China traffic in a Bentley. It’s an equally delightful and terrifying experience, as crazy roadster windscreened three-wheeled death-trucks carry improbable loads, and mopeds and motorcycles choose the path of least resistance — even if that means heading into oncoming traffic. Being swaddled in the beautiful cabin of Bentley’s Flying Spur gives some respite from the chaos — the horns muted, the air clean and chilled while outside it’s grubby and hot. The traffic, when not made up of those heavily loaded three-wheelers and suicidal motorcycles is an oddly familiar, but slightly different take on the traffic you might find anywhere else. Only more mad.
China is a country on the move. Haphazardly, perhaps, but the upwardly mobile in the communist state want cars. Oft quoted as the potential saviour of the car industry, the unquenched desire for four-wheels is as yet not sated as rampant consumerism takes hold. Not here in Beijing it seems, where every centimetre of road, and a good portion of the pavements, are occupied by metal. Little surprise that Bentley chose China to launch its latest saloon, given that the country is throwing up dealerships in numbers that a while ago might have looked like a decent car production figure from Bentley’s Crewe production facility.
The Chinese love a Bentley and are similarly partial to a saloon. The Flying Spur fits in perfectly with the country’s desire for luxury. A sizeable proportion of Bentley’s Flying Spur production will end up here. Like the traffic currently surrounding it, and me, it’s familiar but different. Deliberately so. Bentley has changed the Flying Spur’s remit, removing Continental from its moniker to distance it from its coupé and convertible siblings, even if under its bodywork it shares much of its drivetrain. The Flying Spur is Continental no more, even if its ultimate goal is to go out and conquer it — with sales.
More than just a dropped name, the Flying Spur is more distinct and separate in its styling. Not so distanced that it’s glaringly different — after all, Bentley isn’t really a company you would usually associate with radical styling — but it’s more emphatic in its look. The Bentley DNA signifiers are there, the shapely front wings tapering up from the large headlights, the prominent bonnet with its exquisite mesh grille, now sitting above a wide, low intake that spans the bottom of the Flying Spur’s nose. That’s a deliberate visual trick, to widen and flatten the car, the new Flying Spur looking far more athletic than its rather pinched, narrow predecessor. Longer too, physically and visually, Bentley’s designers added some neat detailing on the Spur’s flanks to deceive and delight. The winged B punctures the front wing behind the wheel, its line continuing down the flanks and piercing the door handles.
The boldest line is that which subtly increases in sharpness from over the front wing behind the mirrors to kick and flow up over the back wheels. It helps define the Flying Spur’s most obvious stylistic change — the rear. A more petite derriere features on the Spur, far lower, simpler yet more assertive thanks to neater lights, within which the LEDs echo the shape of the oval tailpipes that peek through the lower back bumper.
Sharper, shapelier and lower outside, the interior retains all the hand-finished craftsmanship Bentley has always offered, with materials that eclipse all comers, from the softness of the leather and beautiful texture of the hand-finished contrasting stitching, to the chrome and brushed-metal finishes highlighting the simply detailed and functional interior. There’s nothing superfluous, Bentley’s interior is a demonstration of restraint and class. Choose between the natural, though highly polished grain of the finest wood veneer and you will find it impossible not to reach out and touch it. The velvet-like smoothness that it brings is a tactile joy. Machined, turned metal can be had instead. It is surprising with its satin texture and warmth. But the real delight inside the Spur, as with any Bentley, is pawing the chrome bull’s-eye ventilation outlets and the push-me-pull-me toggle levers that open and close them.
Doing so to calm my nerves as one of those motorcyclists threatens to create a crease in the Flying Spur’s flanks not intended by the designer, the serenity of sitting inside Bentley’s new saloon is only matched by rival Rolls-Royce Ghost. That Ghost sits slightly higher up the price charts than the Spur, the Bentley looking conspicuously good value when you consider that volume German luxury models are now beginning to reach the Bentley’s base price. Certainly you’ll easily spend anywhere between 10 to 20 per cent on options — and plenty more if you’re really particular and demanding — but from where I’m sitting it feels worth it.
If the old car’s brief was somewhat muddled then this new Flying Spur goes about its job with a bit more clarity of role. Bentley admits it’s dialled back the suspension, creating a softer, less alert and less compromised car. Those expecting the firm, sometimes unyielding ride of this car’s predecessor will be disappointed. For those who don’t, the majority — Bentley is not likely to have taken the decision without discussing it with existing customers — will find it immediately more accommodating.
Spring, damper and anti-roll bar rates have been reduced by as much as 15 per cent. Bentley’s even softened off the bushes in a bid to create a more comfortable car. It’s immediately apparent too, even on optional 20in wheels, 19s being standard. But few, if any, cars are ever likely to leave the factory so equipped. There’s a suppleness that just wasn’t there with the old car. There’s a dignified hush from the tyres too. Road noise is all but imperceptible, as Bentley’s engineers worked extremely hard on creating a quieter car.
There’s still some madness associated with the increased serenity, largely thanks to the twin-turbocharged 6.0-litre W12 engine residing under the bonnet. It’s quieter, sure, but the new Flying Spur is the most powerful Bentley saloon. It is more potent than the Mulsanne flagship, with its 616bhp eclipsing the output of the twin-turbo V8, even if the Mulsanne’s 1,020Nm of torque out-twists the 800Nm on offer from the Flying Spur.
The smaller but still sizeable car is better equipped to exploit it all. The Spur’s four-wheel drive means the ESP light is less likely to blow its bulb. Indeed, the elastic way the Bentley despatches its power is always amusing. The slightest, almost apologetic, ‘Are you sure?’ pause when pushing the accelerator into the floor is followed by a seemingly endless reeling in of what’s ahead, the eight-speed automatic gearbox working quickly and efficiently like an unseen butler dishing out ratios without any punctuation in the force.
The numbers say 4.6 seconds to 100kph, while the top speed is quoted as 322kph. Given the old car could comfortably breach that and Bentley is typically British in its reserve when it’s discussing potential V-maxes, then it’s reasonable to assume it’ll happily explore the other side of 322kph on the speedometer. Its steering feels like it’s supposed to do exactly that. Its weighting is unusual, requiring a decent bit of effort off centre, then lightening. The unnatural way its weighting changes doesn’t do it any favours when the roads get more interesting. That there’s precious little in the way of feel doesn’t help. It’s more likely you’ll hear the chirrup of hard-pressed rubber as the front wheels relinquish their grip and push on to understeer before you’ll feel it through the rim.
There’s significantly more body roll — the Flying Spur is a far more mobile car on its suspension. It’s not unchecked or unreasonable, just greater in its degree than you might have anticipated if you’ve ever sat behind the wheel of the car it replaces. So it has more roll, but has an indecent speed for something so big.
Bentley’s engineers have split the four-wheel drive system to deliver a greater rear bias, but you’d never know on the road unless you’re really trying. And to do so feels, well, a bit undignified. Bentley isn’t admitting it yet, but it’s not unreasonable to expect a Speed model in the future, which should tie it down a bit more convincingly. It will likely wear the currently optional Carbon-Silicon-Carbide (CSiC) brakes as standard as well as some aerodynamic enhancements, though the regular 405mm front and 335mm ventilated disc brakes don’t feel like they’re lacking in normal use.
A changed car for a changing world, the Flying Spur owner is no longer an easy demographic to deliver to. The changes Bentley has made make it a more rounded proposition, both to drive and be driven in. If it’s lost some of its focus in translation then that’s arguably to be applauded.
The Spur’s greater comfort and calming refinement is appealing. Especially when you’re sitting in Chinese traffic, as many of them inevitably will do.