Traffic outside the Hôtel de Paris along the coastal highway takes you to Cannes. Monaco’s roads are always jammed with a non-stop parade of luxury and sports cars. Wheeling a brand-new Bentley through town is a high-stakes needle-threading competition in which there can be no winners.
The all-new Flying Spur is actually the smaller of Bentley’s two sedans, the Mulsanne being the even more palatial flagship of the range, but at 5.3 metres long, the baby Bentley must still be treated with respect.
As the top-hatted hotel doorman opens the Bentley’s enormous driver’s hatch and you settle down into the soft leather chair, any worries about traffic or scraping the lovely paintwork seem to vanish. Thick glass muffles the constant outside noise. As you fire up the 12-cylinder engine, a wooden panel on the dashboard swivels to reveal the central navigation screen. Where shall we go today?
Over the past 101 years, Bentley, the British maker of fine luxury cars, has firmly established itself as a member of automotive royalty. It supplies grand limousines to members of the British monarchy, many of whom prefer to be seen in its relatively understated sedans than in the more ostentatious motors from Rolls-Royce. But the truth is that the firm has always made cars which, while outwardly proper and upstanding, were a bit naughty, a bit rowdy, even wild. Bentley’s cars may look respectable, but they aren’t. Not entirely. Because that wouldn’t be any fun. All of which is why, if you know much about cars, you must have a soft spot in your heart reserved for the brand.
Crossing over from Monaco into France, the roads empty of traffic. A brief jaunt westbound where the famous Route Napoléon mountain road begins to climb north, up and up into the southernmost stretch of the Alps. The route is so named because it roughly follows the path taken by Napoleon in his 1815 escape from Elba to Grenoble. It is, without doubt, one of the best stretches of road anywhere in the world. It is traditional to take a Lamborghini or a Ferrari for a drive such as this, but the Bentley proves to be an amiable choice.
For all its comfort and quiet, the new Flying Spur can carve corners with admirable precision. The car holds a line as if it were on rails. The body simply refuses to roll through every turn.
Technology has advanced a long way since Bentley launched the previous Flying Spur in 2013. All-wheel steering and next-gen air suspension work in unison, commanded by a veritable supercomputer behind the dashboard, to ensure the car behaves exactly how the driver intends. It’s quite a surreal driving experience.
You can happily ignore much of the technology inside the Flying Spur. Had enough screen time? That central navigation display can roll back into the dash, revealing a trio of analog gauges or, rolling again, a blank wood panel that blends seamlessly into the dash- board. With the fine wood veneer wrapping around the cabin in one big arch, the ambiance is somewhat like an old Riva speedboat.
There are multiple driving modes and settings, of course, but those too can be safely ignored. The default setting, simply marked “B,” is at home in all situations. Drive faster and the car responds appropriately. Drive even faster, and the Flying Spur shows that Bentley still very much has a wild side.
The 6.0-litre W12 engine presents a wall of torque, 664 lb-ft from 1,350 to 4,500 rpm. You expect some lag, some delay, some slack in a gargantuan luxury limo like this, but there really isn’t any. Slack is only there to cover a bad driver’s jerky inputs. The response from the turbine-like engine provides easily measured thrust on demand.
Ever since the 1930s, when Woolf Barnato — a racer and Bentley executive — made a bet that he could drive his Bentley Speed Six from Cannes to London before the famous French Le Train Bleu travelled from Cannes to Calais, we’ve known Bentleys were fast cars. Barnato won. But today, thanks to modern technology, Bentleys also handle, too. The new Flying Spur is the world’s most unlikely drivers’ car. It’s well-behaved when it needs to be, but ready to be bad when you want it to be. And that’s why we still love Bentley.
The old Flying Spur was, let’s be honest, more a budget-friendly entrée into Bentley ownership. Its proportions always looked off; the hood seemed too short. The all-new Spur shares some of its underpinnings with the Porsche Panamera, which partly explains why it’s now such a glorious machine to drive quickly. More importantly, Bentley’s new “entry-level” sedan finally looks like a proper Bentley. Seen in the bare metal, it’s impossibly long and low. In profile, with its cabin pushed rearward, the Spur has more than a hint of Barnato’s Speed Six.
When we arrive back in Monaco as the sun is setting on our all-too-brief road trip in the new Flying Spur, it’s agonizing to have to give the keys back. We don’t say that about many cars. It’s supremely elegant, and yet ballistically quick and fun to drive. We can see why it’s such a favourite of royalty the world over.