Inasmuch as Bentley's new Continental Flying Spur is the four-door version of its enthusiastically received Continental GT-a designation steeped in history, signifying an automobile capable of grand touring throughout continental Europe-its rollout provided an irresistible opportunity to try a little grand touring of our own. Bentley needed the Flying Spur it was loaning us-a gorgeous creature in cypress gray-green metallic paint with a saddle-over-cognac-leather and burled-walnut interior that looked rich enough to munch on for dessert-driven from Venice to Munich. That's normally a six-hour drive, but with the long May Day weekend coming up, the Bentley people didn't really need the car till the next Tuesday. So I pocketed the keys, waved good-bye, and headed for the hills with photographer Martyn Goddard in the passenger seat. Our mission? Spend five days finding out just how grand continental touring can be these days when you've got your hands on one of the fastest and most lavishly appointed four-door sedans ever built.
As you might expect from its pedigree-Bentleys have been looking good since the '20s, and the Continental GT was named L'Automobile Pi Bella del Mondo ("the Most Beautiful Car in the World") in 2003-our Flying Spur cut a fine figure as it murmured north from Venice. From its elegant mesh grille to its two understated taillights (from which the brake lights, turn signals, and backup lamps emerge on call like a cat's eyes in the dark), it tastefully invoked its estimable heritage without getting sentimental about it. The gauges had the crisp, clean look of fine watches, and the controls-notably the hefty, no-nonsense push-pull knobs that open and close the ample air-conditioning vents-were pleasantly luxurious yet unaffected. One could burble along like this indefinitely, dreamily reciting Oscar Wilde's dictum about having simple tastes (only the best), but we had reached the tollbooth entrance to the autostrada, and it was time to get to work.
Under full throttle from a standing start, this leather-lined approximation of a men's club smoking room launched with just a hint of tire chirp, a pleasingly subdued roar from the 551-hp twin-turbo W-12 up front, and a whoosh of wind that increased at about the rate you'd experience if you rode in from space astraddle a meteor. Slower cars ahead snapped smartly aside to clear the left lane-Italian drivers are expert at escorting supercars past the velvet rope-while the Bentley's velocity accumulated like compound interest until, at around 165 mph, its rate of acceleration began to flag a bit. The engine felt as if it still had plenty of grunt, but the Flying Spur is, after all, a massive automobile with a big, blunt front end, and by now it was pushing a lot of air out of the way. Traffic intervened before we could get much closer to its quoted 194-mph top end, as was to remain the case for much of the rest of our tour. Given that passing long lines of cars full of families on holiday at a relative 100 mph is not only dicey but rather vulgar, we seldom got north of a century and a half.
That sufficed, however, to establish that the Bentley ranks among the premier freeway cruisers of all time, with more than enough braking and handling to match its deep reservoirs of power. Its rocklike solidity made it easier to negotiate the tight, un-even, and disturbingly blind turns one frequently encounters on the autostrada than is generally the case in many of the more darty Lamborghinis and Ferraris.
A brief late-afternoon climb brought us into Asolo, a fortified hilltop town little changed since the Renaissance. My greatest immediate apprehension-having to negotiate the big Bentley, almost seven feet wide with the mirrors out, through narrow, medieval streets-came true at once. Goddard called on me to blast repeatedly down a twisting upper intestine of a street that had the car's sonar screaming protests from both sides. The front and rear warnings joined the chorus whenever local motorists in sensibly sized autos came roaring up the same street, obliging me to reverse all the way back up the hill, with other reversing cars stacked behind me and the impatient ascender panting on my grille.
My unsettled nerves were soothed by sunset, when I was ensconced in the Villa Cipriani's legendary gardens, amid tulips brighter yet subtler in color than the finest fabrics at a Milan fashion show, with a freezing-cold glass of Swedish vodka, a vintage Havana cigar, and a view extending across a landscape that hadn't changed for centuries. As church bells tolled vespers, I charted the next day's course through the Dolomites into Austria and Bavaria.
The steep and jagged Dolomites are in many respects even more dramatic in appearance than the Alps. Goddard aptly described them as looking like "the way a child draws mountains." Back in the old days, when motorists had to stop and change carburetor jets to get over the top, they could seriously challenge a car's ability to handle altitude and weather changes, and even today they can bring out unexpected and occasionally un-nerving aspects of its personality. As we climbed through the Giau and Tre Croci passes, with their classic successions of tight hairpins, short straightaways, and eye-popping views of sharp drop-offs into oblivion, the Bentley's straightline speed, which is what usually wins races and almost always dominates on mountain roads, allowed us to gobble up everything in sight effortlessly. Its cornering, too, was excellent, although I had trouble finding a good line through the many blind left-handed hairpins. You're tempted to clip the apex, but that could result in a head-on collision with a bus or a truck lumbering down the mountain, while the big sedan tended to lose momentum at the slower speeds imposed when taking a wider line.
