Cars: Bentley’s US$244,600 Flying Spur harks back to an era of grandeur

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on July 9, 2018.

The Flying Spur has an eight-speed, all-wheel-drive automatic transmission.

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I HAVE a running joke with my boyfriend about cell phone chargers in cars.

Everything we have driven in the past year has had USB ports — typically multiple of them — strewn about the interior, from the US$280,000 (RM1.13 million) McLaren 720S to the US$60-a-day Toyota Yaris we rented recently to visit some friends.

Everything, that is, except the US$244,600 Bentley Flying Spur, which offers as an afterthought a 15.24cm black cable tucked inside the glovebox as compensation for its USB-less being. During a three-day road-trip test drive in Southern California, we noted this irony often.

You would be surprised how much you need USBs to charge waning battery life on a 804.67km road trip around the California desert. There’s the inevitable route mapping and navigation that are somehow always easier to do on a phone than in a car, plus the need, of course, to take and upload photographs for Instagram. Then there are the hours of on-the-road screen time devoted to essential duties like Googling obscure rock stars to find out who they married, whether they have died, and when they put out that one song we both claim to love but can’t remember the name of it.

You can see how constantly having to reach into the glovebox to crouch over a Wikipedia thread detailing Ian Brown’s early work can be a real pain in the neck. And it makes you miss all those Joshua Trees as they fly by.

This, of course, is the prime example of where car-enthusiasts love to live: The “perfect” car is not always the best car for a given set or setting. The joy of driving happens most indelibly in a relationship with a vehicle where the object of desire is loved in spite of its failings, and sometimes, because of them.

Which is all to say, I would rather ride in a Bentley Flying Spur than in a “perfect” nondescript something or other any day, and I bet you would, too.

In the grand scheme of things, a missing USB port or two are minor details. The 2018 Flying Spur is so charming in its splendour that it made our spree more memorable than drives taken in cars faster, more modern, and just as costly.

Bentley has plenty of good things happening these days as a company. Its Bentayga SUV set a class record at the 101-year-old Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb just over a week ago in Colorado; its 2019 Continental GT, like the 2015 model, has received rave reviews since it debuted last month.

This new Flying Spur first debuted in 2013. That was after the excellent Mulsanne came in 2010 and, of course, prior to the elegant latest iterations of the Continental sports car. It will be replaced in the coming years with a total refresh. For now, it competes most directly with the US$418,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom, and the long-wheelbase US$100,000 BMW 7-Series and US$168,600 Mercedes-Maybach sedans loaded with all the options.  

In terms of all-around value and performance, the Flying Spur sits in the middle of those, just under the regal Phantom and just over the Bimmers and Mercs, both of which are faster and less expensive, yes, but which lack the personality and style of the Bentley. As with the Flying Spur from earlier years, it remains a staid competitor in this high-echelon market, though with slight alterations from headlamp to grill, and additional customised and exclusive colourway options to pleasing effect.

 

Small changes

New this year are 53.34cm alloy wheels in black (optional upgrades at US$2,730). An upright chrome grille and lower chrome bumper insert give the car a muscular face, while the brilliant LED headlamps elegantly soften what might have been an aggressive look overall.

Its 616hp W12 engine is a tribute to the glories of British racing (let’s not forget Bentleys were champion race cars when they first started), and its silky smooth suspension belies its 2,474.8kg heft. Highway 111 near the desolate Salton Sea saw the speedometer cruising past 160.93kph; the car didn’t break a sweat. The top speed is 321.87kph — not even the Porsche Panamera Turbo Sport Turismo can go that fast. Adaptive cruise control will cost you US$2,980 extra but possibly keep you out of speeding tickets, so it may be worth it.

 

Made to be driven [in]

But I chose my words carefully earlier when I said I would rather ride in a Bentley Flying Spur. Driving is a different matter.

Not because its chiselled all-wheel-drive and Herculean brakes don’t thrill — they do — but because lounging inside while someone else handles the demands of the road is where the car really shines. It’s enough to give one airs.

Among its charms are health spa-calibre chairs with thick beluga hides and piano black veneer trim at every touch along the doors and the dashboard. Deep pile woollen over-mats (US$520 extra) and Naim for Bentley speakers envelop passengers into a veritable cocoon of comfort. The wallet-thick windows keep it vault-like quiet (watch out, Rolls). Opening and closing the air vents with the pull of a lever like an organ stop is refreshingly tangible. In this world, tactile feedback from carpeting and knobs and levers and seating is paramount.

Champagne coolers, cedar safe-like boxes to hold mechanical watches and stitching that looks like it belongs on an expensive Dressage saddle are all inside upon request. Or maybe a picnic basket and matching luggage set? Those can be had, certainly.

In a time where screens of all shapes and sizes dominate our perception and much of our awareness in how we process reality, the Flying Spur feels charmingly retro, welcomely nostalgic. Even the centre command screen is downright small compared with the long touchscreens we see today. Honestly, it might as well not even be there.

So maybe it’s better it did not have those USBs anyway. Halfway through the trip, we stopped using our phones altogether. — Bloomberg