The Flying Spur is unique in Bentley's range because it is the only model that is subordinate. Bentley doesn't build a more expensive coupe than the Continental GT and it doesn't offer a fancier droptop than the Continental GTC. Nor will you find the Bentley wings on a posher SUV than the Bentayga. The Flying Spur, however, has always been a less grand and substantially less expensive four-door limousine than the wonderful, statesmanlike Mulsanne. I think that's why I and many other people have always eyed the Flying Spur with a degree of suspicion; even Bentley admits the Spur isn't the most Bentley limo it knows how to build.
Now that the firm has announced an all-new model, I wanted to get answers to two questions. First, is the new Flying Spur just a longer Continental GT with two extra doors? And second, is it anything more than a cheaper four-door saloon than the Mulsanne? Because by my reckoning, the Spur will continue to be the £200,000, leather-lined runt of the Bentley litter unless Crewe has decent answers to those two questions.
The brand's centenary year is also a fundamentally important one. For reasons partly of its own making but also because of the WLTP fustercluck that wrought havoc throughout the car industry last year, 2018 was one of the most challenging spells in recent memory for Bentley. Certain models were not being built and were therefore not being sold. In the words of CEO Adrian Hallmark, 'For half of the year in half of our markets, we weren't selling any cars'.
The first part of 2019 was spent tidying up that mess. Restructuring, in business-speak. Now it's all about growth; banking the sharp uplift in sales figures that will inevitably come now those manufacturing issues have been resolved and new models and derivatives are beginning to appear. V8 Continentals and Bentley's first batch of hybrids will emerge within the next few months.
Before either, though, we have the new Flying Spur. Since 2005 and across the first two generations (I'll humour Bentley on that one for now, although the first- and second-gen Spurs were really the same model facelifted) some 37,000 units found buyers, so while it mightn't be Bentley's cash cow the Flying Spur isn't a millstone either.
The new version is evidently part of the Continental family - just as previous versions were - because it shares not only a face with the latest GT and GTC but also their architecture and powertrain. That architecture has been improved on the Jurassic underpinnings of the previous Spur both in terms of technology and inherent rightness. The front axle line has been moved forward by 120mm but the car has only grown in overall length by the width of your thumb, which means the front overhang is now much shorter than before. The engine has also been moved rearwards, improving weight distribution. (As an aside, those changes to the car's proportions also elongate what Bentley calls the 'prestige mass', which is the distance between the front axle and the base of the windscreen. It's one of the things that makes a car appear grand and imposing.)
In terms of new chassis and powertrain technologies, the list is so long I'll have to choose only a few highlights or risk clogging PH's servers. There is four-wheel drive like before, of course, but the new system is intelligent and can send power to exactly where it'll be put to best use, rather than slavishly sending 40 per cent to the front axle and 60 to the rear. Most of time the twin-turbo W12 will power the rear axle only, sending drive forwards only when it's needed. There's torque vectoring across the axles, too. For the first time the Spur features all-wheel steering, making the car more manoeuvrable at low speeds and more stable in very sudden direction changes at higher speeds. The transmission is an eight-speed dual-clutch item rather than a conventional auto.
The air springs are three-chamber, which means there's a very high volume of air within them, improving ride comfort and allowing a much more noticeable step change between Comfort mode and Sport, while a 48-volt active anti-roll bar system, called Bentley Dynamic Ride, decouples the bars when driving in a straight line to improve ride quality. The latter two items are both borrowed from the Continental GT, but retuned specifically for the Spur with a view to comfort more than sportiness.
Power is rated at 635hp and torque at 664lb ft. The 6-litre 12-cylinder engine, built in Crewe, can shut down half its cylinders when they're not required, which contributes to a 15 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency. The 0-62mph time, as if it matters, is 3.7 seconds and the top speed 207mph. This new Spur is fractionally lighter than the old one.
Bentley's Director of Body and Trim Engineering Simon Blake describes the new model as a 'quantum leap' over the previous one in terms of technology and performance. He didn't quite say existing Spur owners upgrading to this latest generation will feel like Noah stepping from his Ark and onto Alisher Usmanov's Dilbar, but I read between the lines.
On more than one occasion during the Flying Spur's unveiling at Bentley's Crewe headquarters, the car was described as 'part sports sedan, part luxury limo'. Perhaps that's how it's more than just a cheaper, slightly smaller alternative to a Mulsanne: whereas that car has no sporting pretensions whatsoever and instead only wants to cosset and relax its occupants, the Spur should be a decent steer, in its own way. Director of Chassis Engineering Florian Sprenger calls it a 'GT-type car with a sporting edge and four doors.'
'Yes it shares some components with the two-door models, but with this car we've put a great emphasis on comfort,' he goes on. 'We've stretched the chassis systems in a different direction to the two-door cars. We also have different wheel sizes, different bushes to give additional compliance and obviously the calibration is about making it more comfortable. But it still has dynamic capabilities - that is the greatest benefit of the chassis systems. You can have both comfort and sportiness. You don't need to compromise in one direction.'
He also points out that with rear-wheel steering the new Spur is far more manoeuvrable in town than the somewhat unwieldy Mulsanne. And I think that goes most of the way towards answering both of my earlier questions: it's more than just a longer Continental GT with four doors because its unique chassis tuning dials up the comfort, and it's more than just a cheaper, smaller Mulsanne because by retaining at least some degree of nimbleness, it has a very different dynamic character. Fair enough in both instances, I reckon.
The longer you stare at the Spur's cabin the more differences you see between it and the GT's cockpit. The rear half is completely different altogether, of course, and far more spacious, and up front the central air vent design is new. According to Bentley's Design Director Stefan Sielaff only a few parts have been carried over. By and large, however, the Spur's cabin very similar in feel and appearance to the GT's. No bad thing given the Continental's interior is a masterpiece.
And outside? 'The only carry over parts exterior are the door handles and mirrors,' says Sielaff. 'Everything else is individually done for the Flying Spur. When we developed the design we did the whole family in parallel - GT, GTC and Flying Spur. We discussed whether we should do something completely different with the Spur's design and we did create some different design models, but we agreed with the board there should be a strong family feeling between them.
'But don't misunderstand; the headlights, for example, are completely different to the Continental GT's, not only internally but also from the geometry. The grille is completely different as well. It's like this: in a family there is a resemblance, but we don't all look exactly the same.' To my eye it's the most handsome Flying Spur yet, although that's hardly the kindest thing I'll say about a car this year given the earlier versions were so unusually proportioned they were better known to many by the epithet Flying Spud.
So there you have it. I'll go ahead and assume it still isn't the Bentley you long to own, although the new Flying Spur is at least something more than a longer Conti GT, or a cheaper Mulsanne.