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Jun / Jul 2013
Big in China

Writer: Nicolas Shammas

No longer an awkward-looking Continental with extra doors and a boot, Bentley has dropped the Conti prefix altogether and decided to make the sleeker, faster and more cosseting Flying Spur a model in its own right.


It’s 8:30 in the morning and I have just walked out of the Pangu, a self-proclaimed 7 Star hotel and I’m standing in front of a line of twelve, brand new, gleaming Bentley Flying Spurs. Their engines are running, LED lights twinkling and not one has a single driver in sight. Seeing as I’m first to the party, I presumably have first choice of car. On a normal day, this would be like taking a child to a toy store but my enthusiasm has been tempered by the fact that this is my first time in Beijing, I can’t speak a word of Mandarin, I’m unused to the roads, I’ve been inundated by horror stories about the city’s drivers and – nec plus ultra - I’ll be completely reliant on the GPS to make it to the Great Wall of China, as planned.

The new Flying Spur may have been revealed to the world at the Geneva Motor Show in March but its true launch is here in Beijing. It’s a wonderfully ambitious idea and no manufacturer has attempted to do this before. For good reason.

China is a long way away. Well, unless you’re Chinese. It’s a country built on unfathomable bureaucracy, the government controls countless facets of daily life and then there’s the matter of their roads; they’re nearly always clogged with endless jams of cars driven (or so I’ve been told) by people who aren’t merely content with being aggressive but pride themselves on refusing to signal their intentions.

So for Bentley to bring over twelve of their precious new 200,000 USD babies and then invite 200 journalists over to come and experience them within a three-week period, is certainly ballsy. 

Then again it’s worth reflecting on the context of such a decision. The top-end of the global luxury automotive market currently amounts to 40,000 cars a year;15,000 are saloons, 2,100 of which are Bentley Flying Spurs. As China constitutes 50 per cent of all Flying Spur sales and as a result, is the second most important market for the quintessentially English (yet German-owned) marque, the plan makes more sense. What’s more, Bentley’s management is bullish that China will overtake the U.S. to become its largest market sometime this year. Or at the very latest, next.

This is big news. When you consider that Bentley - which produced 8,510 cars in 2012 - is the world’s leading luxury car manufacturer, with year on year growth figures currently showing a massive 22 per cent increase, it demonstrates just how important a market China has become for luxury brands. Any further market penetration of China means larger growth for Bentley, larger profits for the Volkswagen Group and hopefully, ever better cars for us all.

The best news is that we’re already benefiting from the latter. Seeing the new Flying Spur for the very first time, I’m pleased to say that it’s a vast improvement over its predecessor and mixes menacing masculinity with dainty beauty in a way that only Bentley can. Yet with chiselled style lines and a narrower side glass aperture, it boasts a more muscular, better proportioned shell that’s far more befitting of its distinguished badge. The front end is more upright and looks better for it. Unlike its Continental GT sibling, which places its larger diameter LED-decorated circular headlamps close to the matrix-patterned radiator grille, the Flying Spur’s are on the outside. Then there’s a new chrome separator underneath the grille that rather cleverly cuts the heaviness of the lower front apron. A word of warning though, spec your car’s lower front bumper grille in black mesh and avoid the bright metal option or you’ll suffer an overkill of bling.

Still, by the far the most significant improvement to the car’s overall look has been accomplished from the C-pillar rearwards, The previous model’s disjointed awkwardness has been ditched and simplistic rear light treatment traded in for a refined double horseshoe treatment that tapers into a far more complex rear light design, working wonders for the Spur’s overall beauty.

After some deliberation (it isn’t easy to choose between 12 Bentleys, you know), I choose the Storm Grey coloured car. Sneakily, I allow my co-driver to take the wheel first. I explain that this is so “I can better experience the car as a passenger”. This is, of course, extremely important when most owners choose to be driven but in truth, I have devised a crafty plan to let my partner start with the boring traffic-clogged motorways so that I can take over once we’re on the fun, open and empty B-roads. What can I say? I am a seasoned journalist after all.

The fit and finish of the Flying Spur’s interior is out of this world. Bentley is light years ahead of the competition when it comes to interior work. As you would expect, the car is a medley of stunning handcrafted wood veneers, bull hides and jewel-like chrome accessories.

I’m amazed by the abundance of legroom. I’m also thankful that Bentley has finally softened the damping on the Flying Spur. This adds comfort without compromising road manners. I understand it’s hard to find that perfect balance between performance and comfort but this time around, Bentley has definitely found the sweet spot. 

Customers of the previous model will notice the improvement to the gear changes. That’s because the car now comes with a silky smooth 8-speed ZF box. Another perceptible improvement has been to the sound deadening, which allows for effortless back seat conversations, even at breakneck speeds. And according to the Bentley engineers, they’ve also reduced unwanted exhaust noise by employing 18-litre rear silencers that muffle the W12’s rumble to a discreet murmur. The juicy engine sounds are still there when you want them to be, for example during an aggressive bit of acceleration but the perpetual drone has been removed.

Additionally, something I thought might be of particular interest to backseat passengers (women in Saudi Arabia, for example) is a new touchscreen rear remote that permits adjustment of the climate control, blinds, navigation and in-car entertainment via a neatly integrated interface. You can even check on your driver’s progress by scrolling through the speedometer and trip computer readouts, should you wish. Eventually, all these features will be available via a smartphone app, which should makes things even more convenient.

As my co-driver and I reach the changeover point, it’s finally my turn to take the wheel. We’ve now entered the villages outside Beijing and it’s the perfect time to open up the taps. The new Flying Spur uses a modified version of the outgoing Speed’s power unit, except now the twin-turbocharged 6.0-litre engine delivers a blistering 625bhp of maximum output, combined with a crunching 800Nm of torque. That makes this Flying Spur the marque’s most powerful saloon yet. Nevertheless, and despite a torque curve that amazingly resembles a flat line, I am a little underwhelmed by the throttle response from standstill. It takes some getting used to but I’d imagine this was done intentionally to give passengers a smoother ride. Fortunately, if you do actually want to snap some necks, all you have to do is slide the gearshift into Sports and then change gears manually.

I start to really push the car but where the turns become tight, I can’t help but be aware of some unpleasant understeer. Even the 60:40 rear-wheel bias of the all-wheel drive system can’t rein in the fact that when you really gun it, the nose simply won’t turn in on line. On the other hand, as soon as the road starts opening out a little, the Flying Spur comes into its own. This car loves to blast through sweeping turns and attack straights. Its stopping power is immense. Before long, I’m driving to the car’s strengths: pounding the straights, braking early, easing through the turns and then stepping on it once again. If you want to get the most of the Flying Spur, drive it as you would an old school American muscle car.

The sight and sounds of this two and a half tonne mobile English gentlemen’s club blasting through rural China must seem so incredibly otherworldly, in a place where people are still more used to bicycles and push carts. If it is, the villagers don’t seem fazed. It may just be a lack of interest but I’d speculate that after three weeks of watching petrolheads tear through their villages, the novelty might just be wearing thin.

Before we know it, we’ve arrived at our destination: the Great Wall near Jinshanling. Hundreds of kilometres have flown by and I feel cool and serene. Before me is one the wonders of the world, a marvel that took one million men 271 years to build. Yet as spellbound as I am by the sight of it, I keep finding myself looking at my Bentley from different points along on the Wall. It’s a captivating hunk of a grand touring machine. I wonder if, like the Wall by which it’s parked, this latest Bentley will survive so long. I doubt it somehow but that doesn’t make the Flying Spur any less of an accomplishment.

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