Flying Spur is the epitome of the aristocratic super-luxury sedan. The first-generation model found almost 20,000 buyers in the seven years it was produced, which gives some indication of its importance in the Bentley model mix.
But to be frank, it was more of a booted derivative of the Continental GT than a truly separate model.
The new Flying Spur has a much stronger identity of its own, and as a luxurious and effortless supersedan with very real performance capabilities, it is much more convincing than before. No doubt, China and the US will end up accounting for the bulk of sales, but South African Bentley fans can look forward to a local launch of the newcomer before the end of the year. DM
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