Two names that have been tied closely together for over 70 years have been torn asunder as of the 2003 model year. Much like Sears & Roebuck have been uttered in the same breath for decades (at least by people old enough to remember the "Roebuck" part), automakers Rolls-Royce and Bentley will soon have no more in common other than the price range of their products. But while "Roebuck" has all but been forgotten for reasons of efficiency (we're simply too busy in the 21st century to use two names when one will do), Rolls-Royce and Bentley will officially be separate companies as of January 1, 2003. At that time, Volkswagen will retain complete ownership of Bentley while the name Rolls-Royce, and its associated "RR" emblem, will become the property of BMW. Both British companies became part of the Volkswagen group in 1998, but that same year an agreement between Rolls-Royce and BMW gave BMW legal rights to the Rolls-Royce name and trademark, at least as it pertains to cars (this was an outgrowth of a previous agreement between Rolls-Royce and BMW that had BMW engines powering certain Rolls-Royce and Bentley automobiles). If it all seems a bit confusing, that's because it is.
For the people at Bentley, the break from Rolls-Royce, along with the recent introduction of the Arnage T and Arnage R, serve as opportunities to emphasize the distinct character that is Bentley Motors. Founded by Walter Owen Bentley (or "W.O." as he's known by loyalists) in 1919, Bentley Motors has a racing heritage that traces back to 1924 with the first Bentley victory at Le Mans. Repeated success at Le Mans, including a sweep of the first four places in 1929, ensured a place for Bentley in the annals of racing history. The wins, however, did not ensure commercial success, and in 1931 Rolls-Royce took possession, saving the company from bankruptcy.
With the 2002 Arnage R, Bentley takes another step away from its somewhat muddled ownership history. Where a 4.4-liter BMW V8 powered the former Arnage Green Label in 1998, the 1999 Arnage Red Label regained the trademark Bentley 6.75-liter V8 that has powered almost every Bentley since 1970. In 1999, this engine had the distinction of being the most powerful one available in a production sedan by offering 400 peak horsepower and over 600 pound-feet of torque (the 400 horsepower BMW M5 that arrived in 2000 ended this short-lived claim).
The Arnage R gets the same engine size designation, but more than 50 percent of the 6.75-liter V8 is new, with the remaining percentage being heavily modified. Topping the list of changes is the adoption of two smaller turbochargers in place of the larger single unit used for the power plant since 1982. Two smaller turbos mean quicker response times due to reduced inertia. Translation: reduced turbo lag.
Another major upgrade involves the use of a Bosch Motronic ME7.1 engine management system acquired from parent company, Volkswagen. With the latest in engine management technology at Bentley's disposal, the engineers have improved everything from turbo boost control to emission reduction. They've also incorporated an advanced electronic stability control system in place of the previous traction control system. Additional emission reduction efforts, such as twin-skin exhaust manifolds that heat up quickly and three-way, close-coupled catalytic converters mounted near the exhaust manifolds, ensure that this new 6.75-liter V8 will meet emission requirements through 2005.
Pairing this much displacement with the latest in German engine management technology has a fairly predictable effect: torque, and a lot of it. With 616 pound-feet of twist coming at a mere 3,250 rpm, the Arnage R launches from a stop with ease, despite its 5,700-pound curb weight. The peak 400 horsepower occur at a similarly relaxed 4,000 rpm, meaning that a jab of the throttle at any speed results in rapid forward motion. Mated to this engine is a responsive four-speed automatic transmission that never missed a beat during several hundred miles of driving along California's Pacific Coast Highway. Bentley claims a 5.9-second 0-to-60 time and top speed electronically limited to 155 mph.
Although a powerful engine is crucial for any Bentley-badged vehicle, perhaps even more critical to the Arnage R's intended mission is chassis tuning. Like the Arnage T, the R model rides on what Bentley refers to as its "Series Two" Arnage platform. This is essentially a highly modified Arnage Red Label chassis with additional bracing inside the wheel arches, side sills, bulkhead and roof. Stronger steering rack mounts and increased adhesive bonding materials throughout the body have resulted in a stiffer structure for improved handling, ride and crash protection characteristics.
The ultimate goal was to simultaneously surpass the Red Label's ride quality and handling limits. Bentley's engineers found that by adding a rear antiroll bar they could soften the car's spring rates without compromising its cornering capability. A slightly larger front antiroll bar, along with 255/50R18 Pirelli P-Zero tires, gives the car a controlled feel through corners and a compliant ride over road surface irregularities. Pressing the "S" button on the shifter engages a "sport" mode that electronically stiffens the suspension tuning. The effect was immediately evident during our test drive.
Changes to the Arnage R were not limited to the chassis and drivetrain. Exterior changes are subtle, but they include an integrated rear spoiler, similar to the Arnage T, that provides downforce during high-speed driving. A similar amount of aerodynamic work occurred underneath the Arnage R where airflow has been smoothed and directed to specific components, including the radiator, intercoolers and brake components. Tighter body panel gaps, hydraulic engine mounts and improved seals are similarly designed to further reduce noise and vibration at elevated speeds.
It only takes a few moments inside the Arnage R to understand what separates this sedan from luxury sedans costing half as much. Our test car was outfitted with a parchment interior framed by blond bird's eye maple veneer wood. Options included a matching parchment shift knob and rearview mirror, plus optional parchment gauge faces, giving the cabin a splendidly bright and refined atmosphere and perfectly complementing the car's gold exterior color. Standard features included a DVD-based navigation system, heated leather seats, power-folding exterior mirrors and parking sensors front and rear.
For the Bentley buyer, the Arnage R's $199,990 price tag will be seen as a mere starting point. The company prides itself on providing whatever the customer wants and is willing to go far beyond the 22 available exterior colors and 19 interior color choices featured in the Bentley brochure. To take full advantage of the massive investment Volkswagen has made in the Bentley production facility, one must journey to Crewe, England, and "commission" the handmade Bentley of his dreams.
It's not exactly the type of automotive purchase we can all appreciate (or afford), but "W.O." Bentley, a stickler for never compromising or giving in to convention, wouldn't have wanted it any other way.