When I was a boy, I was fascinated by the luxury carmakers of the 1930s stunning examples of rolling sculpture such as Packard, Duesenberg, Cadillac, Rolls-Royce and Bentley. A few of these cars, such as the Duesy and Bentley, combined serious sporting performance with their parlorlike interiors and elegant coachwork. The Great Depression (so what was so great about it?!) of the early '30s killed off many of these glamorous cars, and around that time Bentley was bought out (and saved) by fellow English car company, Rolls-Royce.
In 1985 Bentley decided to emphasize performance once again and brought out the Turbo R, basically a Mulsanne four-door sedan (which itself was essentially a twin to the Rolls Silver Spirit) with a big turbo bolted onto its 6.75-liter Rolls-Royce engine. Although both Rolls-Royce and Bentley traditionally didn't divulge power output of their engines, merely saying that the power was "adequate," estimates put the numbers at around 310 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. The end result was that the stately 5,300-pound motorcar could dash to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and hit a top speed approaching 140 mph. At last, Bentley had something to separate itself from its even more snobbish cousin.
The Mulsanne and the Turbo R are long gone, but equally well-endowed versions of the current Arnage sedan carry on the tradition. We drove the Arnage R, which in effect replaces both the Arnage Red Label (which had a single turbocharged 6.75-liter V8) and the Green Label (that had to "make do" with a 4.4-liter twin-turbo BMW V8).
The Arnage has presence, and not just because it's longer than a Lincoln Navigator and weighs as much as that full-size SUV. Understated rather than glamorous, the Arnage is devoid of any tacky styling elements. Close examination reveals lovely details, such as the window frames that have no visible joints at their corners, appearing as a single piece rather than an assemblage containing unsightly seams.
With leather and wood trim becoming commonplace in less prestigious nameplates, one might think that the Arnage's cabin lost its "wow" factor. Rest assured it hasn't. Although burled walnut wood trim is standard, our car had optional bird's eye maple, whose light color was a fine match for the Oatmeal interior of the Desert Dune Arnage. Our car also had such trifles as optional rear vanity mirrors, a pair of umbrellas and chrome wheels. If the generous amount of standard wood trim isn't enough, the cruise control buttons and the power seat controls can be surrounded in matching accents. And you simply can't go without the optional picnic tables that flip down from the front seat backs; they'll only cost you another $2,067 chump change, right?
Whether you're piloting, navigating or riding in the back, there's not a bad seat in the house. Comfort is top-notch, as expected, and the outboard rear seats feature power adjustment for their seat back angle. Our car's rear seats also had optional power lumbar supports and heating, further coddling those fortunate enough to be transported in this magnificent machine.
We won't go into a long list of safety features, as one would expect this car to have all the latest technologies, such as side curtain airbags and BrakeAssist, which it does.
Although it may look the same as its predecessors, the R benefits from many improvements under the skin. Over 50 percent of the V8 is new, and the single turbo has been supplanted by a pair of smaller turbos. With less inertia than a larger single blower, the smaller turbos spool up quicker, meaning quicker response when the right wingtip is mashed to the plush carpet. As they were with the previous engine, output figures are simply astounding: 400 horsepower and 616 pound-feet of torque. Consider this: torque output is about 50 percent greater than that produced by a Corvette Z06.
So what's all this mean in practical terms? Simply that this massive saloon (Brit-speak for four-door automobile) can hustle to 60 mph in under six seconds and will run all the way up to 155 mph until an electronic governer says, "That's enough, Lead Foot." Step into it from almost any speed and the twin-turbo V8 sends a swift kick to your Armani-clad butt, adding heaps of velocity faster than you can say "signing bonus." A couple of editors who drove the car briefly thought that the throttle response was a bit abrupt in traffic. This driver, who spent a week with the car, didn't really notice a problem, though the Arnage's nine miles per gallon average may have been an indication that yours truly enjoyed the prodigious thrust. Like a good butler, the transmission did its job perfectly without calling attention to itself, furnishing liquid-smooth gear changes and dutifully holding gears and stepping down promptly when the Sport mode was selected (done via a button atop the gear selector).
