2003 Bentley Arnage Review

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TCC Team TCC Team
February 25, 2002

Bentley Prepping for Change (2/24/2002)

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CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The sun beats down mercilessly as we race east on the coastal road out of Cape Town. The southern tip of Africa is a land of extremes, vast plains interrupted by towering cliffs, lush forests opening onto scraggy brush. A baboon darts across the roadway, wildebeests and ostriches briefly interrupt their grazing to gaze up as we roar by.

South Africa is a long way to go to test-drive a new car. But the Bentley Arnage T isn’t your average automobile. It’s not just the latest from the stately British automaker, but a vehicle Bentley officials are calling their “bridge car.”

Four years ago, a bitter bidding war broke up the seven-decade pairing of Bentley and its sister division, Rolls-Royce. In recent decades, the two marques’ products have been virtual clones, but that’s about to change. Come December, Rolls will become the property of BMW, while Bentley’s new owner, Volkswagen AG, hopes to broaden the appeal of the brand with a range of new products. That includes the upcoming, $150,000 GT Coupe that will make its debut during the upcoming Geneva Motor Show.

The Coupe will take aim at a younger, hipper, and slightly less affluent buyer, positioning Bentley directly against high-volume luxury brands, such as Mercedes-Benz. It should also yield significant increases in volume.

Personal worth

The Arnage line won’t go away, however, and will remain one of the most exclusive nameplates on the market.  Which raises a fundamental question: is the Arnage T worth the price, which is expected to come in around $235,000 when it hits U.S. shores later this year? To find out, TheCarConnection spent 34 hours traveling to the other side of the globe.

2003 Bentley Arnage

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2003 Bentley Arnage T

2003 Bentley Arnage T

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Grand, elegant and stately, there’s no mistaking the look of a Bentley. For those who confuse it with its sibling division, Rolls-Royce features the instantly recognizable Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, while Bentleys carry the more subdued winged-B badge. In the case of the Arnage T, the badge is black, a subtle designation meaning high performance, a subject we’ll return to in a moment.

The new model’s bumpers have been subtly restyled, the front incorporating a new air scoop and a larger air dam designed to improve engine breathing. For high-speed driving, a spoiler has been incorporated into the rear deck lid. And much of the extra brightwork has been eliminated.

Even so, “the exterior changes are hard to spot,” acknowledges Bentley brand manager David Goggins, as we slip inside the silver sedan, “but you’ll see significant changes in the way the car drives.”

Cruiser class

2003 Bentley Arnage T

2003 Bentley Arnage T

Enlarge Photo
Lift the hood and you’ll have no trouble seeing why. In large chrome letters, you learn that the Arnage T is powered by a largely reworked 6.75-liter V-8 mated to a pair of turbochargers that transform this beauty into a roaring beast. At 450 horsepower, it’s the most powerful Bentley ever built, capable of smoking the 19-inch tires that will be standard on stateside models, and launching the five-seat sedan from 0-60 in a claimed 5.5 seconds. That’s no small feat when you consider the Arnage T weighs in at 5700 pounds.

Were this just a high-priced boulevard cruiser that might actually be a too much power. But Bentley engineers—with the assistance of their new colleagues at VW—have paid equal attention to the road manners of the second-generation Arnage. The body has been stiffened and the suspension has been tuned to the point where it is unexpectedly taut, especially when Sport mode is activated.

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2003 Bentley Arnage

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Driving down the rough Cape Town coastal roads, the Arnage T’s ride is unmistakably stiffer than previous Bentley models, even in standard mode. Climbing into the hills, one discovers a word not normally associated with a car closing on three tons of mass, “nimble.” It maintains level trim through even the sharpest corners. Back on the flat coastal road, the big V-8 proves as responsive as a sportscar: even the lightest touch on the accelerator pedal yields a tidal wave of torque. Passing is an excuse to push the Arnage T to its limits, though we find it wise to back down when the needle nudges 130 mph and the engine shows no sign of running out of breath.

Art and craft

Of course, this isn’t a Ferrari. So performance alone isn’t enough to justify the steep price tag. What has traditionally set Bentley apart is the level of craftsmanship that goes into each car. Though the plant in Crewe, England, now features a moving assembly line, each car is still built largely by hand. The interior of the Arnage T is swaddled in sumptuous Connolly leather and black walnut lacquered to a mirror-like finish. Indeed, it takes several weeks to prepare the wood veneer, while the sedan’s exquisite silver paint is the result of a 120-step process.

New touches on the Arnage T include quilted leather seats, a thick sports steering wheel, optional drilled aluminum pedals and optional machined aluminum door and instrument panel inserts. There are even cupholders, though they’re hidden below the Arnage T’s center armrest where they aren’t very practical. And that underscores the challenge Bentley will face in keeping itself contemporary and competitive.

In an era when a Mercedes-Benz S600 defines high-tech luxury, and the Lexus LS430 sets a new benchmark in automotive silence, one has to ask what really justifies the Bentley premium? That question is likely to become even harder to answer when Mercedes-Benz introduces its ultra-luxurious Maybach line, and BMW launches its own take on Rolls-Royce next year.

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2003 Bentley Arnage

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The incredible power of the Arnage T is certainly part of the equation, as is the exquisite craftsmanship that goes into each car. But the Bentley sedan is by no means the most refined or technologically sophisticated vehicle on the market. There’s a slight but noticeable whine from the rear axle, for one thing. While BMW’s new 7-Series features a six-speed transmission, the Arnage T settles for a dated, if proven, four-speed. And there’s not even an outside temperature gauge.

The critical differentiator may be that elusive element of exclusivity. When you buy a Bentley, you know it’s been made for you. And if you’re willing to spend the money, the craftsmen at Crewe will customize your car any way you want.

Of course, if you have to ask the price, goes the old saw, you probably can’t afford it. And those who try to justify this car based on what they’re getting for the money might be missing the point. This clearly isn’t a car for everyone. Your monthly payment would likely be more than you’d pay to buy the average car outright.

The critical differentiator may be that elusive element of exclusivity. And if you’re willing to spend the money, the craftsmen at Crewe will customize your car any way you want. When you buy a Bentley, you know it’s been made for you. And for that rare breed of buyer who has the cash and the desire not to drive what everyone else does, that may be all that matters.

2003 Bentley Arnage T
Base price range: $235,000 (estimated)
Engine: Twin-turbocharged 6.75-liter V-8, 450 horsepower
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 122.8 in
Length: 212.8 in
Width: 76.1 in
Height: 59.7 in
Curb weight: 5700 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 11/16 mpg
Safety equipment: dual front airbags and side thorax airbags, full-length side air curtains, seatbelts with pretensioners, anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control
Major standard features: AM/FM/six-CD changer, in-car DVD navigation system, quilted Connolly leather seats, automatic climate control system, 19-inch Pirelli tires
Warranty: Three years/unlimited miles

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