Traveling in a foreign country means quickly reading the signs. Figuring out the cultural nuances, merging with the flow, keeping up with the people. That goes double when the cultural crash course is taking place at 65 mph. Now imagine driving in China. You can't decipher the signs, the traffic flow is a raging torrent, and you're keeping up with people more accustomed to merging into bicycle traffic.
Crash course indeed.
Hyperbole? Try on this scenario: I'm hustling a $256,000 Bentley Flying Spur around a blind corner and find a dump truck parked in my lane. Not just stopped, but parked smack-dab in the center, driver disappeared. So . . . evasive maneuvers! Brakes -- veer into left lane -- blast back on gas -- squirt to the right -- avoid oncoming truck. Wordlessly thank the Crewe-based engineer who stuffed the GT Speed's twin-turbo W-12 into the Flying Spur. Turns out 590 lb-ft of torque isn't overkill after all.
This wasn't the first rude surprise of the day, and it won't be the last. Today's order of business is a 250-mile round trip from Beijing into the Chinese hinterlands, all in the name of shaking down the new car. It's a different luxury sedan than the Continental Flying Spur first released in 2005, having jettisoned its first name to avoid being muddled in with the two-door Continental GT. It looks more modern, has gained more power, and rides more softly. And it's firmly aimed at China's nouveau riche.
It's no lark that Bentley chose to launch the Spur in Beijing. Last year the company sold 2253 cars in China, making it the second-largest market after the Americas. Although GT coupes fly out the doors in Beverly Hills, the Chinese prefer to be driven, so two doors ain't gonna cut it. "Mulsanne and Flying Spur owners in China pretty much have a chauffeur without exception," a Bentley exec tells us. As such, the Spur fits below the more expensive Mulsanne. Flying Spur price in China with import taxes? About $625,000.
Yet the Spur's renewed sense of rear-seat glamour isn't a runaway success. Sure, it allows you to splay out rather splendidly, with 42.2 inches of aft legroom. The privacy shades close quicker than you can say xie xie ("thanks"); acoustic glass and underfloor sound deadening ensure that you can't hear the engine running at idle. The optional Naim stereo system is as crisp as a fall Fuji apple. Leather is plenty lush, the high window ridges handsome.
However, the relatively low roof and high front seatbacks limit views to the outside world. You can get a champagne cooler, oversize screens on the seatbacks, and picnic tables, but these options feel desultory, empty of excitement. The rich have seen it all before, and for their sad sakes one wishes that Bentley had pushed the boundaries. The car functions as a traveling Wi-Fi hot spot, but any old Audi can do that. There's also a new rear remote that looks like a smartphone, but its practicality is limited, because it commands items such as the climate control, GPS, stereo, and video. How about connecting the seatback screens to your laptop, which could also do with its own docking station?
If the rear isn't exactly innovative, the exterior makes the grade, with a slippery roofline and a sloping deck that's got a touch of fastback attitude. New character lines glitz up the profile, and the fascia gains a bottom grille running its full width. (All that glinting mesh makes you want to touch it, but the mystique dies when you realize it's plastic. By the way, the tooth fairy is actually your mom.)
The Spur's best bits are deeper than the skin, most notably the mastodon of an engine, the 6.0-liter twin-turbo W-12. With 616 hp, 590 lb-ft of torque, and all-wheel drive, the Bentley will gallop from a dead stop to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds. That's the true power of wealth, especially considering the car's hefty curb weight of 5451 pounds. The on-demand passing potency is a quality that comes into focus time after time on China's secondary roads, where the disparity of vehicle speeds is as great as the wealth differential. (Yes, that guy building a road is using a pickax and a wheelbarrow.)
At 208.5 inches, the Spur is two inches longer than a Mercedes-Benz S-class and three inches wider, but the flat hood allows you to see where the front fenders are, which is especially helpful in thick traffic, a situation in which Flying Spurs will spend most of their moving life -- in China, anyhow. The bottle-rocket propulsion means you can leap into openings almost as quickly as they develop. The ZF eight-speed automatic shifts smoothly, but sudden power surges require a kickdown that causes unseemly weight transfers. It isn't the chauffeur's fault, really.
