When last we left the Bentley Flying Spur, we were wending our way through Beijing traffic, hurtling toward the Great Wall and dodging an Olympian course of randomly placed and chosen obstacles, all while soaking up the Spur's leathery, woodsy accoutrements and the sonorous W-12.

A year later, and we're needling our way through London traffic, hurtling toward the Salisbury Plain, and dodging an Olympian course of randomly placed and chosen obstacles, immersing ourselves in a different engine note and a red-and-white leather interior worthy of a classic Porsche or Corvette.

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The Flying Spur is the latest Bentley model to get a downsized engine option, which this year breeds the Flying Spur V8. And instead of being half a world away, we went just a quarter-turn around the globe--to Carnaby Street in London and out to the hinterlands, to sample the "small" Bentley in its home element.

Regardless of which powertrain it has, the Flying Spur inhabits a world in which 500 horsepower and a $200,000 asking fee are considered more economical choices. Let's be honest, though. No one who owns a Spur is looking to economize--unless they're buying a fleet of vehicles.

So what's the appeal of a less powerful Bentley? About exactly that of the twelve-cylinder car. It's more of a phase-one reeducation than an abrupt slide down the socioeconomic scale. The V-8's the beginning of a wave of more efficient cars to Bentley, which started with the V-8 in the Continental GT. In the offing: diesels and plug-in hybrid models, including some Flying Spurs.

Even true luxury brands have to face the political need for greener cars. They should all manage their green game of thrones this well.

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Parlor game

The Flying Spur has championship-caliber parlor game. It's practically a drawing room on the inside, a trump card of wealth from the outside. It's an entirely different implication of luxury compared to some of the German-branded luxury cars, though the new S-Class is clearly on Bentley's radar, with its more emotional design and upcoming supersize edition.

The Spur has stately elegance in its corner. It's evolved away from the close kinship to the Continental GT (the two are spun from the same architecture). At the nose, the twin Spurs have larger oval headlamps at the outboard position; Conti GTs put the bigger ones inboard. The hot-formed aluminum panels have tighter and crisper creases, and the fenders wear those fantastic statement pieces of jewelry, the flying-B logo.

The clubby stance continues down the sides, with the most gentle slope to the rear quarters, and a squared-off decklid and taillamps counterbalanced by oval-shaped cutouts for the exhaust. On the W-12 cars, the pipes themselves end in ovals; on the V-8, they're formed in a figure eight--an infinity figure to go with the discreet red-background badging and a black-finished grille.

The cabin is a soothing place, with some of the most indulgent finishes this side of Bentley's own Mulsanne. Bespoke to a degree, it wears chrome, leather, and wood like they've never gone out of style. (They haven't.) The corporate bits don't look far out of its fashion--that big touchscreen knows its place. The best details still are the chromed pulls that open and close the round air vents, and the B-cast brake pedal.

By just those measures, the Flying Spur V8 is one of the finest vehicles made. Add in its complex array of pistons, gears, differentials, and sensors, and it's still never in doubt.

Small sacrifices, bigger upsides
Either Spur generates the kind of luxuriant horsepower and torque that used to be the sole province of supercars. With the W-12, it's 616 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque, coupled to an eight-speed automatic and rear-biased all-wheel drive. Bentley's quoted this version at a 0-60 mph time of 4.3 seconds, and a top speed of 200 mph--astonishing numbers for a car that weighs nearly 5,500 pounds.

The new model shares the same 4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V-8 that's found in the two-door Continental GT V8. And as it does in the GT, the V-8 rolls out 500 horsepower and 487 pound-feet of torque, teamed to the same eight-speed automatic, with the same plastic paddles that seem equally out of touch in the twelve-cylinder car. As with the W-12, the all-wheel-drive system is set to a nominal 40:60 torque split, but it's able to move up to 65 percent of the torque to the front wheels, or up to 85 percent to the rear wheels.

The V-8's almost as willing. It pushes the Spur to 60 mph from a standstill in 4.9 seconds, and reaches a top speed of 183 mph. Arguably, the noises it makes are more pleasant than the offset rap of the twelve--though neither make any vocal presence that would drown out a quiet conversation.

The Bentley also claims a 520-mile cruising range, thanks to the V-8's smaller displacement and efficiency-improving technologies like cylinder deactivation. It's EPA-rated at 14 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway, and 17 mpg combined--a usable increment over the W-12's 12/20/15 mpg.

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The current Spur's ride and handling have been tailored with a more global outlook. Read that as a more comfortable, plush ride and a wider range of adaptive behavior from its dampers, all to please British and Chinese and American and Russian drivers from a uniform spec. More vertically aligned shocks couple with standard 19-inch and optional 20-inch wheels and tires with taller sidewalls for better ride compliance and control at speed.

The impression given across England's more open spaces is stable, and the steering boost avoids any wandering, though the tires and all-wheel drive limit any feedback. The Spur is massive when it's squeezing through village alleys, or encountering oncoming cars on classic lane-and-a-half British roads--but it's never the car's dynamics getting in the way, just its sheer size. The V-8 actually cuts about 300 pounds from the W-12 car, almost all of it coming off the front end in the form of engine, which makes it feel more lively--a little more youthful than its roofline implies.

It's happy to dive into corners, especially when the dampers are set to Sport, though that isn't the appropriate setting when very important passengers ride in back.

A posh spice

The Flying Spur V8 tunes out the outside world with business-class space and technology, whether it's the front or rear seats. The driver has full control over the phone, navigation, audio, and climate controls--except when they don't. The rear-seat infotainment setup includes iPad-like twin 10-inch flat screens embedded in the front-seat headrests for those rear passengers--offering them in-car Internet and wireless connectivity and entertainment. Tellingly, it also comes with a remote control embedded in the rear console; the smartphone-sized device is fitted as a convenience to passengers who may not be allowed to converse with their chauffeurs.

The front seats have more than a dozen adjustments in front; in back a three-seat configuration can be fitted, as well as a supple two-seat configuration with heating and ventilation. Some 17 interior leather colors and seven wood trims are offered, and 17 stitching colors--a palette that runs from sober grey to opulent damson.

A Mulliner Driving Specification adds the best flourishes: diamond-quilted seats, drilled alloy foot pedals, a knurled sports shift lever, jeweled filler cap, and 20 alloy wheels wrap up the package. An optional Naim 1,100-watt audio system is available.

Of course, the sky’s really the limit, in terms of customization. Bentley offers hundreds of color combinations—and for a fee, you can bring your own hues and finishes to the party.

Posh and plush, the Flying Spur V8 is just a bit less quick than the flagship W-12 car—at a price about $20,000 less. The V8 bears a base price of $195,100 before destination and gas-guzzler tax, and before any fab custom touches are figured in.

The Flying Spur V8 pushes Bentley deeper into a future where W-12s are still its hallmark, but an array of more efficient powertrains are also on the menu. By the time the next-generation car rolls into sight, plug-in hybrid and diesel versions of the Spur will be de riguer--though their potential in America has yet to be sussed out. The V8 is a gentle turn in that direction.


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