2014 Bentley Flying Spur first drive review Page 4

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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.

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