RIGHT IN the middle of all the brouhaha over the word I didn’t say in a piece of film that was never transmitted, I arrived at my London flat to find it surrounded by many eager young reporters, and there, on the doorstep, a man who’d come round to deliver my weekly test car. And yup. It was the Bentley Flying Spur — 600 yards of conspicuous consumption. A 2½-ton stick with which the loony left could beat me to death. Brilliant.
It’s strange. When a tramp in America sees someone glide by in a car such as this, he thinks, “One day I’ll have one of those.” But here in Britain he’ll think, “One day I’ll have him out of that.” I don’t understand the logic of this peculiarly British attitude. Because if Sir Sugar were to sell his Rolls-Royce, it would make absolutely no difference to anyone except Sir Sugar.
But I accept that many people in this country don’t like success or any of the trappings it brings. They don’t like to see vulgar demonstrations that somebody else’s life has turned out better than theirs. Pull into a petrol station in a nice car in Italy or France or Germany, and people come over to make appreciative noises. Here, all you get from the chap at the next pump is a lesson on how his Austin Maestro does more miles to the gallon than your car and how it has a bigger boot. It’s all a bit tragic, really.
Because it means that you don’t just need a thick wallet to buy a Bentley Flying Spur. You also need a thick skin.
When a tramp in America sees someone glide by in a car such as this, he thinks, “One day I’ll have one of those.” But here in Britain he’ll think, “One day I’ll have him out of that.”
And in the Knightsbridge area of west London, boy, oh boy, it seems that pretty much half the population is equipped with the hide of a rhino. Because in one road — Walton Street, for those of you who know the area — I saw 15 Flying Spurs. I know I’m prone to exaggeration but there were 15 on one tiny street. There weren’t even that many Range Rovers.
I was a little baffled by this, because surely if you were going to buy a big, flash car, you would have a Rolls-Royce Ghost. I can see why you’d avoid the Mercedes S-class. Brilliant though it may be, it is seen these days as an upmarket taxi — a car used mainly for dropping Geri Hall iwell off at the red carpet.
I’d have the Ghost. It’s a magnificent car, an extraordinary blend of exquisite craftsmanship and world-class engineering from a group of people who know exactly what’s meant by luxury. Silence, comfort and light. And yet 15 people on Walton Street had obviously looked at the Rolls and thought, “No. I shall buy the Bentley instead.” Why?
Well, I did some digging, and straight away I found the answer. A Rolls-Royce Ghost costs £201,450, while a Bentley Flying Spur is £147,145. It’s cheaper — much cheaper — and on paper at least there’s no obvious reason for this.
Under the bonnet of the car I drove was a twin-turbo, 48-valve W12 engine. Think of it as two V6s joined at the hip. The result of this union is an extraordinary turn of speed. You get 616 brake horsepower and a billion torques, and that means when you mash your foot into the deep-pile carpet, your passengers had better be holding on tight. Because it sets off as if it’s been given an electric shock. And it keeps right on accelerating until it’s doing 200mph. The Rolls, on the other hand, has an electronic nanny that steps into the mix at a mere 155mph.
The Bentley is not just faster and more powerful. It feels more alive. You get four-wheel drive and flappy paddles for changing gear, and if you wish, you can go into the on-board computer and make merry with the suspension settings. Put the car in Sport mode and the result is hysterical.
When an American aircraft carrier puts to sea, it is always accompanied by a flotilla of smaller ships. There are tankers that carry fuel for the planes and supply vessels that keep the men fed. Then there are fast-attack ships on hand to protect the meat in the sandwich and often a couple of submarines as well. But if the balloon goes up, the carrier drops its rods and sets off at more than 30 knots, or about 35mph. It’s easily as fast as all the other ships.
You get 616 brake horse power and a billion torques, and that means when you mash your foot into the carpet, your passengers had better be holding on tight.
Well, that’s what it feels like in the Bentley. The lights go green and, whoomph, when the slightly dimwitted gearbox wakes up, you’re gone. You sense rather than feel that the engineering needed to keep this enormous car on the road is working at the outer edges of what’s possible, and you don’t care. Because you are grinning. Sometimes you actually laugh out loud. Especially when you are braking, because you’re thinking, “These discs? They must be the size of dustbin lids.”
So it’s cheaper than the Rolls-Royce and more exciting to drive. But let’s be honest, shall we? If you want a car of this type, what you need is luxury. Yes, yes, yes, Bentley Boys. The right crowd and no crowding. Fastest lorry in the world. “Blower” Bentley. Le Mans. There is a hint of all this sporting heritage in the mix, but if it was a sports car you were after, you’d have bought a Ferrari.
You weren’t after a sports car, though. You were after a limo. And on this front, hmmm. Not sure. Yes, it comes with all the modern-day equipment you would expect of a Volkswagen, and, yes, all the switches have been cunningly disguised to make them feel Bentleyish. It is a tremendous place to sit, especially in the back, where you get cupholders. In the front you don’t — well, not as standard.
But there’s a problem with the ride. My test car came with 21in wheels and very low-profile tyres, and as a result there was a constant pitter-patter. There was also an annoying tendency for the nose of the car to follow the camber of the road, which meant I had to make constant very small steering inputs. Which is probably why some of my friends who know the car report that sickness in the back is an issue.
I haven’t finished. Much work has been done to make the suspension as compliant as possible, but over potholes and ridges there’s a definite shimmy. It lets you know that you’re in a car, on a road. The Rolls-Royce and the Mercedes S-class don’t.
So I have a problem with the conclusion, because I’m going through a bit of a Bentley phase at the moment. I really do like the Continental GT V8 a lot, and the Flying Spur is pretty damn good as well. I think it is beautifully styled, beautifully made and beautifully trimmed. I think it is good value too, and I found it hugely entertaining on some of the roads near where I live in the Cotswolds. The speed is absolutely bonkers.
As a large, prestigious saloon car, then, it is pretty epic. But because of those tyres and that suspension, it’s not quite as epic as the Rolls.
Clarkson’s verdict ★★★☆☆
Under the disguise it’s just a very fast VW
Bentley Continental Flying Spur W12 specifications
Engine: 5998cc, W12, twin turbo
Power: 616bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque: 590 lb ft @ 1750rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Performance: 0-62mph: 4.6sec
Top speed: 200mph
Road tax band: M
Release date: On sale now