For roughly 40 nights a year, a small patch of blacktop in Downtown Los Angeles becomes the most sought after real estate in Southern California. It's a parking lot across the street from the Staples Center, home of the L.A. Lakers NBA team, and unless you're a season ticket holder or Kobe Bryant's mother you're not getting in. Or so we thought.
We drive by to get a look before the game. There's a half million dollars' worth of cars in the front row alone, and a stone-faced attendant at the gate. Under normal circumstances we would have kept right on going, but we're driving a 2006 Bentley Continental Flying Spur sedan so we try our luck and turn in.
The attendant takes one look at the car, smiles and waves us through the gate like he was expecting us. We try not to look surprised when he directs us into a space between a Ferrari F430 and an Aston Martin DB9. Another security guard standing watch assures us the Spur will be safe. Neither one asks to see our tickets.
Just a few years ago this glimpse into how the other half lives would have never happened. Back then, Bentleys looked old and were driven by people who looked even older. Other than the Bentley name, the cars didn't have much going for them.
The Bentley Continental Flying Spur is a different story. It looks modern and powerful and has the performance to match. Its $165,000 base price makes it less expensive than the older Arnage flagship, but it's the Flying Spur that gets people's attention.
Bentley owes all of its newfound popularity to Volkswagen. The General Motors of Germany took over Bentley in 1999, giving the British marque access to a new engines, chassis, and suspensions. Not to mention plenty of cash.
And Bentley wasn't shy about using its new resources. According to its window sticker, 55 percent of the Flying Spur's parts come from Germany, many of them borrowed from Volkswagen's own Phaeton luxury sedan.
At over 208 inches, the Flying Spur is 5 inches longer than the Phaeton and 3 inches longer than the 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550. The Bentley shares the same height and width as the new S-Class, but the Mercedes rides on a 4-inch-longer wheelbase.
Compared to Bentley's Continental GT coupe, the Flying Spur has identical styling up front. Other than the obvious addition of its rear doors, the Flying Spur differs from the coupe mostly through its softer, straighter lines down the sides and in back. It's not as instantly recognizable as the GT, but it looks right for a sedan in this class.
Determining which class isn't easy. Top-of-the-line Audi and BMW sedans barely crack $125,000 and Maserati's Quattroporte doesn't even top $100,000. Ultraluxury models like the Maybach 57 and Rolls-Royce Phantom cost more than twice as much. The Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG will be similar in price and performance when it goes on sale this summer, but until then the Flying Spur sits somewhere in the middle when it comes to high-dollar luxury sedans.
Don't call it a Volkswagen
The extra $65 grand the Flying Spur commands over the top-of-the-line Phaeton gets you more than a reskinned Volkswagen. Both cars use Volkswagen's 6.0-liter W12 engine, but the Bentley version has twin turbochargers, specially developed pistons and reworked cylinder heads.
The result is 552 horsepower at 6,100 rpm compared to the Phaeton's 444 horses. Bentley's engineers also tuned the Flying Spur's engine to deliver its 479 pound-feet of torque at just 1,600 rpm. Continuously variable valve timing helps smooth out the power delivery and earn the engine Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) certification.
All that low-end torque makes the Flying Spur perform like it weighs only 2 tons instead of nearly 3. Our test car took just 4.8 seconds to reach 60 mph from a stop and 13.1 seconds to cover the quarter-mile. The Ferrari we parked next to is only two-tenths of a second quicker to 60.
Bentley's kind of power
The Flying Spur doesn't jump off the line, though. The throttle reacts softly, as if the engineers were worried that 552 hp might be too much to handle all at once. It could be if the Spur was as ferocious off the line as most other 500-plus-hp cars, but it's not.
Permanent all-wheel drive is one reason. You could mat the pedal in a downpour and still not slip a tire. Its six-speed automatic transmission has a short 1st-gear ratio and even that's not enough to make the Spur feel anything but perfectly civilized under full acceleration.
There are steering-wheel paddle shifters if you're up to changing gears yourself. They're not easy to reach, not quick to shift and they don't match engine speed when you downshift. In other words, they're useless for anything but showing off.
The Sport program for the automatic works better, quickening up the shifts and otherwise making the transmission feel more eager to give you a gear when you need it.
Fast in a line, fast in the corners
There's no shortage of big, heavy luxury sedans that can go fast in a straight line. Finding one that's equally capable in the turns isn't as easy. Bentley claims that with all-wheel drive, the Flying Spur's 56/44 front-to-rear weight distribution is ideal for quick turn-in and maximum grip.
