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First drive: Arnage a taste of motoring luxury

Imposing presence: The Bentley Arnage R is 5.4 metres long and weighs almost as much as a Toyota LandCruiser.

Bentley's Arnage saloon offers up a rare luxury triple treat

7 Apr 2003

WHEN luxury isn't enough, there's always Bentley.

The historic British marque named after founder WO Bentley, with its roots in racing cars, performance and style is undergoing resurgence in profile and interest at the moment, thanks to its new Continental GT Coupe.

But while the W12-engined two-door coupe is garnering thousands of orders around the globe from a new, younger audience, further up the price scale the Arnage sedan is the traditional choice for Bentley's traditional audience.

And when we say price scale we're not kidding. The range starts at $499,950 and from there anything goes thanks to Bentley's ability to personalise a car to almost any level via its Mulliner division.

The Arnage - named after a corner at the Le Mans racetrack where Bentley first made its name - dates back to 1998 when both Rolls-Royce and Bentley were owned by the British company Vickers and built out of the same factory in Crewe in the north of England.

First came the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph and then came the Arnage, quite simply the most expensive case of badge engineering that you have ever seen.

Of course, since then Volkswagen and BMW have had their famous tussle for control of the two marques, resulting in Rolls heading off south under BMW's control and the end of the line for the Seraph.

BMW's first Rolls is the Phantom, revealed at Detroit earlier this year. The other new player in the ultra-luxury game is Benz's Maybach. Both of them are aimed straight at the Arnage.

But VW has worked hard to prepare it for the fight. When first launched Arnage was powered by a BMW V8 engine, but once VW took over there was quickly a return to the 6.75-litre V8 that has powered both Rollers and Bentleys in various iterations for 40 years.

VW's involvement really became obvious as the Series 2 mid-life change swept through Arnage last year. First came the performance-oriented T, then the grand touring R and finally the long-wheelbase RL.

While the fundamentals of the package were unchanged, there had been many detail modifications the most significant of them to the engine, which had been re-engineered to a twin turbo set-up from the previous single turbocharger design.

Launched with the Arnage T at the 2002 Detroit motor show, the engine pumped out 336kW and 875Nm, pushing the car from rest to 100km/h in under six seconds and then on to a limited top speed of 270km/h. Not a bad effort considering the T weighs in at 2585kg!The R and the RL are a bit detuned in comparison, producing 300kW and 835Nm, which is basically equivalent of the old single turbo engine in its final Red Label guise.

The other area to be addressed was the body and chassis. The structure has been stiffened by 10 per cent, there have been some aerodynamic tweaks to reduce drag and lift, handling has been boosted by the use of a rear stabiliser bar for the first time and ESP stability control is part of the package, also for the first time.

Underpinning all this is double wishbone suspension all-round, with self-levelling and computer controlled three-way electronic damping power assisted rack and pinion steering and ventilated discs all-round with anti-lock braking assistance.

All this rides on massive 255/50 tyres mounted to18 x 8 alloys styled individually for each variant.

The equipment package is similarly thorough. All the basics are there - Connolly leather trim, walnut veneers, multi-level climate control air-conditioning, satellite navigation, six CD audio system, powered seats and cruise control.

And like we said earlier - you can have whatever you want on top of that - as long as you are prepared to pay for it.

About 20 Australians were last year - which makes this quite a good Arnage market. Hence this Melbourne-based media exercise to sample the car - in fact the first time the three strands of the range had been brought together publicly.

Bentley Arnage R $499,950
Bentley Arnage T $549,950
Bentley Arnage RL $625,000


OKAY, the quantity is there with Arnage in a bunch of different ways - it's very big, very heavy and very imposing.

But there's quality as well, which is obvious from the moment you grasp the traditional push-pull doorhandle and open the door. Ah, memories. The solid clunk, the feeling of well-oiled metal - it's a trip back to motoring childhood.

It's a theme that continues inside - there's more real metal in the traditional dials and knobs, real wood in the trim and real leather to sit on.

The main instrumentation is sunk into a flat, traditional dashboard behind a large four-spoke steering wheel. The supporting dials and chrome air-conditioning outlets sit above the centre console.

Further down the rather downbeat-looking audio is shielded behind a flip-up cover, then there's a familiar-looking BMW climate control unit, before the luxury feel returns thanks to crafted gearchange lever and chromed appointments surrounding it.

But there's no semi-manual shift mode for the four-speed (shouldn't it be a five-speed by now?) and while we're grumbling the steering wheel adjusts only for height and not reach. And what's with the starter button rather than a key. A bit gimmicky really.

What confronts you as a driver varies from model-to-model - more sporty-looking metal in the T, more wood in the R and RL - a theme not replicated outside where the T is noticeably devoid of shiney bits and bobs.

But the fundamental feeling the Arnage range exudes is the same across the range - solidity to the point of granite. It's almost as if this car has been carved from the rock.

And a big rock at that. At 5.39 metres in length - that's the short wheelbase by the way - and a kerb weight threatening a Toyota LandCruiser, the Arnage as no problem claiming its place on the road. The bonnet alone appears long enough to land a plane on.

And that has an impact on the driving - the length and weight not the plane. The Arnage is at its best consuming open ground at high speed, its long 3.116 metre wheelbase helping it devour rough and rutted roads with minimum discomfort to passengers.

But it loses some composure as the road tightens up and gets more sporting. The T is flatter, firmer and more precise than the R but it's not at home in this sort of territory. There's still too much roll and lurch as the weight sloshes around. And that ESP system is annoying, way too intrusive anytime you booted the car hard out of corners.

No, best to choose the straighter route to your destination and - if you're in the Northern Territory - enjoy that wall of power and might controlled by your right foot. Takeoff from stationary is quite mild and restrained but keep accelerating hard and you're quickly beyond any local speed limit. Impressive as hell. No wonder the combined fuel consumption claim is a substantial 20.6L/100km.

The brakes are just as effective. While the R we sampled had a soft-ish brake pedal there was no doubting the response. All the while the car is a cocoon of peace and quiet - which is quite amazing considering the size of the tyres and so on.

Which brings us to the RL. We didn't get to drive it, just sit in the back and admire how a lucky few enjoy their motoring lives. With an extra 250mm added to the wheelbase and overall length the amount of rear seat space goes from plentiful to sprawling.

Recline the power seat, grab a drink out of the fridge, flip on the DVD player mounted in the seat in front of you and relax.

Now why aren't all road tests like this!

GoAuto can help you buy a new Arnage

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