2014 Bentley Flying Spur: One big car, one big engine
Driving down the freeway, the low rumble of a passing motorcycle took me by surprise, the noise only obtrusive because the 2014 Bentley Flying Spur I was in did such a good job of shielding my ears from all the other traffic around. In fact, that motorcycle was probably obnoxiously loud, the kind that roars down the street late on a Sunday night setting off car alarms.
From the driver's seat of the Flying Spur, however, it merely registered as a bass growl, temporarily eclipsing the music pouring from the stereo.
If you ever wonder why anyone would pay $200,000 for a luxury sedan in this class, Bentley answers, at least partially, with the Flying Spur's serene island of comfort and quiet amid the bustle of the world outside. Despite their crystal-clear transparency, the double-paned windows do their part deflecting outside noise. Coating the inside of the steel body, noise-deadening materials muffle the roar of the Flying Spur's own engine.
Bentley does a wonderful job hiding its sound-insulating magic, craftsmanship I could happily contemplate while surrounded by thick, ivory-colored leather and high-gloss wood paneling. I particularly liked the interior design of the Flying Spur, which seemed well-suited to a modern, electronics-equipped car. Vertical stanchions rise from either side of the console, curving over to form eyebrows at the top of the dashboard for driver and passenger. The line of the dashboard continues at windowsill level around the passenger compartment, underscored with glossy wood trim.
The console stanchions nicely framed the center touch screen, making it fit naturally among the old-world coachwork.
On the other hand, Bentley could learn a thing or two from fellow British brand Jaguar. Among all the wood and leather sit a few chromed, knurled dials, but most of the switch gear is plastic. Black plastic buttons dot the steering wheel, console, climate controls, and infotainment system. Contrast that with the Jaguar XF, which impressed me partly due to a minimal use of plastic in the cabin. Or Bentley might want to consider using ceramic for its button faces, similar to what BMW offers in its 7-series.
The Flying Spur loaned to CNET was a preproduction model, and Bentley advised us that the electronics were not quite finished. However, I don't expect the basic layout of the navigation, stereo, and other systems to change a whole lot. The touch screen was a little sluggish as I attempted to scroll through the music library of my cable-connected iPhone.
That Bentley is part of the Volkswagen Group was evident in the Multimedia Device Interface, a proprietary port in the glove box with a 30-pin iPod adapter cable. That arrangement forced me to attach a Lightning adapter so I could hook up my iPhone.
The cheapo digital-to-analog converter hardware in the Lightning adapter introduced some ugly distortion to music playback.
I could tell the standard eight-speaker audio system in the Flying Spur packed a lot of power. It was evident from the vibration I felt in the door's armrest when playing bass-heavy tracks, and the pressure I felt in my chest from each drumbeat. This audio system also delivered fine separation, introducing, for example, a distant harmonica coming in from the right of the soundstage to take center position on one song.
However, when playing music through the tortured iPhone connection, at the edge of every instrument was a note of tinny distortion. It was listenable, just not as enjoyable as it should have been. Bentley will be offering an 1,100-watt Naim audio system as an option in the Flying Spur, but the iPod connector is likely to remain a weak link. Best to load up the car's own hard drive with high-quality digital tracks, or bring in a binder full of CDs.
The navigation system was also nothing impressive to look at, and certainly not befitting a $200,000 car. That issue will be rectified in the production car, bringing in the Google Earth integration also used in the Audi S7. Bentley will need to enable the car's mobile data connection, which will also allow Google local searching for navigation.
In fact, Bentley should be able to draw from the exceptional bucket of technology for both infotainment and driver assistance developed by the Volkswagen Group, and currently deployed among Audi models.
One feature already on the option list is a rear-seat entertainment system, with 10-inch LCDs mounted to the front headrests. Although not present in this preproduction loaner, sitting in the back seat I could imagine it as a comfortable mobile theater. There is an extraordinary amount of legroom in back, and the rear seats feature their own power adjustment controls.
One interesting and unique bit of technology is a smartphone-size controller docked into the back of the console. It defaults to touch-screen climate controls for the rear-seat passengers, but also shows a home screen with icons for vehicle data and closing the rear window shade, among others. That controller pops out, so rear-seat passengers don't have to hunch over to access the controls.
The Flying Spur accommodates its roomy rear seating area with over 17 feet of total length. Despite the large dimensions of this sedan, the look is more understated than that of its big brother, the Bentley Mulsanne. The Flying Spur uses current Bentley styling cues, such as round, LED-ringed headlights with no ornamentation surrounding their circular openings. However, the hood slopes downward toward the smooth curve of the leading edge, which flows down to the chromed wire grille.
