It's hard to pick out the landmarks through the dusty permahaze, but even just before dawn it's clear. Beijing does not play around with scale.
Second to none is the general theme, and it holds true as you pan from one side of the hotel window to the other. The Olympic Torch towers off stage left, a creepy, Orwellian interpretation of triumph. In front of it, the Borg cube once housed media during the 2008 Games. It's styled after a computer chip. Minus the whimsy?
Oh, and that haze. Maybe L.A. hid under a blanket this thick in 1960, but it didn't come with parachuting bits of white fluff that look like dandelion spores, but totally are not.
The glowing points of fab are a welcome relief. The Water Cube is still enchanting and playful, and atomic geometry still elevates the Bird's Nest stadium out of its white-elephant gloom.
Among the glam, we'd also count the glimmering row of Bentley Flying Spur sedans parked in front of the Pangu 7 Star hotel, which apparently has its own big-bang theory for star ratings. A relief from the Pangu's relentless colonnade, the Spurs have made the big leap here after a global debut at Geneva's Motor Show, moving westward to the New York show before coming to Beijing for a global first drive.
It's a highly unlikely location for a drive, and it comes with a little bit of dread for lots of good reasons. Unknown roads. Incomprehensible signage. A requirement for a completely new driver's license. Then there's a certain reputation for free-form driving that Beijing's drivers proudly live up to.
The Flying Spur has to find its light in this mix. It's been a Continental for most its life, and with 20,000 sold since 2005, it's secured a niche. But the niche needs to grow, Bentley believes, and the sedan needs to move out from under the two-door's shadow. Hence the slight name change--there's no more "Continental" prefix--and a stronger emphasis on a more emphatic look.
Our part in all this? To endure 17 hours of lie-flat seats paid for by Bentley, slip into a Flying Spur Mulliner Driving Specification (we'll decode that for you later on), and to suss out precisely what our Storm Grey sedan can do, while artfully dodging every obstacle the local roads can throw our way. Including a Great Wall or two.
Styling: the Flying Spur cuts loose, a little
Against all this dramatic backdrop, the Flying Spur scores its own celebrity-sized impact. But it's not clear if it comes from the graceful new shape or from the name alone. Beijing clearly knows Bentleys; it's just not as obvious that everyone gawking knows how it's changed so much, especially at the rear.
Brand identity is the single most important touchstone for ultra-luxury brands, so the Flying Spur retains much of the familiar front-end appearance from the Continental GT. It hasn't strayed wildly from the first-generation sedan, either, though the grille's framed in thicker body color, and has a center spline--that, and the larger oval headlamps are now mounted outboard, not inboard as they've been since 2005.
Where the shape has shifted, it's tilted in a sporting direction. Much of the formality of the former Spur's roofline has been softened, especially at the rear pillar, where the side glass lays down more gradually. There's less top hat, and more bowler in the curves. At the shoulder line and below, the Flying Spur's rear end looks to us more crisply formed, with squarer fenders and with a blunter tail that call back to the pre-VW Group Bentleys with a wink and a nod. Drag is down, from 0.33 to 0.29, and distinctiveness is up, especially in the darkest, richest colors.
The shape isn't without a foible or two: the LED ovals inside taillamps don't illuminate the entire shape, and could be more subtly rendered. The same holds true for the LED brake light mounted at the base of the rear glass. Other details are gems, like the Bentley "B" logo cast into the fender vents.
The Flying Spur's cabin remains a gorgeously fitted, finely organized atmosphere that swings wildly from refined to posh, depending on the finishes you select. Some pieces are recognizable from other vehicles--the navigation screen and transmission surround are bits we've seen before--but they're in a discreet harmony with the Bentley bits that embroidered the sticker price of our test car so impressively. Knurled shifter, dark-stained wood, lavishly applied leathers, all of them boost a very efficient twin-binnacle cockpit into the ultra-luxury leagues, without complicating it.
Flying Spur: a word on driving in China
We'd been warned. Pulling out of the Pangu 7 Star would kick off a seven-hour stint in some of the most interesting traffic and driving to be had on this planet--Rome, Tokyo, Boston included.
