Anyone on Earth with access to the Internet, a television or radio for the last 20 years knows that China is no longer the poor stronghold for strict Communist ideals that it was for much of the 20th Century. (Well, at least not in some places.) Traveling to China twice in less than a month – first to Shanghai for a very international auto show and now to Beijing to drive and review the 2014 Bentley Flying Spur – I've learned that there's no lack of personal wealth, at least in two of the world's largest cities.
And yet, even I think the scene before me is a little bit ridiculous. Here I am, slowly climbing up a hillside to reach a fortification at something called Zhuanduo Pass, where roughly a dozen pristine examples of Western decadence sit idling their hand-built 12-cylinder engines in the shadow of China's revered and awesome Great Wall. Not five kilometers south of here, I'd passed an old man in traditional all-black garb, literally carrying a bundle of sticks on his back from one side of a village to the other. Now as I look through the snug-fitting and silent side glass of my $200,000+ palace on wheels, I'm more apt to see fat German tourists crisping in the hot Chinese sun while blowing the equivalent of an average Chinese monthly paycheck on lunch and a few Great Wall souvenirs.
Of course, it's nothing like the average Chinese person that Bentley is targeting with this new Flying Spur. There is a rapidly ballooning class of rich and super rich in the People's Republic these days; China can now lay claim to around 100 billionaires (in US dollars), as well as some 60,000+ individuals worth more than $16 million and, famously, now more than 1 million millionaires. Considering that Bentley had a booming year in 2012 by selling 8,510 vehicles, the importance of what is quickly becoming the world's biggest luxury car market is easy to see.
And that's why, despite the cost of hauling me from Ann Arbor to Beijing and back, and despite the cognitive dissonance of driving a $200,000+ car through villages whose buildings are probably worth less in total, Bentley jumped through a whole lot of hoops to pull off what it says is the first-ever global vehicle launch in China. I've got to tell you, if this is what being a trailblazer feels like, I could get used to it.
Traversing the 200 kilometers or so from the heart of downtown Beijing to our stopover at the Wall means navigating the clusterfark of morning traffic in a city of 20 million, and then moving rapidly out of Dodge via a few mega-highways before the roads turn considerably more entertaining. Truth be told, the traffic on my visit isn't anything as bad as I'd been led to believe. Perhaps it's because the hulking and chiseled shape of my Dark Cashmere Bentley causes gawping locals to give more way than is their usual custom, or maybe it's that the 616 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque make any gap reachable at my whim, but I seem to manage to waft through the scrum without issue. All in, I'd sooner repeat the Beijing crossing than deal with Loop traffic in Chicago.
There really does seem to be a sense of serious gravitas around this big Flying Spur's bodywork.
There really does seem to be a sense of serious gravitas around this big Flying Spur's bodywork that keeps the meandering cement trucks and smog-besotted Chery QQs at reasonable bay. Its broad front shoulders lend it a sort of permanently leaping forward look, while the tapering rear end is remarkably delicate for a car this massive – some might say incongruously so. Everywhere, broad surfaces are the norm, with fine detailing adding class and visual interest. Case in point: The large rectangular taillamps that appear rather blocky when unlit reveal elegant ovoid LEDs under braking. The theme continues with Flying B logos integrated into vents on the bodysides, jewel-like center caps on the imposing 21-inch wheels and, of course, the signature chromed grille work that seems to want to suck in every atom of existent oxygen for the dark purposes of the twin-turbocharged W12 engine.
It is, of course, that massive powerplant that colors my driving day with the Flying Spur, more than any other bit of the car. It's easy to believe this is the fastest four-door the British brand has ever produced from the first moment I stomp on the gas pedal. Reaction to enthusiastic inputs to the throttle is nigh unto instantaneous (assuming you've selected the eight-speed transmission's Sport mode, as Normal locks out the first two gears altogether). The action of the two turbochargers is felt rather than heard in the early going, as the Spur's all-wheel grip takes hold of the tarmac and simply rockets me forward with a surety that is unlikely to be found in another 5,451-pound vehicle. Keep the taps open past the middle of the rev counter, and the harmonious exhaust will break the exotic quiet of the cabin and tickle your brain with the notion of trying for its 200-mile-per-hour top speed.
It's easy to believe this is the fastest four-door the British brand has ever produced.
Faced with such monumental torque, the ZF transmission becomes largely invisible in its operation. Kickdowns in Sport mode seem to happen quickly enough for my liking, but the truth is that the car gets moving so damn quickly that it's hard to pay much attention to the autobox unless you're shifting it yourself via the column-mounted paddles. This, by the way, is a stupid thing to do. The Flying Spur's paddles work about as well as they look, which is to say, badly. The donkey-ear units stick out from the steering column like wiper stalks and their operation is difficult unless the steering wheel is pointing the car dead ahead. The black-plasticky finish on the things feels like it would be more at home in any one of the many Volkswagen Santana cabs clogging my rearview mirror.