Like many modern high-performance cars, the Bentley offers a variety of transmission and suspension settings. Soft dampers and full automatic, fine on the freeways, were less suitable here, as were the intermediate tranny programs that allowed the car to upshift on throttle lifts just before the next turn. I soon settled on the up/down shift gate, the Bentley's closest impersonation of a manual gearbox, in which the car constantly generated g-forces higher than a courteous driver would normally care to inflict on back-seat passengers.
Roadways are like music, their designers like composers-there are many more mediocrities than Mozarts-and by late afternoon, the splendid passes gave way to a dog of a road, with scarcely a good turn on it, running to the Austrian border. But soon thereafter, we were pulling up in front of the Residenz Heinz Winkler in Bavaria. No parking spaces were in evidence, so we left the car directly in front of the inn entrance, where it remained throughout the night without anyone's objecting. It's surprising how nicely strangers treat you when you arrive in a Bentley. On the way to an eagerly anticipated dinner-Winkler is perhaps Bavaria's greatest chef-I checked on the car and found an even longer Maybach now parked next to it, its chauffeur down the way having a smoke. This, I reflected, was the other traditional approach to touring: having a chauffeur means that you can come out from Munich, eat and drink all you like, and ride home in safe, legal comfort.
Over a dinner of lobster ravioli, Dover sole, and a fine chilled Riesling, I expounded on the history of GT cars to Goddard, who listened tolerantly, although he knows more about the genealogy of British motorcars than I ever will. Americans, I reminded him, tend to confuse Bentley with Rolls-Royce, which bought Bentley Motors in 1931 and eventually turned the marque into merely a Rolls with a different grille. This conflation was etched into the American consciousness by the famous David Ogilvy advertisement, still taught in marketing classes and said to have sold out the entire American Rolls inventory at the time, which concluded: "The Bentley is made by Rolls-Royce. Except for the radiators, they are identical motorcars, manufactured by the same engineers in the same works. People who feel diffident about driving a Rolls-Royce can buy a Bentley." Yet the cars had once been very different, I noted. The Rolls was principally for being driven in, by a chauffeur, while the Bentley, a star on the racing circuit, was for driving. Now that Bentley was once again independent (having been purchased by Volkswagen in the confusing 1998 deal that yielded the Rolls emblem to BMW) and successful on the racing circuit (having captured first and second place at Le Mans in 2003), it had emerged anew as a luxury GT for the driving, as opposed to riding, auto enthusiast.
"It's not the same to be driven as to drive," I concluded. Goddard-who has done plenty of both and probably could obliterate my lap times on any track while wearing an Ogilvy-style eye patch-smiled tolerantly and said, "On the other hand, I myself was driven here, in a Bentley, by my driver." He returned to the theme at an alfresco lunch the next day just off the autobahn. "You see?" he observed cheerfully. "Here I am, having lunch with my chauffeur."
We hammered on toward the Rhineland, with 50 Cent rapping on the CD player about his "black-on-black Bentley, big ole black nine . . . big ole chrome rims gleam, you know why I shine." When the holiday traffic started to congeal, we exited into the Black Forest, switching the CD to Wagner and Mahler. ("German music!" I proclaimed. "Mahler was Austrian," Goddard protested.) It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the narrow roadway was alive with roadsters, bicyclists, and hundreds of do-or-die, steel-booted, Kevlar-armored motorcyclists: The place looked like a motorist's Noah's Ark, with two of every species of vehicle represented. With so much oncoming traffic threatening to splatter like bugs on our big grille, I soon gave up trying to pass anybody and relaxed to take in the scenery. The light greens of springtime cut across the landscape, along with smatterings of early wildflowers, but many of the trees remained so dark green as to be almost black, calling to mind Grimm fairy tales about Snow White, the Seven Dwarves . . . and little Hans, age two, who, while out enjoying the spring flowers, was kidnapped along with his mother and taken "far away into the black forest, where no one ever goes."
Eventually, we, too, got lost in the Black Forest, trying to find our hotel outside Baden-Baden. This occasioned repeated excursions resembling early-twentieth-century travel post-ers, the Bentley heroically vaulting up darkening mountain roads, its headlamps cutting through the growing gloom, while castle-like hotels glowed golden near the mountaintops in the last light of the sinking sun-and rather less heroic descents once we realized we were still lost. On one dark downhill turn, I lost the line and stubbed the Bentley's toe, overloading its outside front tire to the pirouetting point. It didn't like such abuse-what car does?-but it recovered as neatly as a child's wooden toy put back on its wooden tracks. To atone for my misdeed, once we'd finally found the hotel, I visited the spa and had my skin peeled.
