One nice thing about driving the $199,990 Bentley Arnage R sedan is that other drivers quickly make way for it. Just signal for a lane change and watch following cars drop back to let you have plenty of room to maneuver.
That's almost amazing, with today's congested traffic and impatient drivers. Some drivers, perhaps hoping to see a celebrity, glanced to see who was at the wheel of my test 400-horsepower Arnage R, which cost an eye-opening $217,879 with options and a $5,400 gas-guzzler tax.
At that price, potential owners might want to ask themselves if they'd really want to park the car in a public lot without a guard protecting it from door-bangers.
The Arnage R replaces the similar-looking Red Label model and has smooth but conservative styling; it could be mistaken for a big foreign luxury car from the 1970s. But there's something special about an auto that generally calls for 22 weeks of hand assembly to build. People immediately pick up on the car's lordly presence.
"Bentley makes one of the world's fastest cars on the slowest production line,'' quipped Bentley spokesman John Crawford. "There are only 39 dealers in North America.''
The mass-produced Mercedes-Benz S-Class is more modern and technically advanced than the limited-production 2003 Arnage R, at less than half the price. But it just isn't in the same class.
The rear-drive Arnage R benefits from the stiffer chassis given the higher-performance 450-horsepower Bentley Arnage T. Chassis parts use Space Age adhesive bonding instead of welds. Softer springs are used for a more supple ride. A new rear anti-sway bar and thicker front bar enhance the surprisingly good handling, which is helped by a standard traction control system. New hydraulic engine and gearbox mounts make the smooth car even smoother.
The 212-inch-long Arnage R weighs a staggering 5,699 pounds. That weight can be felt even when the car is slowed a little, although the brakes are plenty strong. Twin turbochargers help its big 6.75-liter, hand-assembled V-8 produce 400 horsepower and locomotive-style torque.
The result is that this Bentley hits 60 mph in 5.9 seconds and tops out at 155 mph, with a discreet rear spoiler helping high-speed stability. The pushrod V-8 has been used since 1970, but has been considerably updated and has way-cool oversized dual exhaust outlets. I drove a turbocharged Bentley sedan with a single turbocharger 10 years ago and it lacked the responsiveness provided by twin turbos.
However, the Arnage R four-speed automatic transmission occasionally downshifts at about the same time the engine gets turbocharger boost. The result is jerks, lurches and slight acceleration lags. That flaw wouldn't be acceptable in a mass-produced Mercedes or BMW, but one somehow expects the Arnage R to be a bit eccentric in its operation. You can't really judge this car in strictly practical terms.
The penalty for the weight is an estimated 9.2 mpg in the city. But highway economy is a decent 19.1 mpg. With its 26.4-gallon tank, the Arnage R thus has a long highway cruising range at 65-70 mph. But drivers must be careful; the Bentley cruises so easily at 85-90 mph that a driver feels as if it's moving at 65 mph, and you won't get 19 mpg at 85.
There's good room for four tall occupants in a British club atmosphere. They sit high in comfortable chairlike seats in a plush wood-and-leather interior, where the finest materials are used. Bentley is one of few automakers left that designs and makes its seats in-house. The interior is pretty quiet, except for some tire and wind noise.
The retro-style gauges, which have the Bentley name on them, look as if from a classic high-performance sedan or sports car. But the ones near the middle of the dashboard aren't angled toward the driver and thus are hard to read quickly. Also, rear cupholders seem rather flimsy.
There's nothing ordinary about the Arnage R--and that also goes for its options; the ones on my test car ranged from $2,067 veneered swing-down picnic tables that deftly lowered from the rear of the front seats to two custom umbrellas ($222) put at the rear of the large luggage compartment.
The Bentley has all the standard comfort and convenience items expected in a high-end luxury car and can be factory customized with equipment not on the official options list.
For example, while my car's interesting dark color was "Meteor,'' two Middle East princesses ordered their Bentley's paint to match sequins from their evening bags and shoes. Bentley didn't blink--it put the sequins under a spectograph to come up with an appropriate paint color.
As for safety, the Arnage R has side air bags for outboard occupants and full-length air curtains running along the length of the cabin on each side.
My test car had big $2,933 six-spoke chrome wheels with Pirelli P-Zero high-speed tires. They suit Bentley's sporty reputation. Walter Owen Bentley, who founded the Bentley operation in 1919, set out to make what he called "a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.''
One might not have expected the early big Bentleys to win races, but those muscular cars nearly dominated the famous 24-hour Le Mans sports car race in France, including four straight wins there from 1927 to '30. (Bentley returned to Le Mans in this decade, finishing a solid third place in 2001 and fourth in 2002 against more experienced race teams.)
The early Bentleys were raced by a small group of wealthy, flamboyant, champagne-swilling entrepreneurs called "The Bentley Boys.'' The race wins, notoriety and wealth of Bentley owners and stirring experience of driving a Bentley gave the car a legendary reputation. Even James Bond drove a classic Bentley in the early Bond books, although the first Bond movies put him in a modern Aston Martin.
Bentley always was in and out of the financial soup in the 1920s, and even major aid from Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato, who became company chairman, couldn't make the automaker profitable. It was swallowed by Rolls-Royce in 1931, although Walter Owen Bentley stayed on until 1934 to keep the Bentley operation sporty. He was patron of the Bentley Drivers Club until his death in 1971.
Bentleys were based on a Rolls-Royce chassis for years, but with an emphasis on power, performance and handling. Thus it was said: "One is driven in a Rolls-Royce, but one drives a Bentley.''
The 1952-55 Bentley R-Type Continental coupe had gorgeous styling, superb handling and could blast along all day in Europe at three-figure speeds. The 120-mph model was the world's fastest four-seater and helped re-establish Bentley's pre-World War II high-performance reputation.
As things have turned out, Volkswagen is making Bentleys and BMW is producing Rolls-Royces. However, Bentleys still are made in Crewe, England, where the car has been built since 1946 and where skills to make it have been handed down through generations.
Say, does James Bond know about the Bentley Arnage R? 2003 Bentley Arnage
$199,990 without options and gas guzzler and freight charges.
Posh. Warp-speed acceleration. Nimble. Good highway cruising range.
Very big and heavy. Occasionally jerky automatic transmission. Low city economy. Would you want to park it in a public lot?