You may recall the story, not so very long ago, of a Swedish motorist who, while driving through Switzerland in his Mercedes SLS, was clocked doing 290km/h on an autoroute restricted to 120. One assumes this flying Swede was unaware of the Swiss abhorrence of speed, which verges upon the pathological – or that even if he were aware, he could not have imagined that by shattering the limit by 170km/h he’d be facing what was probably the biggest ticket in history. For by dint of an extremely complex and upwardly cumulative tariff, his fine worked out at more than US$1 million.
I have no idea how the story ended, but I couldn’t help thinking of him a few weeks ago when, in a parking lot on the edge of Crewe, England, I was handed the key to a Bentley Flying Spur W12 S. Now when it comes to enforcing road regulations, the UK may not be quite so sternly draconian as Switzerland, but with several thousand cameras monitoring British highways and fines ramped radically northwards earlier this year, speeding isn’t exactly encouraged there either. Yet there was I, just about to head off towards Scotland in what I’m pretty sure is the world’s fastest four-door saloon, a car whose maximum speed of 325km/h would likely get me several months (if not years) in jail if I decided to venture anywhere close to it.
I’d actually driven this very same vehicle during a visit to the Bentley factory earlier this year and, in spite of covering no more than 30km in it, was so smitten that I was desperate to try it again. With gloss black replacing chrome for just about every item of exterior jewellery, as well as smoked front- and rear-light lenses, a diffuser and 21-inch directional five-spoke alloys (also black, natch) on lowered, recalibrated suspension, the Spur oozes menace and muscle. In fact, it oozes more of both than you’d imagine a large and elegant luxury limousine would be capable of. Maintaining the threat level at Defcon 2 is the anthracite paintjob, which lends this enormous automobile the inscrutable, minatory and purposeful presence of an armoured car – albeit one that’s unusually posh and rapid.
For its firepower the W12 S relies not on military ordinance, however, but rather a tuned version of the 6-litre, twin-turbo, 12-cylinder motor that’s performed sterling service beneath Bentley bonnets since the first Continental GT rolled out, back in 2003. In essence a pair of narrow-angle V6s sharing a single crankshaft, the W12 has been progressively upgraded so that in this ultra-Spur it produces a maximum output of 626bhp and torque of 820Nm, the latter at a supremely relaxed 2,000rpm. Thus, though the Spur weighs a portly 2,475kg unladen and more like 3 tonnes when loaded up, it will still dash from a standstill to 100km/h in 4.5 seconds, while – as I’ve already indicated – its top whack lies squarely in the realm of supercars. Fortunately, as the engine is fettled with cylinder-deactivation technology, fuel bills need not be quite as ruinous as the above figures might suggest.
As is the case with all Bentleys except the handful of Mulsannes that the company painstakingly hand-builds each year, the Flying Spur W12 S’s monumental power and twist – which is transmitted from the engine via a rapid-shifting eight-speed torque-convertor – is delivered to the tarmac through all its four wheels. Its drivetrain is essentially similar to that of the outgoing, second-generation Continental – meaning it’s now approaching 15 years old – though continual re-engineering since its introduction has ensured that this latest Spur is as fit for purpose as a high-speed cruiser as it ever was.
A central differential generally maintains a front/rear torque split of 40:60, which, by minimising understeer, provides a more classic driving experience, though when traction is compromised, power is fed to each axle as and when required to maximise grip and stability. The ride component of the luxury-express equation, meanwhile, is addressed by a computerised, multi-mode air-suspension system.
Although the China market, which accounts for a significant slice of Flying Spur production, still hasn’t got its head around this concept, Bentleys are designed to be driven as much as to be driven in. Thus the driver’s seat of the W12 S is easily as enticing a spot on which to place your backside as the pair of throne-size chairs in the rear – indeed it’s a good deal more so, as you have a wieldy, Sports Plus steering wheel to play with, as well as the full complement of Mulliner Driving Specification goodies to admire. These include knurled gearshift paddles, drilled alloy pedals and black “engine-spin” aluminium inlays on the fascia – the latter recalling the marque’s extraordinary racing heritage of the 1920s.
But I’m jumping the gun here, as I’ve neglected to mention the satin-soft, diamond-stitched hide in contrasting grey, which is swathed across seats and door panels, and the reflective slab of piano-black veneer that occupies the centre of the fascia. Consciously old school and a deft blend of extravagance and masculinity, the interior is essential to the Spur’s patrician character. Moreover, it’s fabulously comfortable and beautifully tactile, from the huge, spacious and perfectly contoured seat cushions to the exquisitely machined organ-stop vent controls. You want for nothing: digital TV tuner, top-end Naim sound system, WiFi hotspot and champagne cooler with crystal flutes – they’re all here. Enlist the services of Bentley’s Mulliner workshop – naturally even more stratospherically expensive – and the sky’s pretty much the limit when it comes to personalisation.
I expect you’re wondering how the Flying Spur W12 S drives – and a week-long, 1,600km round trip offered every opportunity to find out. It is, of course, ridiculously fast, and with such a reservoir of power and torque available at my right foot, it was a real struggle keeping to the UK’s overall speed limit. At a constant 70mph (113km/h), the W12 is running on half its cylinders, with the tachometer needle hovering just below 2,000rpm. Eighty, which lies at the outer edge of what you can legally get away with, seems a slightly more reasonable gait, but even at that speed the Spur gathers additional momentum with unnerving haste, and that’s just in “normal” mode (Sport is, frankly, deranged). Indeed, so effortless and apparently endless is the power delivery that you find yourself constantly checking the speedo, not to mention scanning the roadside and rear-view mirrors for cops and cameras.
Otherwise (and with the glaring exception of manoeuvring its 5.3-metre length and almost 2-metre width into restricted spaces) being in charge of this magnificent machine was a joy that, on longer acquaintance, soon became an addiction. Both chassis and drivetrain are sublimely refined, the eight-speed shifting intuitively and imperceptibly, and the engine note – except on hard acceleration, when it emits a subdued, woofling roar – barely intruding upon the cabin’s rarefied calm. Even on Britain’s notoriously pitted highways you feel as if you’re floating some way above the road surface, while there’s rarely any sense that the car is at the extremity of its abilities, no matter how quickly you’re going.
So intoxicating was the notion of having such a car at my disposal round-the-clock that I was constantly inventing excuses to drive it, no matter how inappropriate the mission might have been: an “urgent” visit to a pharmacy, perhaps, or something “vital” that I’d neglected to pick up from a supermarket I’d visited only two hours earlier. Even a 15km round trip transporting empty wine bottles to the recycling centre in St Andrews was a
journey to be savoured. So that when I returned the Spur to the Bentley factory, the sense of loss was so acute that, as I forlornly trundled my suitcases across the car park, I could hardly bear to turn around for one final look.
Which is all very well, I hear you say impatiently, but what about the million-dollar question: did you, or did you not, get a speeding ticket? Well, it’s five weeks now since I handed the car back, and I’ve been checking my mail every day. So at this stage, and clearly by some miraculous fluke, I feel pretty confident in saying – I didn’t.