The New Breed of Luxury Cars
Published: April 2009
By Frank Vizard
Test-driving the new Rolls Royce through the French countryside and the new Bentley along the coast of Maine.
Two new British luxury cars from Rolls Royce and Bentley, now owned by BMW and Audi respectively, offer sensuous comfort on the road but at markedly different prices. Given the price deferential, a direct comparison might be unfair, but both new vehicles offer plenty of bling for the buck. And like a bacon sandwich smothered in brown sauce for breakfast, both cars exhibit a few British quirks.
Rolls Royce Coupe
Driving the new Rolls Royce Coupe through the rolling of the northern France’s Champagne region, east toward Geneva, is a trip that can be punctuated by an overnight stay at the sumptuous Chateau de Courcelles near Reims. It’s a journey that puts you in mind of those old films where long-distance travel escapades took place in luxury automobiles, and everyone met on the way was an aristocrat. That’s because the Coupe covers vast distances in a hurry—and in extreme comfort. Just like a character in those old films, you emerge unruffled from the hand-built leather and wood interior after a long day of driving, fully prepared to sit down to a champagne dinner.
Ah, yes, life is tough when you’re behind the wheel of a $405,000 car. The Coupe is the latest incarnation of the Phantom and follows hard on the heels of the Drophead Coupe, aka convertible, launched last year. Some of the characteristics are similar: the Greek temple grill, the brushed steel “bonnet” that’s so long cameras are installed under the license plate so the driver can see around corners, and the rear-hinged front doors that close at the touch of a button. The Coupe is less of a cruiser and more of a hard-charger, however, thanks to a 453-horsepower, 12-cylinder engine that seems to be only beginning to purr at 100 mph (and out of sight of French gendarmes). Add a “sport” mode that alters the car’s handling characteristics from the stately to the sprightly, and you have a vehicle that can deftly navigate at speed the winding roads of the Jura Mountains leading into Geneva.
But even a beauty such as this has its small flaws. Rolls Royce calls the rear seating “intimate”—which is to say short-legged twins joined at the hip would be very comfortable. More disconcerting from a driver’s viewpoint is a rearview mirror that, due to a low, rear roofline, offers a backward glance of just a few feet and a side-view mirror that tries to compensate by making objects seem farther away than they appear. Still, these are minor inconveniences. Looking out may be a bit of a chore, but looking in, everyone will be all smiles.
Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed
You might be forgiven if you buy the new Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed just for the Naim sound system. The $6,900, 1,100-watt sound system may be the best ever installed in a car, reproducing music with such clarity that it feels like you can step sideways between the notes. All you need to do is figure out which song goes best with a 600-horsepower, 12-cylinder luxury car that tops out at 200 mph and goes from zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds. Don’t pick any slow tunes.
The Flying Spur Speed is the most powerful four-door sedan Bentley has ever made, and the sporty front grille and lower air intakes give the car a muscular appearance (a look reinforced by 20-inch Pirelli multi-spoke performance tires) that many might find surprising in a $198,500 car.
A drive from Boston to York on the Maine coast along a variety of roads showcased the car’s superior handling and passing capability, particularly in the “sport” driving mode, and offered an opportunity to sample some of the car’s more unusual features. Top among these is an optional adaptive cruise-control system that uses radar to maintain a driver-determined distance between you and the car ahead, automatically managing the throttle and brakes to increase or decrease speed as required. It’s all a bit spooky, since all the driver has to do is steer.
Given this car’s quickness, it’s appropriate that it has the largest brakes of any car on the road, and they'll stop you cold at the slightest touch. The brakes take a little getting used to, as do the dashboard controls: The ignition key goes into the left of the steering wheel, but you still need to push the start button on the center console. Mirror controls are also set inconveniently on the passenger side of the center console. And be warned: If you blindly try to lower the window on the driver’s side, you’re just as likely to pop the trunk, since the release button is also located on the door.
Still, the interior is luxuriously appointed and is very roomy, especially in the rear. There’s even a massage option available for the seats. And despite the powerful engine, it’s a very quiet ride, thanks to the special acoustic glazing of the windows. Now if you could only find someone named Jeeves to do the actual driving.