Driving the 2007 Bentley Azure luxury convertible is like hanging out with royalty. Things are done a little differently, but once you get into the swing of things, it can be a lot of fun.
And it takes a king's ransom to own a 2007 Bentley Azure. We're told that a buyer for a Bentley Continental GT might be worth around $3 million, while the client who might buy an Azure will have about $30 million stuffed under the very lumpy mattress of the four-poster back at the palace. Even then, it might be hard to see where the $329,000 goes when you buy an Azure. After all, it doesn't park itself like the Lexus LS 460.
It turns out that the Bentley Azure brings you two particular things so characteristic of England. First, it's exclusive, as only 125 will find their way to America this year. Second, stubborn British craftsmen with incredible pride build the Azure by hand, and this gives the car something approaching a soul.
For an engine that's 48 years old, there's nothing much wrong with this 6.75-liter pushrod V8. Then again, VW did throw more than $165 million at it when the company acquired Bentley from BMW in 1998.
When the Arnage sedan was introduced in 1998 under the Munich company's brief interregnum, it carried the BMW-built DOHC 4.4-liter V8 instead of the old pushrod V8. Bentley traditionalists never cared for the German engine's comparatively frantic personality. Bentley clients want thrust, not spin, and the old V8 from the 1950s had the broad, deep torque curve they preferred. So this seemingly antiquated bit of industrial engineering has been updated for the modern world, and it's a natural fit for the Arnage-based Azure.
It's mighty, too, as twin turbos help deliver 450 horsepower at 4,100 rpm, more than enough with which to traverse a kingdom. But the crucial ingredient is torque, a staggering 645 pound-feet at just 1,800 rpm. That's the real power behind the throne, figuratively speaking. It gives the car a long-legged feel, and motoring seems so effortless. As Oscar Wilde said, style is the apparent lack of effort, and style is what the Azure is all about.
Perhaps it seems unseemly to speak in terms of crude measurements of performance like acceleration to 60 mph, yet we'll tell you the Azure completes the task in 5.6 seconds and will whistle all the way to 171 mph. Yet it's not what the Azure does, but rather how it does it that's the important thing. When the revs are high enough for you to hear the engine and exhaust note, you'll enjoy a subdued fanfare — subtle yet glorious.
The 2007 model has a six-speed ZF automatic transmission that sends drive to the rear wheels, replacing the old GM four-speeder, and it makes this beast of an engine far livelier. The transmission is at least partially responsible for the car's slightly improved performance figures, and yet it leaves the turbocharged engine to go about its business largely as before, like the most efficient and discreet maitre d' in town.
The ruling-class theme continues when you're behind the wheel. The Azure moves in a stately manner, majestic and imperious. Every maneuver is controlled and dignified — the Azure doesn't do instant responses to driver input. A long 122.7-inch wheelbase, a prodigious 5,942-pound weight with substantial bodywork overhangs, and tall 19-inch wheels deliver a ride that barely disdains to acknowledge any imperfections in the road surface.
Surprisingly, the Azure has a more playful side. Pushing the car through a series of bends might seem as inappropriate as inviting Queen Elizabeth II to get on up to a James Brown tune, but the Azure shimmies around corners with some degree of grace.
As expected, there's little feedback from the steering, and only the highly skilled or incredibly foolhardy would disengage the electronic driving aids that help keep all this mass on the road. Nevertheless, the Azure holds its line in a corner much longer than one might expect before it finally succumbs to understeer and traction control.
Since the days of Woolf Barnato, Bentley's chairman during the 1920s and heir to a South African diamond fortune, a Bentley motorcar has traditionally appealed to the upscale enthusiast, and so the Azure is allowed to do its best by electronic stability aids that refrain from intruding too soon or too aggressively.
The inside of any Bentley is a delight to the senses, and the Azure stays with the program. Creamy, soft-touch leather covers the seats, door panels and part of the dash, and it contrasts with lots of little surfaces finished with knurled metal, like the audio system controls, the door-lock posts and the underside of the grab handles for the doors.
The Azure's cabin is one of the few cars where wood seems right and proper. This is also a genuine four-seater, though it would be better for all concerned if the rear occupants were petite and nubile. (Let the bodyguards follow in the Range Rover.)
There are some great features, like the traditional, round chrome grilles for air ventilation (which resonate like bells when you ping them) and various bits of switchgear. The five gauges in the center of the dash reflect Bentley's customary affection for mechanical precision, as W.O. Bentley was an engineer of the old school, an apprentice on the railway as a boy and later a manufacturer of aluminum pistons for the Sopwith Camel fighter plane in WWI. The fuel gauge doesn't just say "E" and "F"; it spells out the words in the Queen's English.
But you'll also find the ergonomics take some getting used to. As if we were still living in the 1960s, the asymmetrical key only goes into the ignition one way. The controls for the electric seat adjustments are in the center console and too close to the cupholder. In fact, the cupholder sounds one of the few false notes in this symphony of luxury, as it's plastic, floppy, difficult to access and generally nasty. The steering wheel adjusts only for height, and just a half inch at that.
Despite this, it's easy to find a comfortable posture at the controls, and these little foibles contribute to the car's character. Yes, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class would be more efficient, but it doesn't come close to imparting the same sense of occasion.
Once the canvas with its multilayer headliner is in place, there's little intrusion by either the weather or even the hustle and bustle of city streets. Once you're ready for proper open-air motoring, the roof disappears neatly beneath a leather-covered tonneau and leaves 8.8 cubic feet of cargo capacity for your luggage and a picnic basket. With the roof down and windows up, conversation is still possible at freeway speeds.
We are not amused
Let's be clear. The Bentley Azure is not exactly from another age.
The Arnage upon which it's based was thoroughly engineered by BMW and Rover personnel for its introduction in 1998, and the Azure itself finally reached production only in 2006. The Azure features some of the electronic gizmos you'd expect of a modern automobile, including Bluetooth-compatible telephone, Bose audio, satellite navigation and a remote camera for reversing. But that's about it.
Yet the Azure isn't aimed at the PlayStation generation. The Bentley Azure buyer typically is in his or her late 50s. And after all the trials and tribulations one endures to reach such an age, when one has reached the pinnacle of success despite untrustworthy business associates, troublesome ex-spouses and the like, the Azure is more than just a reward.
Living like royalty is the best revenge.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.