Of all the new features on the 2009 Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed, none has a stranger reason for existence than the newly optional three-passenger rear seat.
According to Dr. Ulrich Eichhorn, Bentley's head of engineering, the new seating arrangement has been added at the request of owners in Japan. Turns out they like driving their Flying Spurs, but don't like parking them. So they bring along a "chauffeur," who takes over upon arrival at the destination. The rest of the time, the chauffeur rides in the backseat.
"It's not a problem until it's time for a night out with another couple," said Eichhorn. "With bucket seats only, there was no room for the chauffeur. We added the middle seat so he can sit between the wives. It sounds strange, but that's the tradition."
This is a measure of how far the Bentley motorcar has come in the last 20 years. Even if you can afford a chauffeur, the 2009 Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed is too much fun to let someone else drive.
Refinement Is the Headline
An all-new model for 2009, the Continental Flying Spur Speed should suit Bentley's Japanese buyers well. It's essentially the four-door version of the Continental GT Speed, a more powerful and more aggressively tuned version of the standard Continental GT coupe. In addition to the performance-oriented upgrades, the Flying Spur Speed also features a round of midcycle updates added to all Flying Spurs for 2009.
Most of the changes are subtle — almost invisible, in fact. You would need a protractor to figure out that the grille is slightly more upright, while the revised air intakes and black rear bumper valance look suspiciously like the pieces that were there before. There's also updated trim around the headlights and a new design for the standard 19-inch wheels.
Beyond the cosmetic enhancements, all Flying Spurs also get revised suspension and a retuned exhaust, as well as insulated glass to reduce interior noise. There are new options like a very attractive two-tone paint treatment, a dedicated iPod connection and a 1,100-watt Naim audio system. Customers asked for subtle upgrades that wouldn't change the character of the car, says Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen, Bentley's CEO. "So the headline for this year's Flying Spur is refinement," he tells us.
Although its customers requested more refinement, Bentley knows that performance sells even better. When the GT Speed coupe was introduced last year, Bentley figured it would make up about 20 percent of GT sales. Since then, it's actually accounted for closer to 60 percent.
With that in mind, it became an easy decision to create the Flying Spur Speed, especially considering that it shares all of its upgrades with the GT Speed coupe. "The only differences between the two are suspension changes to compensate for the sedan's size and weight," says Eichhorn.
The standard 6.0-liter W12 engine is replaced by a slightly more powerful version rated at 600 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque. That's an extra 48 hp and 74 lb-ft of torque, a bump that Bentley claims is the result of new pistons that can handle more boost from the twin turbochargers, along with lighter connecting rods, a revised crankcase design and a reprogrammed engine control computer.
The six-speed automatic transmission has been beefed up to handle the extra power and the shift programs have been retuned. Settings for the adjustable air-spring suspension were revised to drop the ride height by almost a half inch while firming up the ride quality. Bushings between the front subframe and the chassis were also removed to provide more direct steering feel.
A set of 20-inch wheels and carbon-ceramic brakes are available as an option. The tires are 275/35R20 Pirelli PZeros that were developed specifically for the GT Speed and Flying Spur Speed models.
Bentley says that between the tri-laminate wheel liners and insulated glass, interior noise has been cut by up to 5 dBA. Behind the wheel, the Speed's extra dose of refinement and performance is barely noticeable, as we've never felt the Flying Spur was exactly slow and loud to begin with.
It's quiet, all right. Almost too quiet. With the radio off you can actually hear the radar sensor for the adaptive cruise control pinging the cars ahead.
There are two simple fixes for this issue. One is the newly optional Naim audio system. Its 1,100-watt amplifier is the most powerful ever produced for an automobile, and 15 speakers distribute its considerable output. As these systems go, the Naim setup is one of the best you'll find, as it should be for its price tag of $6,900.
Another option is to slip the shift lever into Sport mode. It not only calls up a more aggressive shift program, but also sends a signal that lowers backpressure in the Flying Spur Speed's exhaust. Under full throttle, this low-pressure exhaust adds some rumble to the otherwise silent W12. Get off the gas and the exhaust emits a low burble that reminds you there's 600 hp on tap. "We intentionally kept that, as we figured that buyers of the Speed would like the sound," says Eichhorn.
When there's room to run, the Speed's extra power is impressive. Bentley says the Flying Spur Speed will go from zero to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds — three-tenths of a second quicker than the standard model. You don't feel the difference between the two cars, yet performance like this is still astounding for a 5,546-pound sedan. The 2009 Bentley Flying Spur Speed will do 200 mph, too, if you're into that sort of thing.
More noticeable are the changes to the Speed's suspension and steering setup. There are four levels of adjustment to the air suspension and, according to Eichorn, the second softest setting for the Speed is equivalent to the firmest setting for the standard model.
Between the added suspension firmness and more direct steering, the Speed feels more like a capable sport sedan. The responses are quick and the float that you almost expect from a Bentley isn't there. Even so, the Speed's ride quality is still far from stiff, even with its low-profile 35-series tires.
Optional carbon-ceramic brake discs shave 22 pounds of unsprung weight from each corner and 9 feet off the stopping distance, according to Eichhorn. These carbon-ceramic brakes are surprisingly easy to modulate, even more so than the brakes on the standard Flying Spur. Bentley says the rotors will last the life of the car. Good to know, considering they'll set you back $16,500.
No Expense Spared
With a base price for the 2009 Bentley Flying Spur Speed expected to be over $200,000, the idea of spending the equivalent of a new Honda Civic on better brakes isn't so tough to swallow. It's about getting the car with the most potential even if you're not going to use it. Ever.
In fact, almost all of the interior upgrades applied to the Flying Spur Speed can be added to the standard model. The quilted leather seats, aluminum pedal covers and knurled chrome shift lever are all on the Flying Spur options list, along with a set of 20-inch wheels. The only Speed-signature items that you can't add to the standard Spur are the three-spoke sport steering wheel and "Speed" emblazoned door sills.
Choosing the Speed is more about appreciating sharper steering, a taut suspension and an engine that sounds like an engine. Bentley figures that around 40-45 percent of Flying Spur buyers will opt for the Speed.
They won't be disappointed. The 2009 Bentley Flying Spur Speed is a faster, more engaging sedan that still rides comfortably and looks better. And whether you're driving it or simply riding in the back and keeping the wives entertained, the Flying Spur Speed is a better Bentley.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.