Designed to dominate
The new Bentley Brooklands has overwhelming opulence - if not quite suited to its time, writes John Griffiths
'Mister, that's not a car; it's a bloody ocean liner." This terse analysis conjoining the automotive and marine worlds was delivered from over my shoulder, just as I finished manoeuvring "my" Bentley Brooklands into its parking bay at Ashford Castle in Co Mayo. The groundsman may have been exaggerating. But step back and run your eye along the flank of Bentley's flagship coupé and he has a point.
The Brooklands is just shy of 18 feet long, a foot or so shorter than Rolls-Royce's leviathan limousine, the Phantom - generous dimensions for what Bentley bills a two-door sporting coupé.
It weighs 2.7 tonnes and has a thirst to match. Under that football pitch of a bonnet resides the latest version of Bentley's venerable 6.75-litre V8 engine, tuned to 530 horsepower. It lays a singular claim to the record books: its twin turbochargers provide similar torque - 1,050Nm - to the mad, bad 250mph, 1,000-horsepower Bugatti Veyron.
Use that performance to the full and you will bring a smile to any Revenue Commissioner's face as he contemplates the tax take: the Brooklands can slurp all 21 gallons in its tank in little more than 250 miles.
Strip away the body and it shares its engineering fundamentals with two other cars in the Bentley stable: the Azure convertible and the Arnage saloon. But on the road, the Brooklands has a character entirely of its own and one that so grew on my travelling companions and I over an 800-mile test route that we became the best of friends - after a dodgy start.
For a car with such a high price tag and such massive proportions, it is a pain in what Americans would call the butt - to say nothing of knees and foreheads - for rear-seat passengers to have to climb in and out through a single pair of doors, particularly when those passengers are women enjoying their temporary dowager-duchess status and trying to enter and exit with sufficient élan.
Once inside, however, there are two major positives for rear-seat occupants. One is that they find themselves with an astonishing, Tardis-like amount of leg and shoulder room - far more than can be guessed at from the outside. The other is that they can survey, and luxuriate in, one of the most remarkable car interiors ever crafted.
At this price, an owner is entitled to expect works of engineering art in terms of control switches, dials and other operating equipment - and he or she gets them. All interior brightware and controls are in heavyweight, highly polished stainless steel. But it is the sense of opulence that overpowers: the Brooklands is the only car in the world to offer, as standard, a cabin entirely trimmed with hand-stitched leather hides. "Ours" was trimmed in a regal red to match a dark steel-grey exterior. The sense of luxury was something worth revelling in - and it extended to the road.
There is a simple answer to the entry/exit problem: if it matters that much, buy a cheaper, slower and more practical four-door Arnage saloon instead. I'll opt for the Brooklands, thanks, set it in "sport" and go.
No car this big should behave in the way it does. Its racing-car-style, double-wishbone suspension has computer-controlled, adaptive, electro-hydraulic dampers and automatic ride-height control, providing far superior handling dynamics than its stablemates, with the partial exception of the most sporting of Bentley's handbuilt car range, the Arnage T.
Buyers can specify brakes that are not only made of carbon, like those used in Formula One, but also have discs bigger than those fitted to any car in production. These prove capable of taming a performance that would not seem out of place in a Ferrari: standstill to 100km/h is despatched in five seconds flat; and on to a (let's leave it wholly theoretical) top speed of 297km/h.
Outright performance figures, however, are not what the Brooklands is all about. Its forte is to dominate - swiftly and without drama - roads of any kind, whether they be speed-unlimited autobahns or the narrow, dipping, ducking and diving byways of western Ireland. It does so with an assurance absurdly at odds with its weight and girth - and with a competence unmatched by one obvious, but more expensive, rival: the recently-launched Rolls-Royce Phantom coupé.
I suspect that, in contrast to "modern" Bentleys such as the Continental GT - already depreciating at a brisk pace - the Brooklands, whose engine is even handbuilt, is destined to become a classic.
It may become one of the rare cars destined to be found under the auctioneer's hammer in 20 years at a price to match or exceed that when new. It will certainly be exclusive enough - only 550 will be made.