First Drive: 2020 Bentley Flying Spur
Bentley, celebrating its 100th anniversary, is pulling out all the stops with a looker
MONTE CARLO, MONACO—In 1924, a Canadian, John Duff, won the 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race driving a Bentley. I was thinking of him a few weeks ago when I flew here to Monte Carlo, a neighbourhood in the tiny tax haven called Monaco, to drive the 2020 Bentley Flying Spur.
Bentley, celebrating its 100th anniversary, is pulling out all the stops in its quest to prove to the automotive world that it is superior in every way, but particularly in design and technology.
Before I tell you about Duff, and Monaco, let me give you the verdict on the Flying Spur, what the automaker calls the third generation of its luxury four-door Grand Tourer: it is perfect, or as close to perfect as you can get in a car. But here’s the rub (there’s always one of those, isn’t there?).
This car will cost you close to $300,000 to buy. (That, incidentally, had many of my automotive-journalist colleagues suddenly coming down with a severe case of the guilts. Not me. I was in Monaco, and what would you expect? Nissan Micras, or Smart cars? Don’t be silly. People who live in Monaco drive Lamborghinis and Maserati GranTurismos. That’s life.)
I will break down that $300,000 figure for you as we make our way through this story, but the bottom line is this: for that kind of money, this car — hell, any car — had better be perfect.
But first, John Duff and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Duff always called himself a Canadian, because his parents were Canadians, but his link to this country is tenuous, at best. He was born in China — mom and dad, originally from the Hamilton area, were merchants there — and eventually went into the motor trade in England, but then moved to the United States. Although he entered one Indianapolis 500 (in 1926, finishing ninth), he gave up racing to teach Hollywood stars of the day (Douglas Fairbanks and that crowd) how to fence. He died in a riding accident and is buried in England.
A Canadian? I guess so. I mean, you can’t call him Chinese. But still …
In any event, when the first Le Mans 24 was held in 1923, Duff, who was living in England, entered a Bentley he owned. He asked Frank Charles Clement, who had been hired as a test driver by company owner W.O. Bentley, to co-drive, thus making the two of them the original “Bentley Boys.” They finished fourth in that inaugural race, but returned the next year to win it. With other drivers — Woolf (Babe) Barnato, Dr. J. Dudley (Benjy) Benjafield and Sir Henry (Tim) Birkin among them — Bentley went on to score four straight Le Mans race victories between 1927 and 1930.
Back then, Bentley was a rocket. It still is. I had the opportunity to take the Flying Spur for a test drive through the hills of the south of France north of Monaco, and I was amazed at how speedy and agile it was. The 6.0-litre W12 TSI is the most advanced 12-cylinder engine in the world, the company says. It has two injection systems, twin-scroll turbochargers, a dual-mass flywheel and variable displacement, which adds up to a 15 per cent improvement in efficiency from previous engines.
That might sound like Latin (I have yet to pass Grade 10 Latin, by the way) but here’s what it means: if you want to pass a car on those hilly, twisty roads (where Monaco’s Princess Grace met her end, incidentally), all you have to do is press down ever so slightly on the throttle. Do that, and you will shoot past that car in front of you in a blink. If you floor it, you will sail off into eternity. Guaranteed.
This is because that 12-cylinder produces 626 horsepower and 664 lb.-ft. of torque. (ED. NOTE: Wow!) The engine is mated to a dual-clutch, eight-speed transmission that boasts instantaneous shifting in sport mode and refined, seamless shifting in comfort mode. You can go from zero to 100 km/h in 3.7 seconds, and top speed is 333 km/h.
As well as being swift, the Bentley is also a pleasure to drive. New, all-wheel steering, reduced steering effort (the power steering could react to a feather) improved low-speed manoeuvring, greater agility and Bentley Dynamic Ride, which is enhanced handling and stability (the world’s first 48V electric anti-roll system guarantees that), add up to effortless time spent behind the wheel.
As well as being one of the most powerful cars I have ever driven, the all-new 2020 Bentley Flying Spur is a looker, in that it exudes sophistication and wealth. One example: the “Flying B” hood ornament rises (or lowers, depending on whether the car is going or not) from a compartment in the hood just above the nose badge. This is to discourage the riff-raff from ripping it off as they walk past while the car is parked. Genius, I say.
Now, before getting to actually drive the car, I had the pleasure of riding in the back seat of one after a chauffeur met me at the airport in nearby Nice, France, and said he’d been assigned to deliver me to the hotel. I accepted his offer with pleasure, because if you’re going to go to Monaco, dahlings, one must always be chauffeured, mustn’t one? But this also let me give the car the once-over.
When you get into the back seat of the Bentley, you sink into the leather, which is everywhere, not just on the seats. The plush carpeting is worthy of your living-room rug. There is a 12.3-inch touchscreen — high def., natch — on the centre console and the wood on the dash shines like a mirror. The back seats have removable touch screens — tablets — that let you do all sorts of things to make yourself comfy, like adjusting the temperature, or the blinds to keep the sun out of your eyes.