What's so resale-endangering about driving here? First, remember taking your learner's-permit test, if you dare. Now imagine taking it without knowing anything about cars or signals, or lane discipline. Then, render the whole mise en-scene as a videogame version of Black Hawk Down. Every blind corner has its own obstacle, its own split-second decision. Right turn! Left turn!
Here's the one-line driving test they should give at the airport, instead of the cursory eye exam: "A tanker truck is stopped at entrance of your lane of a dark tunnel. A man on a bicycle is emerging from the shadows in the other lane. Another truck is approaching quickly in your rear mirror while the driver is texting with two hands. What do you do?"
"Proceed with caution" is fine, but we would also have taken my answer: "I don't know, slide into it, aim for the gas tank, and pray for a forgiving god."
People ambling, dogs shambling, other drivers gambling with your lives and theirs. In any other country, the same conditions we found between diving into Beijing traffic and our midway stop at the Great Wall at Jinshanling...well, they would have come with an advanced-care directive.
Spoiler alert: we made it back safely, pleasantly surprised by how navigable traffic was, once you abandoned things like "rules."
Flying Spur performance: W's still in charge
It doesn't hurt matters to be behind the wheel of a vehicle that looks like it could hold Party members, one that hurtles itself around like it's late for a meeting with Mao himself. The Flying Spur's a massive beast, but its acceleration and grip are of an even higher magnitude.
At launch, it's configured in just one way, with a twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter W-12 engine, rated at 616 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque. The torque hits its peak from 2000 rpm and maintains it to about 6000 rpm, and all of it gets distributed to the ground via all-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shift controls--big ones affixed to the steering column, not the wheel, not cast in some exotic metal.
The drivetrain flips the usual equation. Bentley's larger, far more expensive Mulsanne sedan makes do with a twin-turbo V-8 with just 505 horsepower. It's the prestige of the 12-cylinder that owners want, even though the W-12 has a less evocative purr and more complexity and vibration than Bentley's current eight. The Flying Spur has more of everything, including acceleration: it's put at 4.3 seconds from 0-60 mph, and a top speed of 200 mph.
And that's why we take care putting even mild pressure on the Spur's pedal. We pull into orbit around the interstate-styled ring roads encircling Beijing, barely into the gas at first. No one wants to be the first pulled over, a stranger in a strange land, without a translator. The Spur picks up almost silently, shuffling down through a few long gas-mileage top gears to tap into its substantial reserves. Hitting 100 mph takes under 10 seconds from a standstill; at highway speeds, the huge passing power makes easy work of the constant flicking between undisciplined drivers drifting unpredictably between their chosen half-lanes.
Even while the rest of the world is pressured to downsize displacement, Bentley's W-12 is its signature piece. It still finds a way to eke out better fuel economy, mostly from the 110-pound weight loss it's achieved with lighter body panels and with the new eight-speed automatic. EPA estimates of 12 miles per gallon city, 20 mpg highway, and 15 mpg combined are better, but still fairly unworried. Our handlers top off the fuel at the first waypoint as a little extra insurance.
Flying Spur: emergency handling on call
We dive off the highways, surrounded by a new section of Beijing 20 miles removed from the city center, and patterned after Amsterdam. Complete with a windmill. From here on, we're largely on winding two-lane roads that alternate captivating pastoral scenes with sheer moments of panic. China's still new to driving, in the larger view, and it's completely common to park a bicycle on the road while you're collecting kindling. Just the same, it's also common to be texting with both hands, eyes completely off the road, when that road converges on big traffic junctions. It's a clash of centuries going on, at every kilometer.
So while on most international press trips, we get a pared-down view of emergency handling and braking, we're fully sated over an afternoon wandering to the Jinshanling outpost of the Great Wall of China--yeah, it's pretty great--on the route to a faux chateau crafted by a local billionaire intent on becoming a wine powerhouse.
