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The Bentley Continental Flying Spur is a grand car that recalls a heroic age, a throwback to a time when big sedans were more art than science. Yet the Flying Spur also adds performance, technology, and even utility to this formula, and the result is a car that is uniquely practical as well as uniquely beautiful.
Beneath the Flying Spur's dramatic sheetmetal, you'll find the latest developments in automotive technology. A W12 engine incorporates twin turbochargers to produce some 552 horsepower. All-wheel drive delivers excellent traction in all kinds of weather. A sophisticated suspension with air springs and electronically controlled dampers produces extraordinary driving composure.
Moreover, the Flying Spur is a car that's meant to be driven. The driving experience is effortlessly intuitive, the performance is powerful yet controllable, and the interior is useful as well as comfortable. Compared to other prestige cars, the Flying Spur can be used on a daily basis just like a conventional sedan.
The Bentley Continental Flying Spur belongs to a rarified group of automobiles that are signatures of wealth and style. Bentley and Roll-Royce have dominated this market for decades, but now German and Italian manufacturers have joined the game for reasons of both corporate image and national pride. When a British holding company sold off the long-time Bentley/Rolls-Royce concern in 1999 because investment funds for the future weren't available, Volkswagen purchased Bentley while BMW bought Rolls-Royce. This event inspired a re-making of the whole prestige-car marketplace, as Mercedes-Benz invented Maybach, while Fiat decided to join the game with Maserati.
Since its takeover by Volkswagen, Bentley has been conspicuously successful. Much of the reason has been the Continental model, which was greeted with wide acclaim when the two-door GT was introduced in 2003. The four-door Flying Spur enjoyed similar success when it was launched in 2005. Evidence of this success can be found in the U.S. market during 2005, where Bentley sold 2144 Continental GTs and 1217 Flying Spurs during the year. In the same time period, Rolls-Royce sold 382 Phantoms, while Maybach sold just 152 cars.
It should be duly noted that price is a part of the Bentley Contintental's appeal, for while the Flying Spur is twice the price of a Lexus, it is just half the price of a Rolls-Royce.
This Bentley is an example of automotive art, yet it also illustrates the way in which prestige cars are becoming more affordable, practical and useful in response to ever-increasing sophistication from consumer-grade sedans built by Audi, BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz.
Bentley traces its heritage to its thundering sports cars of the 1920s that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world's most famous endurance race, and the Flying Spur evokes the spirit of those heroic cars. Its stylized hood and front fenders, oversize headlights, and racing-style mesh grille are all inspired by classic themes.
In profile, the short overhang between the Flying Spur's front bumper and the front wheels emphasizes the prominent nose and very long hood, a traditional visual signature of a powerful automobile. Meanwhile, the long waist of the car appears deep and solid, a styling message of substance and gravitas.
Because the Flying Spur has the ability to reach 195 mph, the bodywork is also functional. The elongated shape produces a measure of aerodynamic stability at extreme speed, while a slippery drag coefficient of 0.31 Cd minimizes speed-sapping turbulence as well as annoying wind noise. For further stability, a vestigial spoiler atop the trunk lid reduces aerodynamic lift, and the carefully shaped rear bumper helps extract air from underneath the car.
The Flying Spur is imposing in size as well as style. It measures 208.9 inches (17.4 feet) from nose to tail, 83.4 inches from one outside mirror to another, and stands 58.2 inches tall. It also weighs 5456 pounds when it's parked at the curb and ready to drive, about 800 pounds heavier than the big sedans from BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. Even the standard 19-inch wheels are taller than those of conventional sedans.
Beneath the sheet metal, the Flying Spur has the same fundamental architecture as the Audi A8L (both Audi and Bentley are wholly owned divisions of Volkswagen AG). The Flying Spur's body and engine are actually built in Germany, but the final assembly takes place at Bentley's long-time facility in Crewe, England.
In terms of miscellaneous exterior features, the Flying Spur's headlights incorporate external washer jets and bright bi-xenon gas bulbs, while the taillights feature quick-response LEDs. The double-paned side glass features special infra-red reflective coating to help keep the interior cool. The windshield wipers react automatically when raindrops are sensed.
The traditional character of English design comes through strongly in the Continental Flying Spur's use of chrome, leather and wood. This is a rich and luxurious environment, yet there are no compromises in ergonomics and technology. As a result, this Bentley can be enjoyed for its functional utility as well as its comfort and style.
Our test car's steering wheel featured hand-stitched leather (a process that takes five hours), and it tilts and telescopes to accommodate drivers of different sizes. Controls for the audio system and trip computer are integrated into the wheel. The modern gauge cluster set within the instrument binnacle incorporates a small screen to alternately display information either from the audio system, navigational unit or trip computer. Elsewhere on the dash, the ventilation outlets are large bull's-eye modules, a design that's refreshingly intuitive to use and also in keeping with Bentley tradition.
The centerpiece of the dash is the seven-inch video screen that displays both information from the satellite navigation system (which affords nationwide map information in a single DVD disk), and the audio system. Discrete piano keys alongside the screen determine the different functions, while a central knob is used as the input key. The system is easier to use than competing systems from BMW and Mercedes-Benz, but fussier to use that similar systems offered by Acura and Lexus, both in terms of physical controls and internal computer logic.
