The best Bentley for 50 years

It may mark me out as a little odd but I love really bad weather. If there’s a storm rattling around outside I’ll be the one throwing open the windows and climbing under a thick duvet to listen to it. Bury me in enough layers of protective clothing and I’ll walk through blizzards with a smile on my face. I love the sense of being cocooned against elements doing their best to kill me.

If you do too, you would be much taken with this new Bentley, the Continental Flying Spur. During my very first drive in Crewe’s new £115,000 limousine I had to guide it up the autostrada that runs north from Venice towards the mountains. Outside the wind blew and the rain hosed down, drenching the road so much of the time it was flooded. Time, as ever, was short and the person in my head in charge of sense of survival was issuing red alerts, as simple common sense said no car could safely get down that road at this speed in these conditions. But his colleagues over in sight, sound and touch were entirely unfussed: not once was the Bentley deflected an inch from its chosen course. So far as the Flying Spur was concerned, it could have been a dry and sunny day. Ever the democrat, I pressed on.

In that instant, the Flying Spur validated the theory of its creation and revealed its true purpose. It is to blend traditional Bentley values of extravagant driving pleasure and hand-built luxury into a package that, through its sheer modernity, can be used to the full all of the time and in all conditions. And, do you know what? They damn near pulled it off.

Of course there are those that will say this is merely a four-door Continental GT and, given that it uses the same VW-sourced twin-turbo 553bhp W12 motor, six-speed ZF ’box, multi-link suspension and record- breaking 405mm brake discs (the biggest in production), there is much in what they say. Yet despite this, the Flying Spur possesses a character of its own, one that leads me to lament the fact that Bentley has not made more of a visual distinction between them.

Indeed, if you see one in the mirror, you’ll not be able to tell whether it’s a Spur or a GT. It’s only when it draws alongside that you’ll spot the extra 300mm in the wheelbase, the B-pillar and the four long doors. And when it sweeps past you, as it surely will, you’ll be able to judge the merits or otherwise of its new boot. To me, it works markedly less well than the GT’s considerably more pert rear end and helps create the entirely false impression that the Spur was an afterthought, a GT stretched like warm toffee into a family-friendly shape. In fact, although the GT has been on the market for well over a year, in design terms it and the Spur are twins.

But just as they’re not identical in looks nor are they in ability and anyone who presumes that, just because the Spur is heavier, longer and softer than the GT, it must be dynamically compromised has reckoned without the talents of Bentley’s engineers in general and those of their boss, Dr Ulrich Eichhorn, in particular.Bentley says it will still hit 60mph in the same 4.9sec we achieved with the Continental GT. Top speed has come down, however, by three whole miles per hour, to a trifling 195mph though Eichhorn says this figure is conservative and that, in optimum conditions, 200mph should not be beyond the Spur’s grasp. So few are going to find its performance lacking; it is, after all, the fastest saloon in the world.

More interesting than such academia, however, is the fact that the W12 is considerably better suited to the Spur than the GT. My time in the coupé has always been tinged by a slight regret that its engine doesn’t howl and rev as we have come to expect from modern supercars. It may be very Bentley, but it’s not very exciting. But its low-rev, high-torque approach suits a luxury limousine to perfection. You don’t want to have to thrash such cars before they’ll perform – you’d rather roll along on an ocean of torque and, with 479lb ft of the stuff available at a frankly comical 1600rpm, that’s just what the Spur allows.Then, of course, there is the not insignificant fact that you can pile a family of five into the Spur. It is roomy enough for four six-foot adults to sit in extravagant comfort with none of their extremities even close to coming into contact with a seat, a headlining or another occupant. The boot’s reasonably big, too, but has a small aperture.

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Looked at in isolation, this appears not to make sense: how can a vast four-door saloon with all the weight of extra doors, the boot, huge seats, interior trim, two B-pillars and a stretched wheelbase give performance barely blunted from that of the GT which is over half a metre shorter? In fact the answer is simple: for all its extra size, the Spur is just 90kg heavier than the GT. Put another way, a GT with me on board weighs the same as an unoccupied Spur. While waiting to go into production, the Spur has been dieting furiously, even being fitted with an all-aluminium subframe at the back, where the GT’s is steel.But the big difference that extra space between the wheels makes, as well as new dampers with fresh software to control them, is in the ride quality. No, it’s not Mercedes S-class good, but it retains the exemplary primary control you’d expect of any Bentley, and supplements it with a secondary suppleness that, with the best will in the world, you would not.

It also handles better than you’d credit. Despite its length and the extra holes in the monocoque needed for the rear doors, it actually possesses precisely the same torsional rigidity as the pillarless GT, and while you’d never call it agile, the steering is precise and well weighted, body roll is considerable but well controlled and grip levels are beyond what you’d expect from such a large car. Eichhorn even reckons it understeers less than the GT, something I was unable to test but can quite believe. And those monstrous brakes are simply phenomenal.

The Spur does have its problems, a little too much wind noise being by far the most serious given its limousine aspirations. But there’s also profligate fuel consumption, restricting its practical range to around 250 miles and a couple of odd omissions. Why, for instance, are there no vanity mirrors in the back to let ladies touch up their make-up outside the opera house (don’t laugh, these things count) and why, when I climbed in the back after the car had been out in the rain, did it dump at least a cup of water on my right leg?

None of this stops the Spur gaining an unequivocal thumbs-up. I’ll admit now that I simply hadn’t expected how much more satisfying the same fundamental design would prove when turned to the discipline of making a saloon rather than a coupé. Don’t get me wrong, I am a genuine fan of the Continental GT but the parts of it that frustrate me – particularly the weight and the undemonstrative engine – actually help to make the Spur such a distinguished car.

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What matter most is that it is not just a truly special place in which to pass the time, for that should be a given in any Bentley, but that it also works so very well out there, in the real world.This, then, is the best Bentley saloon ever to emerge from the gates of Crewe and, in my estimation, the best car of any kind to wear the famous wings in over half a century.

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