BENTLEY ARNAGE R
Roll the clock back to 1996. Your choice in insanely upper-crust motors is limited. Why, there's the aging Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit and its equally decrepit sister, the Bentley Eight. And, er, that's it. Handcrafted cabins bursting with leather and wood can't make up for the fact that these machines are badly outgunned in most other respects by any number of cheaper high-end performance sedans from Germany and Japan. From a technological value standpoint, the case to be made for buying the world's most expensive automobiles is as weak as it ever was.
The Germans can't take all the credit for righting the situation. When Rolls-Royce and Bentley were still glued at the hip, corporate parent Vickers reached deep enough into its piggy bank to launch the Arnage and the Silver Seraph of 1998, huge improvements over their predecessors and some kind of small miracle with all the daunting regulatory, engineering, and cost issues they faced. True, BMW powerplants helped move the new cars into the new century with authority and lower emissions, but it was the redesigned body, penned by Graham Hull at Crewe, that upped the twins' game most, affording much-improved roadholding and, even more important, really good looks. Subsequent revisions to the Arnage body undertaken by Bentley stylist Dirk van Braeckel at Crewe have only made the Arnage even more desirable, as any number of professional athletes and hip-hop stars will be quite pleased to tell you. Bada bling, bada boom.
Smitten by the Bentley but completely overwhelmed by its huge size ten months ago, as I reported in my October 2002 column, it amuses me to report that in this company, the Arnage appears the most modest of citizens, even if it is as large and upright, as brutally fast, and as fond of gasoline as ever. In this group, it is like the nimble harbor tender flanked by a pair of oceangoing vessels. Alone among these cars, it is powered by a V-8 engine, turbocharged, naturally. It's also the only car with a proper British powerplant, its 6.75-liter brontosaurus of an engine being a Volkswagen-financed development of Rolls-Royce's venerable corporate V-8, whose roots can be traced back to the 1960s. Suitably updated and desmogged with Volkswagen's money and engineering expertise, it replaced the BMW powerplants initially installed in the Arnage upon its release in 1998.
The Bentley looks the best. At 5700 pounds, it's no lightweight, but it carries the weight well. And with 400 horsepower and 616 bountiful pound-feet of torque, it lacks for nothing in the forward progress department. At $199,990, the Arnage R we drove is also the cheapest of our test group. A long-wheelbased RL would have afforded our rear-seat companions an additional 9.8 inches of legroom but would cost $256,990, still a bargain in this company, while a $228,990 Arnage T makes do with the shorter wheelbase but gets 450 horsepower and 645 pound-feet of torque.
The R's your bargain ticket and the one we would choose to drive around the French Quarter of New Orleans, the original tight quarters, or any city, for that matter. When attempting to navigate narrow streets, the extra few feet the Rolls or the Maybach occupies as compared with a normal car is an active intrusion upon one's mellow. Trying to park either car in our compact hotel parking lot becomes the worst part of the day, and we start taking taxis. Or the Bentley. Next time, we must bring the chauffeur.