Before setting off on a drive through the French Alps with the third-generation Bentley Flying Spur, I asked myself, who would want to take a 2.4-tonne luxury car through a narrow mountain pass?
While many of Bentley's customers prefer to ride in the back, the company has always been a more sporting brand than its primary competitor, Rolls-Royce, so the engineering team has to create a car that is as good for drivers as it is for passengers. What immediately impressed me about riding in the back was the space. The new MSB platform it shares with the Bentley Continental Coupe and Porsche Panamera only adds five millimetres to the length, yet it squeezes in an extra 130mm in the rear seat area because the front axle has moved forward to give it a longer wheelbase.
A neat addition inspired by requests from Saudi women after the model's last facelift is a detachable touchscreen remote control in the back that operates all the major functions, including the powered side and rear blinds, climate control, rear sunroof, seat massage, mood lighting and even the retractable Flying B mascot on the bonnet. That's right: Bentley has a mascot that lowers into the grille and can be operated via a remote control in the rear.
The seats cosset you in diamond quilted, fluted leather – a material also used in the doors – allowing you to recline and look at the stars through the panoramic glass roof. The interior has a Wi-Fi hotspot and a 16-speaker Bang & Olufsen surround system. Our test car also featured a small fridge.
The driver's area is similar to that in the Continental Coupe, offering a new rotating centre console that flips to reveal either a 31-centimetre HD infotainment screen, a trio of analogue gauges or simply the continuation of the veneer dashboard. A new interior design language is introduced while retaining the three staples of timber, polished metals and leather with a modern twist.
Externally, only a few hints to the previous model remain, with the most notable feature being its grille with vertical bars, which is 200mm wider than before. This visually distances the Flying Spur from the Continental Coupe and links it to the other saloon in Bentley's range, the Mulsanne.
A knurled metal effect used inside for vents and other touchpoints transitions outside courtesy of cut crystal-look LED matrix headlights and wrap-around taillights, while 21-inch and optional 22-inch alloy wheels complete the look.
Driving the Flying Spur on those narrow Alpine roads was an eye-opener, as the car felt smaller and negotiated the twists and turns easily, thanks largely to its four-wheel steering. Having the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to the front at parking pace and in parallel at touring speeds effectively shortens the wheelbase, making it manoeuvre like a smaller car.
It's also paired to a new all-wheel-drive system that uses an electronically controlled clutch that diverts torque to the front axle. The split sends up to 480Nm to the front in Comfort mode and 280Nm in Sport. This is connected to a 48-volt anti-roll bar and three-chamber air springs that cushion the ride inside while tightening it up outside.
The driving experience is light-years ahead of the previous version that's been around since 2005, not only because the latest generation includes 10 new driver assist features, such as night vision with infrared camera, traffic assist, blind spot warning, heads-up display and 360-degree visual surveillance, but also due to its stiffer aluminium composite chassis that is 38 kilograms lighter than before.
Under the bonnet is Bentley's familiar six-litre, W12-cylinder engine that now pumps out 626bhp and 900Nm, mated to a dual-clutch eight-speed automatic transmission. Bentley says its top speed is 333 kilometres per hour and we can vouch for the claim that it takes 3.8 seconds to go from zero to 100kph.
Essentially, the Bentley Flying Spur is an engineering tour de force that has crossed the divide between being the ultimate chauffeur-driven limousine and a car you want to drive yourself. Deliveries will begin in the region from early next year.