Bentley Continental Flying SpurClick to enlarge picture

With a top speed of 195 mph, the Continental Flying Spur is the fastest 4-door sedan in the world.

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For three days this MSN Autos editor had a Bentley Continental Flying Spur to test, caress and experience. Although not as ostentatious as the more expensive and expansive Arnage, the Flying Spur is still an impressive piece of machinery, the latest in a long line of fine luxury automobiles hand built at Bentley's production facility in Crewe, England.

A Bit of History

Bentley Motors is very proud of its heritage, which influences every car the company creates.

W.O. Bentley built his first automobile in 1920, and by the late 1920s, Bentley had built a reputation for producing fast, powerful road cars, as well as running a number of winning race cars. Bentley fielded first-place finishers in the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times from 1924 to 1930, including capturing the top four places in 1929.

But racing was expensive, and despite the allure of Bentley automobiles, the company was having a great deal of financial difficulty by 1930. In 1931 Rolls-Royce stepped in and purchased the Bentley Motors, thus saving the name from likely extinction.

However, by the late 1930s Rolls-Royce was primarily building aircraft engines, and with an impending world war the company needed a new factory to meet demand. A site was selected on the outskirts of a city named Crewe. Construction began in 1938 and opened just a few months before World War II broke out. Although the building was camouflaged and protected by anti-aircraft guns, it was damaged by German bombs in 1940.

During the war, auto production ceased completely. However, by 1945—after more than 15,000 airplane engines had been produced at the new factory—Rolls-Royce moved its jet engine operations exclusively to its Darby plant and resumed automobile production at Crewe.

Read Dan Jedlicka's review of the 2006 Bentley Continental Flying Spur.

A single chassis was used for both Bentley and Rolls-Royce autos, and the first Bentley to come out of Crewe was the MK VI in 1948. In 1952, the R-Type Continental was introduced. At the time, the 120-mph Continental was the fastest 4-passenger car in the world.

Throughout the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Rolls-Royce survived a number of financially difficult periods: fuel shortages, recessions, and taxes took their toll on the hand-built luxury car sales. However, by 1978 sales had soared.

Unfortunately, it wasn't quite enough. In 1980 Rolls-Royce merged with the Vickers Group and new life was once again breathed into the luxury car company. This lasted until 1997, when Vickers put Rolls-Royce up for sale. In 1998 Volkswagen AG purchased the company and the Crewe factory for £470 million (approx. $820.5 million US), with the commitment of investing an additional £500 million (approx. $872.5 million US).

New Beginnings

However, Volkswagen did not purchase the rights to the Rolls-Royce name. Rumors have flown regarding how VW lawyers could have let that detail slip, but BMW AG swooped in and purchased the rights to the name from its owner, Rolls-Royce Aircraft.

So BMW now has the logo, grille, and Flying Ecstasy hood ornament and unveiled its first Rolls-Royce, called the Phantom, in January of 2003.

Bentley formed a new company called Bentley Motors, and for the first time in 70 years, Bentley was on its own again—with assistance from parent company Volkswagen.

Now Bentley carries on its tradition of building high-performance luxury automobiles, which brings us back to the latest model from Crewe, the Continental Flying Spur. Just like that 120-mph Continental from more than 50 years ago, this Continental also claims to be the fastest 4-door sedan in the world. However, the bar has been raised—the Flying Spur has a top speed of almost 200 mph.

And before anyone speculates, we didn't have the opportunity to verify that figure, but we can say the Flying Spur definitely has the grunt to back up that claim.

Bentley Performance

Under the hood (or bonnet, as they say in England), lurks a twin-turbo 6.0-liter W12 engine that generates 552 horsepower, with prodigious amounts of low-end torque—a signature of a Bentley of any era.

With all this power on tap, the Flying Spur feels like a sports car. Acceleration is quite amazing: 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, 100 mph in just over 11 seconds—all this in a luxury sedan that weighs more than 2.5 tons!

