Once Again, a Bentley Worthy of the Name

Volkswagen's infusion pays off in renewed luxury

I'm coasting along in the all-new Bentley Arnage T sports sedan, past the cherry orchards of northern Michigan. Rolls-Royce/Bentley North America President Alasdair Stewart is in the car, and we're talking about cows. Bentley's leather supplier--a once-renowned British furbisher of fine hides called Connolly Leather--has fallen into bankruptcy. Its financial woes recently started showing up in the quality of its skins. Now, Stewart says, Bentley is scouring Europe for a new leather shop. The company wants a supplier from northern Europe, where fewer bugs mean fewer tiny bite marks on the hides. It also prefers one that doesn't use barbed wire fences, which might scratch the skins.

Such refinements are the things people at Bentley worry about. With the brand new $230,000 Arnage T, Bentley is paying even closer attention to the minute details. I noticed the improvements over every other Bentley model when I opened the door to the T, a brawny cruiser designed to have the luxury of a conventional Bentley and the performance of a sports car. When I grabbed the gleaming chrome door handle, I felt machined bumps, or knurls, that provide extra grip. Once inside, I grabbed the leather-wrapped gear-shifter knob, then slid my hand to the thimble-size knurled knob beside it that adjusts the side mirrors. It's a level of detail you won't find even in a high-end Mercedes.

The Arnage T is comfortable and well-styled. As I sat back in the big, black leather seats, I had the feeling of being on a throne. It's no wonder: Bentley has about 100 workers in its trim shop examining the 15 hides--about 46 square feet of leather--that go into each car. Even the ceiling is lined with perforated leather. On the dash and around the gauges, though, Bentley uses machined aluminum stamped with dime-size circles to give the car a modern look.

The T has a great ride that is both sporty and luxurious. To start it, you stick the key in the ignition and push a button next to the shifter--race-car style. The engine fires up with a soft, yet authoritative rumble. The 6.75-liter V-8 engine thrusts the car's 5,800 pounds forward with ease, thanks to a pair of twin turbo boosters. Bentley calls the T an "out-and-out sports car," and it's tough to argue. It can hit 60 mph in 5.5 seconds--about the same as a Porsche 911. The car tops out at 168 mph. Bentley engineers spent extra time stiffening the suspension, so the car can dive into turns without leaning hard.

The Arnage T is part of Bentley's ongoing efforts to make its cars more luxurious. Despite the brand's prestige, its lineup has needed an upgrade for some time. For example, the base-model Arnage R, and even the T, have the same plastic buttons for environmental controls that BMW puts in its $30,000 3-series sedans.

Then there's the flagship Azure. After the Arnage T, I drove the $350,000 Azure convertible and saw why Bentley went the extra mile on its new cars. Accessories such as the lamb's wool floor mats are swanky, but other touches are deplorably anachronistic. The arms for the turn signals and cruise control are plastic, and the stereo looks as though it was bought at an audio shop and wedged into a slot in the dashboard.

It's not surprising the makeover took so long to happen. The company had been starved of investment dollars until Volkswagen bought a stake four years ago. Since then, VW has invested $1.4 billion to build the T, the all-new GT coupe that arrives later this year, and an eventual replacement for the aging Azure. Stewart singles out the $140,000 GT coupe as the car that will best show Bentley's performance engineering and luxurious interior craftsmanship.

The Arnage T is just the beginning. If the sports sedan serves as a model, Bentley will be making special cars for years to come.

By David Welch

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