The Spur carries over its all-wheel-drive system, with a power split set at 40:60, variable to 85 percent rear or 65 percent front as conditions require. We may have encountered every instance of grip along that infinite curve, the Spur's Pirelli P-Zero tires warning well in advance that the 5,451-pound sedan was adapting millions of ways per second to the changing conditions. There's a mild locking effect that moves through the driveline on low-speed acceleration; combined with low step-off gearing and vast torque, it takes some focus to pilot the Spur smoothly through the endless string of villages busily converting over to brick construction like there's some international run on the brick supply.
In between the fascination with bricks, we hustle the Spur through canyon roads that wouldn't look out of place near Malibu. We clamp down on the Spur's enormous dampers and stop soon enough to register the motorized cart parked just around the blind corner--more than a few times. We rely on its sweet variable-effort hydraulic steering to point accurately around tightly composed turns; it's very light at low speeds, but builds up effort in a believable, usable way, something we still have yet to find in most electric-steering racks.
Bentley frames the Flying Spur as a "luxury" car, and that means electronic driving assistance. Electronic air dampers have been given wider latitude over its behavior this time, while the springs have been softened by up to 13 percent, and anti-roll bars shrunk by up to 15 percent. The range of adjustability through the Spur's LCD screen is weighted toward a more velvety ride. Fiddle with the settings--put them in full Sport--and you're venturing into future Flying Spur Speed territory. Cornering flattens out but the Spur loses the supple compliance a big car should have. Our experiments ended with the shocks set to the middle position for most of the day, in Sport for the roads with the most evasive maneuvers.
Flying Spur: from walnut to wireless web
After a few hours of playing visual pinball with people, animals, and inanimate objects, we merge back onto the latest billion-yuan stretch of highway and soak up some of the Flying Spur's most coveted features from the front and back seats.
With a 120.7-inch wheelbase (208.5 inches long, all told), the 5,451-pound Flying Spur is a full-size, full-figured vehicle. It's roughly impossible to engineer a vehicle with such an exotically arranged and large displacement, with all-wheel drive, and with copious luxury equipment without tipping into its weight class.
For the mass it slides through the air, the Flying Spur delivers a sensually close-fitting cabin, not snug, but not overwhelming with head or leg room. In the standard five-seat or Mulliner four-seat specification, all the outboard seats are heated and ventilated, with 14-way power adjustment, memory control, and lumbar support. One doesn't look for bottle holders in the doors, but there are enough storage nacelles, covered bins, and cupholders for anything you really need on a long drive.
Fine wood veneers line the interior, with a choice of burr walnut or dark fiddleback eucalyptus standard, and additional five choices available. U.S. cars get a standard rearview camera and access to almost all the color combinations. On the multimedia front, there's a control unit with a 64GB music hard drive, and DVD/USB/SD inputs.
Among the major tech options we'd select are the available entertainment system, which plants 10-inch screens within reach of back-seat passengers, and hands them a remote control to run climate, audio, and other car functions. Wireless internet for up to eight devices is included, with a monthly subscription fee. We also were more impressed this time with the $7,480 Naim for Bentley audio package; it sounds like it's gained some bottom-end depth in the Spur, as it should, since its speaker housings shave about 2 cubic feet from the trunk to pound out its 1100 watts of power.
Other upgrades include the Mulliner Driving Specification, which includes diamond quilted seats, drilled alloy foot pedals, a knurled sports shift lever, jeweled filler cap, and a choice of wheels 21-inch two-piece alloy wheels.
Prices for the 2014 Bentley Flying Spur start at $200,500 or $211,430 for the Mulliner edition. Wander through the options list, like a winner on a very well-heeled version of Wheel of Fortune, and it's simple to spill over into $250,000 or more: "I'll take the $13,985 Driving Specification with 21-inch polished chrome wheels, and the lambswool rugs for $800, and the Champagne cooler for $2,135."
And frankly, once you've anted up for the Champagne cooler, you won't have any problem raising the window shades to block the view of other drivers angling for a look at the Very Important Person in back. You won't do it out of disdain.
You just won't want to share.
The Flying Spur is open for orders now, with deliveries starting in August.