2007 Bentley Azure

Like a priceless Louis XV cabinet or a rare Biedermeier cupboard, Bentley convertibles have always been top-shelf items built to satisfy the self-indulgent demands of the well-to-do. True to this tradition, the new 2007 edition of the classic Azure is a devilishly expensive and supremely luxurious land yacht. Mechanically speaking, the Azure is basically a two-door Arnage with a power-operated canvas top. What makes it special are old-world ingredients such as rear-wheel drive, a 6.8-liter twin-turbo OHV V-8, and a bespoke interior.

The styling of the new Azure is as textbook conservative as that of a London taxi or Buckingham Palace. But the magic is in the proportions: an imposing body that measures almost eighteen feet between bumpers; an in-your-face mesh grille flanked by two expressionless headlamps; a hood vast enough to hide a miniature nuclear power plant; and a stately rear overhang. The cabin lacks modernities such as Mercedes-Benz SLK-style neck-warming vents, so the four occupants must rely entirely on the windshield and on the tall side windows to brave the elements. In appearance and approach, this new Bentley seems like a leftover from the late 1980s, but the driving experience most certainly isn't.

The previous Azure was a surprisingly quick car--at least in Mulliner spec--considering its castlelike weight and aerodynamics, but its handling and roadholding left much to be desired. In the new car, steering inputs are translated without delay, the brakes are properly boosted, directional stability is solid, and the chassis has shed its eiderdown indifference. True, the Azure still rolls like a barge when pushed hard, and its 645 lb-ft of maximum torque may burn rubber at any time, but there is no doubt that the 450-hp Azure has matured in attitude and ability.

A six-speed manu-matic will help the massive Azure cover 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds on its way to a top speed of 168 mph. According to Bentley chairman Franz-Josef Paefgen, however, the Azure is "not about smoky launches or lurid power oversteer. On the contrary, it is a gentle giant, an effortless cruiser, a humble lesson in presence and prowess."

No more than 400 Azures are to be built annually, and most of them will surely spend their pampered lives wafting from one sumptuous estate to the other, with stops at the marina, the country club, and the helipad in between. For a mere $338,000, one of these timeless tokens of privilege could be yours.

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