2008 Bentley Brooklands

There is no way around it: the Brooklands coupe, the new range-topper from Bentley, is a magnificent absurdity. Standing blunt and foursquare, the nearly three-ton four-seater from Crewe is as incongruous as the ballerina hippos in Disney's Fantasia. Like them, it is implausibly graceful and capable in motion. On the face of it, the fact that one of the most beautifully finished cars ever built is capable of running with ultimate two-seat sports cars from Italy and Germany on twisting roads is absurd. That this huge mass can go from rest to 60 mph in a mere five seconds, and that it can go on to 184 mph on its standard tires, is frankly incredible. But absolutely true.

Everything about the Brooklands is over the top, whether one is talking about the biggest brakes offered on any production car or the most completely leather-lined cabin available today (even the headliner is made with flaw-free leather from contented cows). This is a car of extremes, which is as it should be. There's no point in paying some $350,000 for a car unless it possesses qualities that lesser vehicles do not. This one does, in spades.

There is no magic in getting a lot of power - 530 hp at a mere 4000 rpm in this case - out of a big-capacity engine, especially with the aid of turbocharging and modern electronic controls. It's less easy to make the engine smooth as glass and quiet as a limousine, not to mention giving it, Bentley says, "the highest-ever torque output of any V-8 automotive engine in the world." To apply all that potential in a chassis conceived long ago - giving it excellent body control, a fluidly comfortable ride, and precise, almost perfectly weighted steering - is a feat of superior automotive engineering. To be able to achieve all this so that rear-seat passengers aren't subjected to uncomfortable side loads in tight curves denotes real mastery.

There are going to be only 550 Brooklands coupes, and 500 of them have already been spoken for. Two of the cars used for the press launch are earmarked for Martin Winterkorn and Franz-Josef Paefgen, head of the Volkswagen Group and of Bentley Motors, respectively, so the cars were well-equipped, including 16.5-inch carbon-ceramic brake rotors (an option that costs a bit more than a base Volkswagen Rabbit). We are convinced that most of the reason for the impressiveness of German cars - and Bentley is a German car now, like it or not - comes from the fact that their top executives drive their products and drive them hard.

The Brooklands is a variant of the Azure, with its steel roof panel brazed onto the existing reinforced convertible platform. It is heavy, yes, but it's also unyieldingly stiff and provides a base for precision control of the suspension systems. This is almost certainly the last iteration of the big cars that were initially created under Vickers ownership, but from conversations with Bentley staff, we have the impression that there will be new V-8-powered cars in the future. Those cars will have a more modern electronic architecture (the parking brake is still mechanical, unlike those of many European midrange family sedans) and much lighter and stronger body/chassis structures with better space arrangements.

The Brooklands' cabin is exceptionally comfortable, and all four seats are electrically adjustable. There's ample leg, head, and foot room for six-foot-plus people in the rear, even with the front seats fully aft and down. The comfort extends to the visual and the tactile. Every detail is a pleasure to the touch, and there are no jarring deviations from quality materials that might displease the most critical eye. All the interior brightwork is polished stainless steel, not plated metal. The ergonomics are nothing to get excited about, especially the extraneous starter button, but the whole ensemble is aesthetically satisfying in a sumptuously understated manner.

Indeed, the whole car is satisfying to contemplate. For a couple, this is really the perfect grand tourer. The trunk isn't huge, but it will hold enough luggage for two people. It's easy to imagine wafting from château-hotel to château-hotel, and then perhaps picking up another couple for a run to dinner at a fine restaurant. Ease, refinement, and exclusivity . . . what more could someone with at least a $5 million net worth (which Bentley considers the minimum standing for entry to the Brooklands club) require?

From the centerline of the front wheels rearward, this is a truly beautiful, very slightly old-fashioned, and very British-looking machine. From the wheels forward, it is a bit coarse and carries a few too many sport and racing cues and not quite enough brightwork for anyone who reveres the early-1950s Continental R coupe. As noted, though, almost all of the 550 Brooklands coupes are spoken for. May the owners enjoy having them as much as we enjoyed our drive.

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