To state the obvious, a massive vehicle with a twin-turbo V8 needs big, strong brakes, and the Arnage has got 'em. At the test track, the binders brought the Arnage to a stop from 60 mph in just under 126 feet, a figure that would be considered good for a sport sedan, let alone a near three-ton luxury cruiser. Equally impressive is the fact that the brakes exhibited no fade; out of four braking runs, the last two were shorter than the first two.
The laws of physics cannot be broken, but who says they can't be bent a little? With its electronically adaptive suspension, the Arnage handled twisty roads at speed like a car two-thirds its size. With minimal body roll and pleasantly weighted and accurate steering, it was evident that Bentley was serious about its goal of improving both ride and handling characteristics over the already competent Red Label. A number of chassis tweaks including stiffening the structure in key areas such as the rocker panels and bulkhead, plus the addition of a rear antiroll bar and the fitment of Pirelli P Zero tires help boost the Arnage's handling and comfort levels. When motoring about at a more sedate pace, the Arnage delivered a plush ride without feeling mushy.
Lest anyone think we were too blinded by the Bentley's beauty and power to criticize it, well, we weren't. We were still able to come up with a laundry list of gripes. Of course, many luxury features come standard on this car, even niceties such as a DVD-based navigation system (operated via a remote control that our car was missing) and front and rear sonar parking assist (much appreciated in a car this big and expensive). Yet there is no trip computer, no HID headlights (though the Bentley's beams did throw out a flat and full light pattern) and no steering wheel-mounted controls for the stereo.
Adding to the quirky British character of the Arnage is an old-fashioned one-sided ignition key, sun visors that don't swing out to the sides and a jerky power seat adjustment that makes it hard to fine-tune the driver's seating position. The stereo may look as if it has a user-friendly layout, but it is maddening to use, with nonintuitive controls for setting the presets and making adjustments. Although the steering wheel has power tilting, there is no telescoping function. Lastly, and completely out of character with the rest of the car, was the turn signal lever that sounded and felt brittle when it was released. That last complaint doesn't apply to most Los Angeles drivers, however they don't bother indicating their intentions.
Rationality doesn't play a big part in the purchase of a Bentley. Sure, the car is fast, comfortable, elegant and well built. But so are other luxury rides such as the Mercedes-Benz S600 or BMW 760Li that are around half the price of an Arnage R. A Bentley is more exclusive than either of those two German powerhouses that, unfortunately, are virtually indistinguishable from their legions of "lesser" S430 and 745Li brothers. And if a standard Bentley still isn't enough to satisfy your need to express your individuality (and utter wealth), the company will be only too glad to fit your vehicle with custom colors, interior materials and wheels. We heard that Jennifer Lopez recently purchased an Azure (Bentley's convertible model) and lavished it with about $250,000 in customization. Guess a plain ol' $360,000 Azure isn't good enough for the girl who claims she's still just "Jenny from the block."
System Score: 6.0
Components: You would think, wouldn't you, that a car costing in excess of 200 grand would have all the amenities and creature comforts available in the automotive world. I mean, for that kind of money they should throw in a hot tub or something. You would also tend to believe that a car in this price range would offer the best of everything that money could buy the best upholstery, the best fit and finish, the best stereo. But if you thought that, you'd be wrong. Case in point: the 2003 Bentley Arnage. After a thorough evaluation, we can assure you that the stereo in the Arnage does not come close to measuring up.
For starters, it has no more speakers than a Ford Focus. Included in the system are a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, plus an identical pair in the front doors. In addition, a pair of one-inch dome tweeters occupies the upper door panels. Speaking of door panels, one of the things we found most impressive about this system was the heft and thickness of those panels. It reminded us of actual home speaker enclosures, and probably accounts for at least part of the reason that this system, with its meager accoutrements, sounds halfway decent.
The head unit is downright strange. In addition to being underfeatured (we realize that simplicity often goes with elegance, and perhaps this was what the Bentley engineers were going for), it lacks a solid ergonomic feel. The volume knob is slick and chrome and difficult to use, as one's fingers keep sliding off it.
The system does offer a six-disc CD changer, wrapped in its own leather pouch and located beneath the center armrest, in addition to a single-play in-dash, which we thought was pretty cool. However, there is no cassette player in this system, and no steering wheel controls.
