Bentley Continental GT and Flying Spur go to Driving School

To make the 557-horsepower Continental Flying Spur more physics-friendly, its chassis is pretty far along to fully active status. It begins with all-wheel drive that incorporates a Torsen center differential. The suspension includes computer-controlled air springs and electronically adjustable dampers, and naturally, there's electronic traction control and stability control. The optional twenty-inch aluminum wheels carry 275/35YR-20 Yokohama Advan Sport tires, while the front brakes feature massive 15.9-inch discs with single-action aluminum calipers. There's electronic antilock braking to keep the tires under the car, electronic brake force distribution to maximize fore-and-aft stability under braking, and finally, there's electronic brake assist, which gives you a big push on the brakes in emergencies to maximize stopping power.

All this sounds as intimidating as the Continental Flying Spur's $164,990 price tag. Nevertheless, the Bentley instructors encourage you to treat the Flying Spur as if it were an airport rental car. And, as if by a miracle, the Bentley responds like a Le Mans racing car. It performs every maneuver without drama. No cones are squashed, and no tires are flat-spotted. The instructors even invite you to try a couple maneuvers with the electronic safety net disengaged just so you can feel the car slide sideways until it slithers backwards off the course.

If nothing else, this experience resolves the age-old question about whether it's safer to lock up the brakes to stop before hitting an obstacle -- or to use the steering to avoid it. According to research we've seen, there's usually a crossover point at about 35 mph, where below that point it's better to stop, while above that speed, it's better to steer.

In the Bentley's case, the answer is always to stomp on the brake pedal as hard as you can, and then never let up for an instant while you steer for safety. In fact, the only trick required is to ensure that you hit the long-travel brake pedal first, so that there's plenty of weight over the front tires to maximize tire grip and steering effectiveness. These brakes are built to take it, too, as Bentley's engineers built them to deliver fifteen consecutive stops from 200 mph.

It's pretty common in some circles to be skeptical about the contributions that stability control and other electronic driving aids make to the driving experience. If you're after a smoky burnout in the parking lot, you'll want to switch off the Bentley's stability control every time. But the Bentley Driving Program proved to us that it is only the electronic safety net that makes it possible to drive a car like this at anything approaching its limit.

Derek Bell put it best while hurtling the Flying Spur around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway's infield road-racing course. "When the stability control engages with this car, it's so soft that you can barely feel it," Bell says. "You can steer the car back and forth across the track, and it seems to have a magic amount of grip. It makes you feel like a better driver, and you're not afraid of coming around a corner and finding water or gravel or an oncoming car.

"If I switch off the stability control, I'm probably faster around the track by about a second, but I can get in trouble if I have to steer away from the ideal racing line. You also have to ask yourself if you can drive as consistently when the traction aids are switched off. For most drivers, I'm sure the safer, faster way is to use the electronics to help you."

It might seem unlikely that a turn at the wheel of a Bentley could lead to any particular insight about cars in general, but when you push the limits of physics with a 5456-pound, 551-horsepower car that will thunder to 195 mph, surprising things happen. And this capability is never far from your mind when you drive a Bentley, even while you're wafting along freeways in Los Angeles, as we did for three days in a Continental Flying Spur a few weeks after the driving program.

More information: Bentley Driving Program

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