But the Continental Flying Spur is not only about straight-line speed. This luxurious sedan takes high-speed corners with aplomb—so well that drivers will momentarily forget the massive car beneath them, replete with impressive grip in any weather courtesy of the all-wheel drive system (a Bentley first) as well as traction control and an Electronic Stability Program (ESP).

One of the factors behind the Spur's impressive handling is its tires. The car we received for this fleeting test had optional 20-inch two-piece alloy sports wheels with Yokohama Advan Sport 275/35 R20 tires. These tires were specifically designed for the Bentley, to provide sportier handling and steering response without compromising ride quality.

When a car this heavy, this beautiful and this expensive is capable of speeds well into triple digits, stopping power becomes paramount. According to Bentley, the Flying Spur features the largest brakes of any production passenger car on sale today. The front discs are 405mm in diameter and 36mm wide, and the rear discs 335mm in diameter and 22mm wide. Power to stop such massive luxury comes from aluminum single-sided calipers branded with cast aluminum Bentley logos.

Luxury

Even with these features and figures that undoubtedly earn the Continental Flying Spur bragging rights as a performance car, it is just as much an ultra-luxury sedan.

"The Continental Flying Spur is a brilliant example of how to match world-beating technologies with renowned craftsmanship," said Bentley chairman Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen. "It is a performance car but not at the cost of comfort and as such represents a unique proposition—a sumptuous and spacious four-door Grand Tourer with the heart and soul of a high-performance coupe."

Passengers sit in soft leather seats surrounded by burr walnut and chrome trim. According to Bentley, more than 11 leather hides are used to make a complete set of upholstery in the Continental Flying Spur. These are imported from northern Europe, where the relatively insect-free environment benefits leather quality.

Classic Bentley knobs are used for opening and closing vents, and a Breitling analog clock sits in the center of the dashboard. The steering wheel is hand-stitched—a process that takes about five hours.

Front seats can be adjusted 16 different ways and include heating, cooling and massaging mechanisms. Rear outboard seats can also be heated or cooled. Rear-seat passengers have plenty of legroom, and the temperature can be adjusted independently for each of the seating positions.

All of the expected convenience features are standard, including GPS navigation, a premium audio system with CD changer, Bluetooth connectivity for cell phones, a power glass sunroof, and power door latches. The Flying Spur also features a keyless entry and start system—the key just needs to be in the vehicle's proximity to unlock the doors and start the vehicle.

British . . . or German?

No one would argue the fact that Bentley is one of the most noteworthy marques to ever come from Great Britain. And this Continental Flying Spur is built in England at the legendary factory at Crewe.

However, according to the manufacturer's sticker, 55 percent of the Flying Spur comes from parent company Volkswagen in Germany, including the engine and transmission.

And one could surmise that most Bentley owners have never been in a Volkswagen; if they had, they might have noticed that the information screen on the instrument panel in the Flying Spur is identical to the one found in the Volkswagen Phaeton. The trip computer and navigation system also are shared.

Common among more—for lack of a better term—common vehicles, platform and component sharing are methods employed by automakers to maintain efficient manufacturing processes, which enables them to hold down costs and presumably pass savings on to consumers in the form of lower vehicle prices. It also helps carmakers remain competitive in ever-tightening vehicle markets.

This component sharing makes it possible for Bentley to sell a vehicle for considerably less than it has ever done in the past. Perhaps it's an attitude that those desiring a Bentley must overcome—do prospective owners really want to have anything in common with the "people's car"?

Well, for those who want to continue to see Bentleys roll out of the factory at Crewe, the answer is a resounding yes.

The Price

The sticker price on the Continental Flying Spur as tested is $179,185, which includes $3,700 in gas-guzzler tax and $2,595 destination charge. While it may not seem inexpensive to most consumers, the flagship Bentley Arnage starts well over $200,000.

In comparison, a nicely equipped 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550 is priced about $80,000 less. Yes, the Mercedes possesses a luxurious interior and lots of advanced technology, but it does not have a 552-horsepower engine—and more importantly, the car doesn't wear the Bentley logo.

We're not sure if that's worth the additional $80K, but it's hard to put a price on arriving in a Bentley.

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