Thankfully, the useless paddles are just about the only piece of kit that feels out of place in the Flying Spur's sensuous cabin. The big Bentley can be as bespoke as you'd like it to be, but the example I drove (and the others I looked at during the day) was clad from dash to parcel shelf in unctuous hides and triple-fat carpeting. The fitment seen in these interior images is rendered in what Bentley calls Linen and Burnt Oak (light and dark browns), with chestnut veneer covering large, happy swathes of cabin. (Aside: The woods that Bentley chooses are superb and helped me to remember just why this idiom is repeated so often across lower strata of the car market. Dark Fiddleback Eucalyptus, Piano Black and Burr Walnut all looked pretty amazing in my fellows' test cars.)
If you'd just like to spoil yourself as the countryside rushes by, the Spur's rear seats are the best position.
Of course, if you'd just like to spoil yourself as the countryside rushes by, the Spur's rear seats are the best position in which to settle. Space is ample, in both length and width, and the deeply comfortable seats make good stations for work or for napping – as you choose. Bentley is understandably proud of the new Touch Screen Remote that I found docked in the rear console, too. This unit, which is roughly the size and shape of a fat smartphone, lets rear occupants control the car's systems, from climate control to navigation. You can even see a real-time readout of the car's current speed, which is likely to be bothersome to chauffeurs the world over after not too much longer. The best use of the TSR will be to navigate the optional 10-inch LCD screens (my car didn't have them) for the rear-seat entertainment system. I found the controller to be both easy to use and have a responsive touchscreen interface, and I've little doubt that it'll help to sell a few cars to the tech junky set.
All of the attention and development lavished on the Bentley's new interior, in combination with the warp-drive engine, help to reinforce that this is a car meant to isolate driver and passenger from the plebeian environs just beyond the laminated glass. Similarly, the ride and handling profile of the Spur seems dead set on conquering the roads that it is on rather than connecting the driver with them. The steering weight from the Flying Spur wheel is astonishingly low-effort; I would have had no problem guiding the car over some challenging Chinese back roads with just a few fingers on either side, had I wanted. What's more, though the company claims to have achieved "optimum steering feel" via its speed-sensitive system, I couldn't make heads nor tails of what the wheels were up to by way of touch.
I would have had no problem guiding the car over some challenging Chinese back roads with just a few fingers on either side.
That's more or less okay, however, considering the tremendous grip from the wide tires and the all-wheel-drive system. In fact, the adhesion level was great enough that I soon found myself tossing the giant sedan into tight corners with a lot of confidence, as I learned that the Bentley's microprocessors stayed well ahead of the road under tire. With the light-as-air steering and a computer-controlled air suspension that ironed out every ripple and pavement crack, this is far from a sports car-like driving experience. No, it's wicked fast and magically agile instead – appropriately impenetrable, I'd argue, for a captain of industry's palatial escape module.
The basement price for the Flying Spur is $200,500 before things like tax and destination charges are factored in, though it seems unlikely to be ever sold at that price. For instance, the baker's dozen of test cars I saw at this Beijing event ranged in sticker price from a low of $207,870 to a high of $253,925. That high-price car was of the slightly fancier Mulliner specification and had almost $15,000 wrapped up in the rear seat entertainment and Naim audio, for instance. For the sake of argument, we'll say that the heart of the range will live in the $225k world.
The basement price for the Flying Spur is $200,500.
For that much cash, you've basically only got a Rolls-Royce Ghost and a Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG for price-relevant competition. BMW and Audi also offer lux'd out 12-cylinder sedans that would be competitive from a size and price standpoint – high-spec Jaguar XJ saloons would be thrown in that mix, too – but none have the star power of a Bentley or a Rolls. I might argue that the hundred grand I'd save by buying the W12 Audi A8 would be money well-spent, but I suspect that's because I still think about money like a man who doesn't have a whole lot of it. The rich really are different, and while Bentley assures me that its customers are comparative shoppers, there's no question that if you are inclined to drop a cool quarter million on a sedan, you'll buy the one you damn well like best before you save a dollar here or there.
Back in Beijing, staying at a hotel that demands no fewer than seven stars, it's clear that those who have the money to spend are doing so, and with relish. Launching the Flying Spur here might be shocking for the red-eyed old communist I see sweeping the sidewalk with a straw broom as I stroll through some of the city's quieter neighborhoods, but it's just the ticket for one of the country's newly minted mega rich. Bentley's new sedan is a perfect fit for the select few of a nation on the come-up like China – lavish motoring has truly gone global.