Once we arrived in the principality, that Bentley fit right in among the Ferraris and Rolls-Royces that were parked in a special valet lot outside the Hotel de Paris, where I was billeted.
Now, Monaco is full of very unhappy-looking people. The residents walk around with their little dogs on leashes looking miserable. I guess when you have all the money in the world, you don’t have a lot to look forward to.
The tourists all seemed happy, though. They wandered the narrow streets looking into the windows of shops at merchandise they couldn’t afford to buy — I counted six Gucci stories in four blocks and I lost count of the number of Pradas and Celines — and ran the gauntlet of security personnel stationed outside the famous Casino de Monte-Carlo who turned away people who looked like they didn’t belong. (Actually, if you really look out of place, the police will escort you to the border with France and suggest you not come back. Really.)
Those who managed to pass muster with casino security then had to purchase an admission ticket costing 17 Euros (about $25) just to get into the place, never mind doing any gambling once inside. (I don’t imagine James Bond had to buy a ticket, do you? And I know that Prince Albert (Monaco’s reigning monarch) sure doesn’t. He drops into the casino two or three times a week to try his luck, and it makes you wonder: does he ever lose?)
The “principality” is built into the side of an escarpment in the Alps bordering the French Riviera (if, while on foot, you want to go up from one street to the next, there are flights of stairs or, if you want to go all the way to the top street, an elevator) and has nowhere to go to grow. So they are starting to build out into the Mediterranean. Not over the Sea, into it; they are dumping landfill in which to lay foundations. There is no beach, so unless you can afford to gamble, or own a yacht in the famous harbour that you can take out for a sail or ride, there is really nothing to do there.
There is a traffic jam into Monaco from Nice every morning between 7:30 a.m. and 8, and every afternoon going out of Monaco between 5 p.m. and 5:30. These vehicles contain the people who work in Monaco and who cannot afford to live there. Whether it’s Toronto or New York (where almost everybody who works in Manhattan lives in New Jersey), it seems the world-over that affordability is an issue.
I, of course, walked the Grand Prix track. When I was there, traffic was moving both ways and everything was pretty normal, but at the end of May, when the world’s most famous Formula One GP is held there, or reportedly any time of the year Prince Andrew feels like shutting down a street for whatever, mobility can be a problem.
Having watched F1 cars race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Watkins Glen, Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant, Circuit Gilles-Villenevue, Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Tex., but never in Monaco, I was amazed at how short and how tight the street circuit really is. The run up the hill (longer and steeper than it appears, as I found out to my chagrin) from the Sainte-Dévote corner (named after the patron saint of Monaco, and where there is a little church) and through the tunnel underneath the Fairmont hotel are the only two places where the drivers can get out of second gear; the rest of the time they are in second or even first gear and it’s gas-brake-gas-brake ad nauseam.
This trip was the first time I had been to Monaco, and I felt let down. To be honest, I expected more. But the Bentley Flying Spur more than made up for my disappointment. This car, more than any other I have been in, offers sports-car agility and limousine refinement in the same package. When I think about it, I keep returning to the experience in the back seat. When I was being chauffeured into — and, later, out of — the principality, I loved looking up at the panoramic glass sunroof that stretches the full length of the cabin. And three audio systems are available, including one from Danish high-end electronics manufacturer Bang & Olufsen that has 16 speakers.
And there’s more I have to tell you about when it comes to state-of-the-art technology. Driver-assistance systems include blind-spot warning, traffic assist and night-vision infrared camera while connectivity features include a Wi-Fi hot spot that helps everybody in the car keep in touch with what’s going on in the outside world. Having said that, if you’re riding around in a Bentley, who cares what’s happening elsewhere, right?
Bentley, at present, only sells about 250 cars each year in Canada. There are four dealerships — Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto — and they are looking to build on that number. I can’t speak for the other three Canadian cities, but I can tell you this: except for Los Angeles, Toronto — the GTA, really — boasts more high-end luxury-car purchases than any other market in North America. There’s a lot of money here.
On the plane to Japan last Sunday, I read the real estate sections of three of the four Toronto papers, and when you came to high-end properties, only one was listed for less than a million dollars, and that was a one-bedroom unit in a downtown highrise condominium building. The rest — Rosedale, Forest Hill, Caledon estates, Hockley Valley — were all listed for between $3 million and $7.5 million. Those are the folks who can afford Bentleys.
The MSRP, depending on the geographic location, starts at about $240,000, but once you start adding in options, plus sales taxes, freight, licensing and so-on, you’re soon at or over $300,000. But if you’re fortunate enough to live in one of those posh, tony neighbourhoods I mentioned, the 2020 Bentley Flying Spur would look just swell in your driveway.
They’re taking orders now for delivery early in the new year.
Norris McDonald is a former Star editor who is a current freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @NorrisMcDonald2