The requirements laid down by their bosses gave the engineers that created the new Bentley Arnage T, unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show on January 7, some difficult targets. The demand was that the latest version of Bentley’s four-door saloon should be able to accelerate from zero to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds and should have a maximum speed of 170 mph. The task would be difficult because this was a Bentley, with all the size, comfort and luxury associated with the brand. Weighing in at over two tons, the car would be no lightweight. Nevertheless, the engineers were successful, and now Bentley can boast it has the fastest four-door sedan in the world – and we’ve driven it.
The Arnage T is a development of the Red Label Arnage, the sedan Bentley built when it became obvious that the company’s new owners, VW, could not have a car with a BMW engine in their range. The BMW power unit had been introduced in 1998, when Bentley introduced its new four-door for the new millennium. BMW had won the contract to supply engines to Rolls-Royce and Bentley because the company’s existing V-8 was considered too old and Vickers, the British armaments company that owned Bentley and R-R, wasn’t prepared to pay to bring it up to date. In fact Vickers wanted rid of its venture into the luxury car business, and BMW was expected to be the buyer. It wasn’t, as we now know, because VW outbid its rival from Munich. But the Brits had a trick up their sleeves, and arranged that BMW should get Rolls as a consolation prize from 2003.
So VW is putting all its efforts into Bentley, and the first thing it did was to give the engineers the wherewithal to make their classic 6.75-liter V-8 legal. They did this with the Red Label, introduced in late 1999, and sales of the BMW-engined version dropped off a cliff. Now they have gone further, swapping the single Garrett turbocharger of the Red Label for two smaller ones, which give better gas mileage and more power. They’ve also added a new engine management system from Bosch that further adds to power and economy and also assists in making the venerable power unit, considered outdated in the mid-Nineties by Vickers, comply with emissions legislation through till 2005. The result of these modifications is a maximum power of 450 hp and torque that peaks at a massive 645 lb-ft.
2002 Bentley Arnage
The engine modifications are coupled with a body that is stiffer than the original Arnage, which was already the stiffest bodyshell Rolls/Bentley had ever produced. Bentley refers to it as the Series 2 Arnage, and the modifications will be introduced on the Red Label cars later this year. The suspension has been tweaked for the increased performance, and to help the driver cope with the enormous performance potential, this is the first Bentley to be equipped with an Electronic Stability Program, which uses an electronic brain to prevent loss of control.
On the road, the Arnage T is as impressive as we have come to expect from a modern Bentley – only more so. The difference is apparent as soon as you move off, for the extra power and torque show immediately. The gentlest touch on the drive-by-wire throttle provokes the engine into life, and for those who press too hard without getting used to the big car, the results can be a surprise. Acceleration is instantaneous, and until you get used to the car and its response, it’s best to keep the right foot fairly light. Once you have the feel of the car, however, it provides a superb driving experience. The acceleration is truly worthy of that old cliché about “a kick in the back”, and it is there whenever it is required. The steering is well-weighted and direct, and despite the size of the car – it is 17 feet 8 inches long, 6 feet 4 inches wide (7 feet if you include the mirrors) and 5 feet high – it always feels controllable, even at the speeds its new-found power makes possible.
Because the car is so big, the driver sits high, with an eye-level well above that of most other saloons and much higher than the super sports cars that are the Bentley’s real competitors. A Bentley driver enjoys what Range Rover calls a ‘command driving position’, and it makes the Arnage a superb car for cross-country driving on secondary roads. The secret of swift progress on such roads is the ability to overtake quickly and decisively, and being able to see beyond the vehicle ahead is vital. With vision that is combined with the power to accelerate and pass in the shortest possible distance, the Arnage T has the qualities to make driving a big car fun.
2002 Bentley Arnage
For real fun, a race track cannot be beaten, and Bentley allowed us some time to drive the car on the infield circuit at Britain’s new oval track at Rockingham. The circuit, created inside the 1.5-mile oval, is tight, and even tighter in a big car like the Bentley. Nevertheless, the Arnage handled the turns excellently, while the short straights showed how impressive the accelerative powers were. Driving with the electronic stability aid switched on, as most owners would, the car was impressive. You would expect that the weight of the car could cause understeer going into corners, while the power would make the tail hang out on the exit, but neither problem ever occurred. On both entry and exit, the electronics took over, but without the feeling that control had been taken away from the driver. Even when I tried to make the car misbehave, it would not, and the black box ushered me safely through. Without the ESP in operation, it was another story. Braking going into the corner needed to be precise and the steering controlled, while on the exit of tight turns a full application of the throttle would light up the inside rear tire for several yards.
Since we were at Rockingham, Bentley took the opportunity of having multiple Le Mans winner Derek Bell, who is now a consultant to the company, drive us round the oval track at speed. As the speedometer edged towards 130 mph, Bell kept up a casual conversation, pointing out the fact that at this speed, the curves in the triangular oval had turned into bends. As he edged out to within a few inches of the guard-rail, it was difficult to decide which was the most impressive. Was it his car control, or the fact that the car he was controlling – over seventeen feet long and, with us on board weighing over 5700 lb – could, but for the fact that it was on normal road tyres, have gone even faster!
2002 Bentley Arnage T
Base price range: In this part of the market, if you have to ask you can’t afford it.
Engine: 6.75-liter V-8, 450 hp
Transmission: Four-speed GM automatic
Wheelbase: 122.77 in
Length: 212.76 in
Width: 83.73 in including exterior mirrors
Height: 59.69 in
Curb Weight: 5700 lb
EPA (cty/hwy/combined): 11/16/13 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, rear passenger airbags, ABS, Electronic Stability Program
Major standard features: It’s a Bentley – what do you want?
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