We weren't fully convinced of the Flying Spur's handling abilities until it wound its way through our slalom course at 65.1 mph, faster than the new S-Class and the last BMW 7 Series we tested. In fact, the Flying Spur nearly matched the slalom speed of the Continental GT coupe (65.2 mph) we ran the same day.
Steering feel through the slalom wasn't as direct as the Mercedes or BMW sedans. On the street, however, it's hard to find fault with the Spur steering. It's dead stable at speed and light when you need it to be around town.
Its emergency stopping power was just as impressive. We measured three consecutive runs from 60 to zero in just over 116 feet, a short distance for any car. And with all three stops within a foot of each other fade was obviously not an issue.
Quiet like it should be
As well as the Flying Spur performed at the test track, it doesn't feel like a sport sedan on the road. Soften up the adjustable air suspension and you rarely feel a thing. It's not as isolating as a Lexus, but it's softer than we expected given our car's optional 20-inch wheels and low-profile performance tires.
Designed to withstand the Flying Spur's claimed top speed of 195 mph, the specially designed Yokohama tires generate surprisingly little road noise. Bentley's engineers also reconfigured the Flying Spur's exhaust to reduce engine noise compared to the GT coupe.
It all works perfectly on the highway. Park the Flying Spur at 75 mph and there's not a more relaxing sedan on the road. It feels big, but not necessarily heavy, and you can see well over the sloping hood. It irons any road smooth yet it will swap lanes with a flick of your fingers. In the GT coupe, you can feel the stiffness in the chassis, but the Flying Spur is always relaxed and smooth.
Worth six figures
Bentley says it takes 5 hours to finish trimming out the steering wheel in the Flying Spur. Sounds slow until you wrap your hands around the hand-lacquered wood and feel the double-stitched leather under your thumbs. It's perfect.
And the perfection doesn't stop there. The driver and front passenger get 16-way power seats that can massage your back in conjunction with three levels of heating or cooling. You wish the lounge chairs in front of your TV were as comfortable.
Rear-seat comfort isn't as flawless, though. There are fewer adjustments and less legroom than in the Flying Spur's competition.
Previous Bentleys added technology as an afterthought, if at all. The Flying Spur has the latest of everything, including a usable DVD navigation system, Bluetooth connectivity and one of the best audio systems we've ever heard.
And the best part is the designers managed to incorporate all these new gadgets without ruining the look of the interior. There's still the traditional chrome vent pulls along with classy gauges and a Breitling clock. It looks like a $165,000 sedan should.
The other half lives well
With the game over we're glad for the short walk back to the car. We're tired and the massaging seats in the Flying Spur are calling our names.
The Ferrari and the Aston are gone, but there's a woman standing next to the Bentley admiring the interior through the glass. "I've got to get this car, it's beautiful," she says.
She looks half serious, but we stop her before she gets too excited.
"Sorry, Mrs. Bryant, this one's ours."
System Score: 9.0
Components: The standard audio system includes a six-CD changer mounted in the glovebox. It's a 300-watt stereo with 12 speakers. The dash-mounted head unit is very similar to Audi's MMI (Multi Media Interface), and the screen incorporates other vehicle functions as well. The system includes such features as DSP and RDS, and has steering-wheel-mounted controls.
Performance: Yes, the Bentley's stereo sounds phenomenal, but it's not just the sound quality that has us singing Bentley's praises. The system is also flexible, easy to use and packed with thoughtful features.
Even if you never adjust a single audio setting, you'll be treated to stellar sound quality that includes sharp bass, crystal-clear highs and distinguished midrange. The bass is perfect in tone — a timpani drum resonates throughout the interior as if you were seated in a balcony at the Kennedy Center. Every type of music sounds great — from rock to country to blues to Brahms, it all sounds very impressive.
Now, should you choose to play with the controls and various settings, you can enhance an already terrific stereo with little hassle. There are preset sound profiles that can be accessed by pressing the DSP (Digital Signal Processing) button. The profiles include settings like "Studio," "Surround," "Hall," "Open Air," "Jazz Club," "Neutral," and "Talk." From there, you can customize each effect by dialing in how much of the effect you want. For really big, expansive sound put it on full Surround. However, vocals tend to get lost in the Surround mode.