The premium audio system features 12 speakers, and the acoustic quality is excellent. But because the navigation computer takes up so much space in the central console, the six-disk CD changer is located in the glovebox, an ergonomic compromise often seen in modern cars with a surfeit of electronics.
There are no ergonomic issues once you're behind the wheel, however. The 16-way adjustable front seat puts you in just the right position, and the seating surfaces can be either warmed or cooled, a feature that keeps leather from feeling icy in the winter or sweaty in the summer. This seat also cradles you with firm, supportive bolsters. Both front seats incorporate a massage feature to relieve the fatigue of long-distance driving.
If you select the optional two-passenger, limousine-style rear seat, the individually adjustable rear bucket seats afford first-class accommodations. There are climate and audio controls mounted in a center console between the rear seats, plus the electrically deployed privacy screens for the rear window and side glass, and it all adds up to the ambience of a business jet.
Yet, just like a jet, there's not quite as much room in the Flying Spur as you suppose. This car offers some 102 cubic feet of interior passenger volume, but this is an average of three cubic feet smaller in overall passenger volume than a BMW 7 Series, Lexus LS, or Mercedes S-Class. Front-seat legroom is generous, but the oversize Bentley front seats restrict rear-seat by a couple inches. On the other hand, the Flying Spur's trunk is truly voluminous, some 16.7 cubic feet in all.
Taken as a whole, the interior surroundings are gorgeous. Bentley uses no less than 11 cowhides to trim the interior, and it selects leather strictly from climes in northern Europe, where the animals are less likely to have been scarred by insect bites. Bentley is also unique in its use of natural unstained and unbleached wood veneers (a total of seven different veneers are available). As a result, everything you see is a delight and everything you touch is a pleasure.
The Bentley heritage is all about driving. Back in 1930, Bentley chief executive Woolf Barnato (whose family fortune came from diamond mines in South Africa), once raced his Bentley Speed Six sedan across France against the famous Blue Train, and won. In the early 1950s, the 120-mph Bentley Continental R became the fastest, most luxurious way to travel across Europe. Like these historic cars from Bentley's past, the Continental Flying Spur is meant to make the same kind of active, high-performance statement.
Bentley's unique twin-turbo 6.0-liter W12 engine makes this possible. Essentially this engine looks like two V6 engines mounted side-by-side and connected by a single crankshaft, and it has a natural balance that makes its vibrations almost undetectable. The engine starts with the push of a button, a design feature that Bentley brought back from motoring history and which has since been copied by many other car manufacturers. Once the engine comes to life, a specially tuned exhaust system gives it a delicious note of audible authority.
Turbocharging helps the W12 produce some 552 horsepower, more than the engine of any other sedan except for the 604-hp, 6.5-liter, supercharged V8 in the $180,000 Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG. The Bentley W12 has enough power to accelerate even this incredibly heavy 5456-pound car to 60 mph in just 4.9 seconds, speed to 100 mph in 11.3 seconds, and reach a top speed of 195 mph.
More important, this engine makes 479 pound-feet of torque at only 1600 rpm. As a result, the Flying Spur has the ability to move through medium-speed traffic with incredible directness, accelerating to 70 mph from 50 mph in only 2.6 seconds. The car calmly hurtles forward as if propelled by pure physical force.
The car's dual personality is reflected in the ZF-built six-speed transmission, which affords either conventional automatic shifting or manually selected gear changes through fingertip-actuated paddles mounted on the steering wheel. You can drive slowly and let the transmission do the thinking, or you can drive hard and determine the gear you need.
On the open road, the Flying Spur delivers a reassuring feeling of stability. The long wheelbase, front-biased weight distribution (56 percent front/44 percent rear), and all-wheel drive combine to help the car track straight and true. Meanwhile, the Bentley's prodigious 5456 pounds of weight help to smother any disturbing ride motions stirred up by small pavement imperfections. At higher speeds, the suspension's air springs help the car absorb the deflection from larger inputs with a composed, naturally progressive action. The suspension dampers also can be electronically tuned to four different settings to vary the overall ride quality from cushy to controlled.
At high speed, the light-effort, speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering has enough road feel to reassure the driver about his ability to control the car. At low speed, a turning circle of 38.7 feet delivers reasonable maneuverability. At any speed, the dual-pane glass ensures the drive is quiet.
Despite its size, the Flying Spur is capable of enthusiastic driving, as its electronic safety net of stability enhancements helps to keep the car responsive to the brakes and steering. The proper emergency procedure in almost any circumstance is to stand on the brake pedal and then start steering, and the car itself will help you deal safely with the situation. When the stability system engages, its action is progressive and predictable, and it doesn't panic the driver.
While the Continental Flying Spur challenges the laws of physics with its performance on the road, there are some natural laws that can't be circumvented, so it's no surprise that the car's fuel economy is rated at just 11 mpg on the EPA's city cycle.
The Continental Flying Spur has the kind of visual grandeur long associated with Bentley, yet this car also functions with complete competence as a daily device for everyday travel. It is a commanding blend of style, technology and utility, a completely modern automobile. The Flying Spur's price is equally commanding, yet it's relatively affordable in its class, and this makes it a car of aspiration to a greater number of people than ever before. When the owners of big sedans from BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz go to sleep at night, the Bentley Continental Flying Spur is the car they dream about.
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