Has this Flying Spur's time passed before it's even reached customers? At the time of its conception, of course, the first one made perfect sense; just two years after the 2003 launch of the unprecedentedly popular Continental GT, Bentley looked to further capitalise on its success with a four-door variant. And so it did. Despite shedding the Continental name following its 2013 refresh, the Flying Spur has fulfilled this roll ever since, using the coupe's engine, platform and styling cues in a longer body to offer performance saloon buyers a half-way house between Bentley's best selling model - the Continental - and its most definitive one - the Mulsanne.
Since those days, however, Bentley's brand has expanded to include the Bentayga SUV - because, as we've all been told so many times before, no one buys saloons anymore. And with each of the manufacturer's current range offering its own unique twist on Bentley's superlative driving experience - effortless performance in the GT, open air motoring in the GTC, go-anywhere ride height in the Bentayga, and chauffeur-driven opulence in the Mulsanne - doesn't that leave the jack of all trades Flying Spur looking a little superfluous?
Well, no, says Bentley, a company to which the vagaries of the common car market are rather obviously not as applicable. The Flying Spur's niche can be found in its flexibility, it says; owners can drive it when they desire but hire a driver if occasion dictates. Except, it turns out, that in the case of the Mulsanne as well, only a vanishingly small percentage of owners are exclusively chauffeured in their cars, the vast majority of them also choosing to drive far more than they are driven. Hmm. In that case, then, for the Flying Spur to stand as anything more than a poor man's Mulsanne, it must execute at least one half of that balancing act as well as or better than its big brother. No small feat.
Our time with the car begins in Monaco's Casino Square (where else?) and even in these rarified surroundings the new Flying Spur stands out, its redesign setting it apart from both relative and rival alike. Its front end won't be to all tastes but is undeniably imposing, likewise the optional 22-inch wheels, while the rear remains understated yet decidedly less bland than in previous years. There's a more muscular, hunkered stance to the whole car and, while overall length has barely increased, the front axle's migration 120mm further forward has served to both reduce the overhang and visually stretch the proportions, greatly improving road presence.
With the sat-nav pointing toward the alpine curves of the Route Napoleon, guiding the 5.3 x 2.2-metre machine through the serpentine streets during morning rush hour proves to be a far less fearsome task than expected thanks to the four-wheel steering. As in so many other applications, this not only makes a mockery of the Spur's enormous proportions on the narrow, winding streets of the principality, but aids high speed stability once freed from their grasp.
From the front seats to the rear, at a cruise the Flying Spur is supreme. Progress is effortless, road noise as good as non-existent and comfort exceptional. Behind the wheel there's time to notice the familiar-yet-fresh features of the dash with its rotating nav screen and new-style vents, and to try your hardest to detect the W12's fuel-saving cylinder deactivation kicking in (you won't be able to). For those in the back, meanwhile, a detachable touchscreen remote controls most everything you could want to exert influence over, right down to deploying and retracting the 'Flying B' on the bonnet. Two enormous seat-mounted tablets provide infotainment, a fridge keeps a selection of beverages chilled just so and Bentley's new '3D leather' finish adds a noticeable touch of flair to the otherwise traditionally appointed cabin. As a place to be while getting to the place you're going, it's hard to beat.
That's one of half of the requisite boxes ticked, then, but how does it handle the other? If there's any road to put it to the test, the Route Napoleon is it. Wending its way north from the Mediterranean, it twists and turns through the foothills of the French Alps, rising and falling through thousands of feet in elevation changes, precipitous drops and stunning scenery. This road in an Elise, Cayman or Caterham would be the stuff of dreams; in a 2.5-tonne limo on the other hand, well...
Besides improving the Flying Spur's aesthetics, another benefit of that front axle shift has been to bring the engine further within its boundaries. The improved weight distribution resulting from that physical change, in combination with a suite of trick tech, work to make the Spur an unexpectedly competent steer in such circumstances. Its voluminous three-chamber air suspension bestows it with unparalleled dynamic range, a rotation of the beautifully knurled drive select dial from 'Comfort' to 'Sport' revealing an entirely different side to the car.
With that sublime 6.0-litre W12 pumping out 635hp at 6,000rpm and a tarmac crimping 664lb ft of torque from just 1,350rpm, there's certainly no lack of get up and go - the Flying Spur taking off from 0-62 in a barely believable 3.8 seconds. The agility afforded by that four-wheel steer in Monaco comes to the fore again here, aiding turn in, while the 48v active anti-roll bars keep the Spur flat as a pancake throughout the corner. On exit, the torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system scrabbles that prodigious power output between the wheels, never failing to find the grip to warp time and space as it launches the car toward the next bend.
There the Spur's size and weight catches up with the driver before it does the car, the feeling of overwhelming inertia and sight of a thousand-foot drop beyond the crash barrier leading to many a firm squeeze of the proportionately enormous - 420mm front and 380mm rear - ventilated iron brakes. But the car shares no such fear, and a turn of the wheel and punt of the throttle sees it comfortably around time after time, never tiring or fading, but gleefully chasing the horizon like a fully grown Retriever that still thinks itself a puppy.
No, it's not as dynamically adept, precise, or, to be frank, enjoyable as the Continental GT - which, even at 2.2 tonnes, boasts a 200kg weight advantage and more sporting set-up - but it's definitely entertaining in its own way, and certainly more so than a vehicle of this size or style has any right to be. If that's the case on the narrow switchbacks of the southern France, then it's likely to be even more so on the relatively flowing B-roads of the UK. An enticing prospect indeed.
So where does that leave this third generation of Flying Spur? Though a highly laudable improvement on its predecessor, it still isn't the most rewarding super saloon to drive - an M5 Competition weighs the best part of half a tonne less, hon its dash and a fridge in the back, is it? Its ride can be harsh and the rear seats haven't a shred on the Bentley's. When it comes to luxury, too, though, the presence of a higher echelon above it will always preclude the Flying Spur from taking top dog bragging rights. What it does do, however, is strike by far the most impressive balance of any four-door car on sale today.
The composition of the modern automotive landscape is such that the single-minded compromise required for a machine to be the 'best' in any single field makes it practically impossible to also compete in another. Not so with the Flying Spur. More comfortable, cosseting, gadget-packed and glamorous than any Mercedes, Audi or BMW, and far better to drive than any Maybach or Rolls-Royce, it also stands head and shoulders above its Mulsanne and Bentayga stablemates in that regard.
In the end, it's precisely that the Flying Spur doesn't have just one unique strength that makes it so unique. It may not be the outright best car to feature in any of the individual classes in which it competes but, far from being past its sell-by date, in being so thoroughly accomplished across the board it finds itself coming out as the cream of the crop; the very best all-round luxury sports saloon that money can buy.
SPECIFICATION - BENTLEY FLYING SPUR
Engine: 5,950cc W12, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 635@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 664@1,350-4,500rpm
Top speed: 207mph
MPG: 19.1 (WLTP combined)
Price: £c. £165,000 (estimate)