Bentley Spur truly flies

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Cynics might call this the Hollywood personal-transportation plan: Prius C by day, to show you’re green, Bentley by night when no one is looking. If you’re lucky enough to live where “spirited” driving is still possible, you’ll be astonished and thrilled by the new Flying Spur; if not, you’ll have to settle for immoderate luxury. Keep the Prius for runs to the supermarket—although it is surprisingly comfortable on the highway too. Author photo

Stepping from a Prius C, the smallest Toyota hybrid, directly into a Bentley Flying Spur is a surreal experience. It means going from a 1.5-liter engine with four cylinders (and electric motor) to a 6.0-liter with 12 cylinders (and two turbochargers)—or, in starker terms, from 99 horsepower to 616. Both cars have four doors, but the Bentley stretches 17-plus feet and weighs 2.75 tons, which dwarfs the Prius by more than four feet and a ton and a half.

Inside, it’s plastic and cloth on the one hand, Bavarian leather, veneered hardwood, machined aluminum and a Breitling clock on the other. Think Piper Cub vs. Boeing Business Jet.

The sticker price soars from $23,000 to $230,000. Fuel efficiency plummets from 50 MPG to 15. Acceleration and top speed more than double. It’s hard to imagine a large sedan doing 200 miles per hour, but that’s what this Flying Spur is capable of—after blitzing to 60 MPH in a tick over four seconds. (Here insert that overworked adjective “awesome.”)

For 2014, the Flying Spur was significantly re-worked. A 500HP V-8 is available, but the 12-cylinder engine’s output was pumped up from 552 horsepower, and the three-way (normal, sport, manual) transmission gained two extra gears, for eight in all.

A new exhaust system and acoustic insulation made the car even quieter. The full-time all-wheel drive now favors the rear wheels, but up to 85 percent of the power can go aft or 65 percent to the front, depending upon conditions.

With more power usually comes more buttoning-down, but this time the engineers went the other way. The new Flying Spur is more softly sprung than before, and its anti-roll bars have been detuned slightly. At peace, the car glides on its computer-controlled air suspension. When it’s time to fly, adjustable dampers let the driver stiffen the ride to suit. (If speeds reach stratospheric levels, the computer may ask for more pressure in the 21-inch Pirelli P Zero tires.) The steering is nicely calibrated and tightens up with speed. The brake pedal sinks a bit before anything happens, but the bite is positive and easy to manage at high velocity.

The Flying Spur got more handsome too. The two-door Continental is still the looker in the three-model Bentley lineup, but now the family-size Spur comes closer, neatly bridging the gap between the personal coupe and the chauffeur’s ultra-opulent Mulsanne sedan.

With its emphasis on performance and comfort rather than digital infotainment and gadgetry, the Flying Spur seems deceptively old-school—the school of Bigger is Better, at that. Mash the throttle at any speed and get shattering acceleration. Under pressure, the new transmission shifts not seamlessly but positively. When the suspension is braced up, potholes aren’t ignored, they’re pounded flat. There’s no engine stop-start in traffic, nor do half the cylinders go to sleep when the car is cruising.

Although there’s plenty of computer power and automation aboard, the Flying Spur is not a whirring nest of algorithms and LEDs, it is emphatically a machine—one designed to punch large holes in the sound barrier and wage naval warfare on distant seas. There’s something almost steampunk about it, as though a young Queen Victoria had come back as Wonder Woman.

The Flying Spur is heroically good at its mission, but the mission is evolving. Bentley produces so few cars (10,000 last year, while Toyota made 10 million) that their tailpipe emissions hardly matter on the global scale, but appearances do matter. Even rich people are developing environmental sensitivities.

The subcompact Toyota is, in some ways, the more technologically advanced car. Managing the interaction between gas and electricity is a complicated job, one that the buzzing, whining, still slightly awkward Prius does well. If the Prius is our future and the Flying Spur one of the best expressions of days going by, where does this leave the modern hyper-luxury car buyer?

Fear not. Last month Bentley unwrapped its first hybrid, a three-ton gas-electric Mulsanne sedan that accelerates as madly as this Flying Spur while traveling up to 30 miles on electrons alone and reducing its CO2 emissions by a whopping 70 percent.

Bentley will make sure we can always have our luxury-performance cake, and then eat it with a clear conscience. If we can afford it.

—Silvio Calabi