When You Want to Whisper "Class"

The Bentley Arnage has power and precision galore

The top brass at Rolls-Royce & Bentley Motor Cars insist their Bentleys are not pretentious cars for the ridiculously wealthy. They are sporty luxury cars that power down the highway with brute motoring force, rather than the soft ride and styling elegance of a Rolls, offers Alasdair M. Stewart, president and CEO. Says Stewart: "If you want to make a statement, buy a Rolls-Royce."

Still, after four days driving a $211,000 Bentley Arnage Red Label around Detroit, I had the uneasy feeling of being overdressed. In a nation of relentlessly dull Ford Tauruses and Toyota Camrys, the Bentley stands out like fine wool in a mob of polyester. The other problem is that you live in fear of incidental scratches and door dings. A detail job just to take out the minor scratches that come from everyday parking costs $180--more than twice the price for normal cars.

But if you have to ask what anything about the Arnage costs, you can't afford it. Of course, you get quite a bit for its princely sum. It takes a month to hand-build a Bentley on the company's assembly line in Crewe, England, which moves slower than three feet per minute. That attention to detail gives the car its amazing precision. No squeaks and rattles here.

Inside, Bentley uses the best materials it can find. In my test vehicle, champagne-colored burr oak surrounds the entire dashboard and the center console, where the stereo and environmental controls are located. The wood is custom-finished for each car over 17 days by a group of craftsmen at the Crewe plant. The buttercream-colored leather in my car took about 12 days to custom cut and sew onto the seat frames. The end result is ornate. Leather covers everything, and the burr oak runs across the instrument panel, circles the old-fashioned gauges, and continues through the center console.

SENSUOUS. The seats are as comfy as a leather recliner--though I didn't think they had much on the posh seats you can get in more common luxury sedans, such as the Lexus LS430 or Infiniti Q45. Both of those cars also have reclining seats for rear passengers, and back seats in the Lexus vibrate, giving passengers a nice massage. You don't get those kinds of gadgets, nor even the latest in audio, on an Arnage.

The Arnage has power that lesser luxury cars don't: a massive 6.75-liter V8 engine with a turbocharger. The 400-horsepower engine can push its 5,850 pounds of bulk from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in 5.9 seconds. For its size, the Bentley is very quick and very smooth. There is no lag between hitting the gas pedal and powering ahead, as you often find in turbocharged cars.

The Arnage exterior stands out even though its styling is subdued when compared with the more classic lines of its Rolls-Royce cousins. The car is a bit boxy from the side view. But through the windshield, long, sensuous curves reach out to the highway. The chrome grille and 18-inch chrome wheels give it a sporty look. The Arnage may not have the head-turning panache of a $360,000 Rolls-Royce Corniche, but it oozes class and has a strong presence.

The Arnage is a blend of supreme luxury and craftsmanship combined with speed and power. Within two years, that rare mix may become more affordable. When the company splits from Rolls-Royce in 2003--Volkswagen takes Bentley; BMW gets Rolls--a $150,000, mid-sized Bentley will hit the market. Stewart says Bentley will modernize its Crewe plant to crank out at least 8,000 of the smaller Bentleys a year, vs. current global production of about 1,200 of the Arnage, the Azure, and Continental T cars annually now. Let's hope speeding up the assembly line won't water down Bentley's integrity. The auto business needs a gold standard, and Bentley is it.

By David Welch

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