Performance: The system sounds OK, not great, with a tendency to be tubby on the bottom end. We found this annoying and a little puzzling, but again, perhaps the Bentley engineers have their reasons. As for us, we weren't thrilled with the sound. A couple of other things bothered us, too: 1) We noticed rattling in some of the door panels when we put the system above half-gain, something that should simply not occur in a car this expensive; and 2) the system has very poor gain limiting, so when you put it above two-thirds gain you get a lot of distortion. Although some may consider these minor complaints, we'd like to point out that many cars costing one-fourth the price of the Arnage don't have these problems, at least in the vehicles we've tested.
Best Feature: Two CD players.
Worst Feature: Poor sound quality (especially considering the price)
Conclusion: This one won't win any awards. It's actually pretty embarrassing, considering the price of the car. Certainly, if they don't want to do it themselves, the Bentley folks could afford to hire an outside vendor like Bose or Harman Kardon to spiff up their stereo chops. While we admit that a consumer in the rarified air of the Arnage's price range most likely won't be analyzing stereos in this or other vehicles, it would be nice to know that the automaker had done its homework and come up with a competitive system. Scott Memmer
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says: Considered on its own, the Arnage makes for an attractive package. It's got a compelling combination of luxury, performance and heritage that is hard to get with anything currently sold in this country. There are some design idiosyncrasies that make no sense (the button used to deploy the navigation screen is in the headliner!?) and while the doors have a relatively solid feel, they don't have a $200,000 "thunk" when shut.
But when you consider the Arnage against current offerings in the ultraluxury class, such as the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S-Class, two of its three selling points (luxury and performance) simply don't equate to $200,000. Even the "lesser" 7 Series or S-Class models, with V8 power, can match the Arnage in terms of coddling and road-going capabilities. That leaves only the heritage aspect to justify the extra $125,000-plus price tag. Now throw in the approaching Maybach models, or the completely redesigned Rolls-Royce sedan, and even the Bentley's heritage factor is under heavy assault (though both of those models cost an additional $100K over the Arnage).
So, basically, the car is designed for folks who want the luxury of an S-Class but with more snob appeal, and they're willing to pay for it but their willingness to pay for such brand equity stops at just over $200,000, rather than continuing on to the $300,000-plus required for the Maybach or Rolls.
This type of appeal certainly puts the "niche" in "market niche."
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says: It goes without saying that this is a fast sedan, and it's fast despite the fact that it weighs as much as a Ford Expedition. Of course, if you look at the specs, the power extracted from its twin-turbo V8 is staggering. On public roads, the Arnage seemed less special. Only on a few occasions did I find a stretch of road sufficiently clear of minivans and SUVs to hit the accelerator pedal with any measure of force. And amidst the inevitable stops and starts of city traffic, the Arnage's nonlinear throttle response and the on-off stirrings of the turbocharged beast under its hood got old quickly.
At this price, you'd hope for a Lexus-smooth ride and a soundless cabin as minimum qualifications, and the Arnage has these attributes. I thought its handling was acceptable, but I'd give it no edge over the 7 Series or S-Class: The steering is numb, and in keeping with its 5,500-pound curb weight, there is definitely some body roll around turns. The stability control system prevented me from taking any unnecessary risks with a car worth at least a half a dozen times my salary. But hit the "ESP off" button, and this Bentley will behave like a muscle car a swift but tidy left turn was rewarded with a cloud of smoke in the rearview mirror and the smell of burning rubber.
Inside the cabin, amidst all the leather and wood (the Arnage being one of the few cars where animal hides and tree products outnumber fabrics and plastics), I was annoyed by some of the nonintuitive controls and the mismatched center stack components. The stereo head unit has a confounding minimalist layout with a blue digital display, while the climate control unit is obviously sourced from BMW and has an orange display. I know that Bentley gives buyers much leeway for customization, but you'd think the basic components would at least be cohesive in design. Hopefully, now that Volkswagen has taken over this brand, designers will be able to draw from the Audi parts bin.
Overall, I wasn't fond of the Arnage. It's expensive. It guzzles gas. It can't match the performance or the interior room of the far less costly 760Li. No thanks.