The front-end look comes more from the Continental coupe than the Mulsanne, a seeming acknowledgment of the outgoing Continental Flying Spur variation.
Down the sides, Bentley maintains a clean design, punctuated by big arches over the 21 inch wheels. The roofline remains high over the sailplane C-pillars to give plenty of rear-seat headroom, then flows down toward the trunk lid. Compared to the Mulsanne, I thought the Flying Spur almost looked like a midsize sedan.
Take the wheel
Bentley competes with Rolls-Royce in this segment of ultraluxury, but where Rolls emphasizes chauffeur-driven lavish coaches, Bentley leans toward performance. With Bentley, you are likely to give the chauffeur the day off so you can take the wheel. With its roomy rear-seat area, the Flying Spur may show Bentley's intention of attracting Rolls-Royce buyers, but the underpinnings would still do the Bentley Boys proud.
The marque draws from the performance technology developed for the Continental to equip the Flying Spur, resulting in a 4.3 seconds 60 mph time for the nearly 3 ton sedan. That kind of acceleration is achieved through a 6-liter 12-cylinder engine in a W configuration; think interlocking V-6es, force-fed air through twin turbochargers. Its 616 horsepower, or 596 pound-feet of torque if you want to look at it that way, gets fed to all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission.
Bentley boasts that the Flying Spur is its most powerful sedan ever, and cites a 200 mph top speed.
The weight and solidity of the Flying Spur was evident from the driver's seat. The cabin may feel like an exclusive country club, but the driving experience is engaging. Choosing sport settings for both the transmission and suspension, the Flying Spur felt like a smaller car when I dashed along curving mountain roads. It showed no inclination to slip as I stretched its legs through a set of turns. The large wheels and all-wheel-drive system give it easy traction, making it seem like little would perturb the big sedan.
That is not to say it's a fun car to drive fast. It doesn't offer the sort of tail-wagging happiness as the Jaguar F-type, or the pure ferocity of the Chevrolet Corvette. No, the Flying Spur keeps it composure in tense driving.
The most driving delight I got out of the Flying Spur was a straight sprint, flooring the gas pedal to feel the locomotive force of the V-12, and finally hear the exhaust growl penetrate the cabin's sound-dampening.
At the slower speeds the wealthy owners of the Flying Spur are likely to prefer, the ride was not as gentle as I would expect. Unlike the wafting of a Rolls-Royce or the floating quality of a Mercedes-Benz S-class, the Flying Spur felt more in contact with the road. Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, I felt each expansion joint go under the wheels as a quick and subtle jolt.
It is by no means a harsh ride, but I felt the road much more than in some other luxury cars.
Bentley uses an air suspension in the Flying Spur with four settings between Comfort and Sport. However, even in full Comfort mode, the suspension never felt soft, as if Bentley's suspension engineers couldn't bring themselves to sacrifice any of the car's handling. As for changing the suspension settings, I had to use a slider control on the touch screen, not something easy to do while under way, especially at speed.
And in what seems like an effort to make the Flying Spur feel more gentle, more like a luxury ride, the accelerator has a big, soft spot in the first inch of pedal travel. There wasn't much response from the engine until I really got into it. Seemingly, that tuning would allow for a smooth glide from a stop, then then the transmission steps in with an upshift, changing the engine speed and leading to big momentum adjustment in the cabin.
At higher speeds the gear shifts feel smoother, almost unnoticeable on the freeway.
The Flying Spur's driving behavior left me thinking of it as a high-tempered thoroughbred masquerading as a coach horse. It was most comfortable under hard acceleration and cornering, but forced to walk tamely. I'm not surprised, as it gets similar performance gear as the Continental, a car designed for more active driving.
This new Flying Spur model fulfills Bentley's need for a more affordable, ahem, sedan model. Those buyers who find the Mulsanne too conspicuous no longer have to settle for the two-door Continental, or, worse for Bentley, begin to look at the Rolls-Royce Ghost.
Of course, not much of the populace can refer to $200,000 as affordable, but if you are in that set, might as well add $11,000 for the Flying Spur in Mulliner trim, which adds more interior color and trim choices, and adds a diamond-quilted leather pattern to the seats. The Naim audio system will be a further option upward, and quite desirable given the brand's audio quality, but it deserves a better audio source than the iPod adapter cable in the glove box.
And while the rear seats offer comfort and legroom, the performance dynamics of the car favor the driver. The available power and the competent handling are too rewarding to leave to the hired help. As for fuel economy, Bentley has no tricks up its sleeve. Six liters of displacement and twin turbos make this a thirsty engine, pulling 20 mpg on the highway and only 12 in the city. But I suspect the bank account of a Bentley buyer won't feel the pinch every time another bill goes into the tank.