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.