In the morning, the road to Baden-Baden was crammed with yet more motorcycles and scores of Ferraris, drivers waving amiably to one another in celebration of winter's end. We settled in behind a vintage Triumph occupied by a couple in their vintage weekend-outing costumes, he in a wool tam and she in a perfect spring bonnet. I squeezed the Flying Spur in-to a tight parallel-parking space on the main street downtown, feeling rather proud of myself until Goddard pointed out that I'd left enough room to the curb to accommodate a Harley- Davidson. We strolled over to the Trinkhalle, built in 1842, to take the waters of this storied bathhouse as have so many grand tourists in the past. The palliative water cost twenty cents a cup. It came, as advertised, in a trickle from a massive stone column and had about the same temperature-if not, presumably, quite the same flavor-as the urine of a hibernating bear.
Feeling suitably refreshed, I dropped Goddard at the Frankfurt airport and programmed the Bentley's navigation system to guide me into the Rhineland countryside. As in many other modern luxury autos, this system was both a boon and an Achilles' heel. On the plus side, its display was clear, its audible instructions crisply unambiguous, and its integration with traffic bulletins expert at rerouting me around traffic jams and road closures. On the downside, entering destinations was made needlessly complicated by the system's inability to employ postal codes, often the quickest way to select among the many different German towns that all have the same names. Memo to supercar makers: When you're selling a car so expensive that buyers might expect to pass it on to their descendants as they would a fine timepiece, offer regular, low-cost updates of the onboard firmware.
Speeding toward Stromberg, I was less than a kilometer from my exit when a car ahead blew its engine, eclipsing the foreground behind an opaque cloud of dense white smoke. I hit the flashers and braked gently before entering the cloud and losing all visibility. Fortunately, I emerged unscathed to find that the driver, a young woman, had pulled well off the road and was already standing clear of her disabled vehicle-textbook good behavior. One reason grand touring is more fun on the Continent than in the States is that German drivers, each having invested more than a thousand dollars and twenty-five to forty-five hours of professional instruction plus twelve hours of classroom instruction to obtain a driver's license good for life, tend to be a lot more skilled than your average American laboring to keep his SUV off the rumble strips. Accelerating into the exit, I noted that the Bentley's air filters had done an admirable job of excluding the smell of burning oil from the cockpit.
I repaired to the little inn in Stromberg run by Johann Lafer, one of Winkler's competitors for the top of the German culinary totem pole. The place seemed claustrophobic at first, with access via a narrow stone bridge (more sonar protests), cramped parking among fleets of SL500s and BMWs, and an airless little room with flawed plumbing, but its front garden opened out onto an expansive view over the Rhineland, and its kitchen was a marvel. The headwaiter approached me in the bar and went over the menu with about the same degree of attention one might pay to selecting the options for a new Bentley. Speaking of which, I'd go with the metallic paint and monochrome interior-the dark ones with their multicolor upholstery look antique-and the rear console, adding a personalizing touch such as a small refrigerator or a cigar humidor.
At dawn of the final day of my miniature grand tour, feeling I now knew the Bentley well enough to stretch it out properly, I took a long river road full-blast. Some thirty miles in-to it, passing a tour bus trailed by a half-dozen cars, I found myself in a decreasing-radius turn closing on a roundabout at speed. OK, baby, let's see what happens if I'm as good as you are. Modulate the braking to carry nine-tenths speed into the roundabout, squeeze onto full throttle by the apex, touch the brakes to get the howling front tires to bite, catch the big car's small drift, and exit lustily, until we're doing 150 by the glittering river. Boy, she sure can dance.
At an overlook, I gazed down the Rhine, reflecting that its famous hilltop castles originally had been built, almost within sight of one another, to intimidate freight boats into paying the tolls and tariffs that kept Germany in the caboose of the industrial revolution for a century or more. Once Germany wised up and got into the free-trade game, it soon equaled and then surpassed Britain in steel production, eventually excelling in auto production as well. From those origins, a dichotomy emerged: the Brits made elegantly appointed cars with lovely suspensions and interiors but relatively frail mechanical and electrical systems, while German autos were more durable but less lovable. What we have in the Bentley is the best of both worlds: GTs with old-style English elegance, assembled in Crewe, with hearts of German steel.
I strapped in, pressed the starter button, programmed the nav for the Munich airport-five hours away, it estimated-set the dampers and transmission on high performance, checked the mirrors, and rolled back onto the open road. Redlining up through the gears, I found myself thinking of the last words of Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was no motorist but made many long journeys of the mind. "Tell them," he said, "I've had a wonderful life."