We escape the congestion of Beijing on thick ribbons of freeway asphalt that seem as if they were poured yesterday (they might have been). The speed limit is 120 kph (75 mph), but nobody else is driving that fast. The Spur barrels through. Top speed is 200 mph, and it could run at 150 mph all day long -- or at least until the tank runs dry. The new car is 13.5 percent more efficient than the outgoing model, says Bentley, but you'll still see only 20 mpg on the highway and 12 mpg in town.
This doesn't bode well for Beijing's pollution, which sometimes literally goes off the charts, occasioning ex-pats to call it "Airmageddon." (It even has its own Twitter handle, @BeijingAir). The atmosphere gets less caustic as we steer into the countryside and higher elevations. Smooth tarmac is replaced by rough, pebbly stuff; two lanes, no shoulders. The suspension doesn't seem to notice. Spring rates and antiroll bars have been softened by ten percent or more, and even sizable road bumps reach occupants only in the most vague way.
The road has lots of curves as it threads through villages. The Bentley's steering weights up just right on long corners, which is good because there's plenty of body lean and you don't want midcorner corrections. Nonetheless, quick moves are necessary. Our count of items parked/left/abandoned on the road: wheelbarrows (three), metal trash cans (many), a sleeping dog (one, which we let lie), large trucks (three), a tied-up donkey (one), a mound of drying grain (one, surrounded by cinder blocks), motorbikes and bicycles (innumerable), and a tire with wheel and axle attached (one).
There's more than a hint of absurdity to driving the Spur around China's countryside. It's hard to imagine that it's a trip many city-dwelling Bentley owners will take. But, as proved over 250 hard miles, if you've got the necessary 3.85 million yuan, the Spur is capable. Welcome to the new world economy.
5 Rules of the Chinese Road
1. Stopping means you're dead in the water, so don't.
2. Lanes? What are lanes? And what is this strange stalk on the side of my steering column?
3. I'm responsible for the front half of my vehicle. Anything behind that is someone else's problem.
4. Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Just don't make eye contact with them; they will dash out of the way.
5. Black Audis are often government officials. Don't piss them off.
How Much Is that Car In the Window?
"I saw the 360 Spider in the window of the Beverly Hills Ferrari dealership and bought it on the spot," Li Yifei says. "It took a year to be delivered to Beijing, and I paid a million yuan import tax." She smiles warmly. "It was worth every bit of trouble." If you're wondering about the lives of Chinese luxury-car buyers, look no further than Li, a hedge-fund manager who previously ran MTV China. She and her husband each have chauffeurs, and there are five cars in the household, including a Mercedes-Benz S-class and ML350 so they can circumvent rules that allow only cars with certain license-plate numbers to be driven on any given day.
Li deems Bentley and Rolls-Royce as brands aimed at the nouveau riche and "old people." She's eyeing a convertible Aston Martin but says, "I take my Ferrari to the racetrack on weekends. You can't go fast in town, and when you're stuck in traffic, people gape at you."
Signs of Beijing's burgeoning car trade, especially its more recent embrace of sports cars, are everywhere, including a Ferrari/Maserati dealership and a Porsche store clustered around a racetrack near the airport. On the day we visit there's a Maserati customer event at the track, with GranTurismos buzzing through a slalom course and a vintage Quattroporte on display. A shop selling only Ford Mustangs has a Shelby GT500 front and center. (Few Chinese drive manuals.) The price with taxes is about 1.8 million yuan, or $300,000, the salesman says, handing me a brochure hopefully. You have to really want that pony car.
I head to the nearby Audi dealership, one of nineteen in Beijing. The company got into the Chinese market early and became the government car of choice, selling a Chinese-made A6 sedan with a long wheelbase. It's usually painted black. The cheapest compact you can buy in China is about $5000, and Audi's least expensive A1 starts at $36,000. The twelve-cylinder A8 is $400,000. The dealership's general manager, Wang Xin, says the black A6L is his best-selling model, even to nongovernment buyers. "It confers power and status," he says. Like at home, customers come in, kick the tires, and haggle. Wang smiles. "Nobody wants to pay full price."
2014 Bentley Flying Spur
|Price:||$205,825/$256,235 (base/as tested)|
|Engine:||6.0L twin-turbo W-12, 616 hp, 590 lb-ft|
|EPA mileage:||12/20 mpg|