We found most rock and pop music sounded best on Neutral or Studio with the effect set to one click above low. Plus, each sound profile can be set with its own intensity level. Bass and treble are adjusted via separate hard buttons marked with a musical note. No submenus or clunky icons to figure out, just easy access to some pretty sophisticated technology. Also, the larger cabin of the Flying Spur seemed to make for a better listening environment than the Coupe's smaller interior.
In the middle of the center stack is a large round knob — it's used to adjust whatever's on the screen, similar to BMW's iDrive. Only the Bentley's setup is super-easy to master. Radio stations and CD tracks are presented in list form and can be displayed on either the main screen or the smaller screen directly in front of the driver, or both. This type of flexibility is great when you need to look at the navigation map but also want to handpick CD tracks or radio stations.
Plus, as you drive, the radio is searching for stations and will automatically add or delete stations from the list based on signal strength. If you can't wait to listen to Live 105 on that road trip to San Francisco or The Loop on your way into Chicago — this stereo will add the station to your list as soon as it comes into range.
The only real complaint here is that for $180,000, we would hope for a CD changer that's in the dash not in the glovebox.
Best Feature: Ease of use, plus excellent sound quality.
Worst Feature: CD changer location.
Conclusion: One of the best sound systems on four wheels. Audiophiles will love the amazingly rich sound quality while everyone else will love that you don't have to be an audiophile to master all this system's features. — Brian Moody
Executive Editor Scott Oldham says:
By now you know the Bentley Flying Spur shares much of itself with the Edsel-of-our-time, the Volkswagen Phaeton. The two sedans use the same basic chassis design, the same basic engine, and the same all-wheel-drive system. They even use the same front seats.
The two cars look different, of course, but the only real mechanical advantage the British version of this German sedan has over the German version is the two turbochargers bolted to the Volkswagen 6.0-liter W12 engine. They boost the engine's output from 444 hp to 552 hp.
Despite these extensive similarities, the Flying Spur stickers for $180,000, that's about $80,000 more than a VW Phaeton W12. Eighty thou. That's an entire BMW 750i with the sport package, a Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG or a nicely restored Ferrari Dino.
Despite this fact, I'll bet my daughter's college fund that Spurs fly out of Bentley dealers like they're free. In fact, I have little doubt many of the same people who never considered the Volkswagen will line up for the privilege of paying for the winged-B badge.
Which is cool. If you got it, spend it. But I always felt the unpopularity of the Phaeton to be a loud and clear declaration that wealthy Americans too often want to drive the right brand instead of the right car. As much as I enjoy driving the Spur, I'll find its popularity to be the same.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I've driven Bentleys before and have found them to be very luxurious and powerful, but ultimately a little too old world and stodgy for my taste. The Flying Spur is different. It's luxurious and stately, but it also has a youthful sense to it. The car is certainly elegant and plush but there's a contemporary element to it that makes it seem familiar and refreshing at the same time.
The interior is beautiful and the seats are perfectly comfortable. The audio system is also one of the finest in any car at any price. But aside from the obvious niceties, there is one element of this car that is quite surprising. Technological features like the DSP stereo, multizone climate control and various vehicle settings are all easy to use and simple to understand. There are no overly complex menus and submenus to navigate.
If you want to firm up the suspension for some aggressive cornering, simply press the button with a picture of a shock absorber on it and then use the dial to select the amount of firmness you want. Bentley has figured out that technology alone is nothing special, but easy access to that technology is what allows drivers to have an exceptional experience with a car — the features alone don't do the trick, being able to use them is what makes this car special.
I drove the Flying Spur during the same week I drove the Continental GT and I actually prefer the sedan. The GT feels tighter inside and the ride is slightly stiffer even with the suspension set on "Comfort." I'm sure the GT's firmness is great for the slalom, but I don't live near a slalom course. For everyday driving, I'll take the more comfortable, more substantial ride of the Flying Spur. For me, it's this car's combination of exotic and elegance that makes it so exceptional.
"I traded in my 2005 GT since I thought the 4-door made more sense for an everyday car. Like the GT the interior is outstanding as is the overall build quality. The Continental Flying Spur is fun to drive even though it is a little less sporty than the GT. It's more elegant. It is very comfortable and has some nice features such as automatic trunk opener and cooled seats. Also better it has doors, since they are not as heavy. All in all, I have been very pleased with the car." Perrie32, 12/20/05.