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.