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A glimpse of the future

Bentley and Rolls-Royce have been in a playful mood this month as they drip feed the media coy images of their newest products — or at least parts of them.

First to produce a so-called ‘teaser’ image was RollsRoyce, which is slowly revealing its new Wraith to the world in advance of its formal unveiling at the Geneva Motor Show. ‘Wraith’ is a name first used by Rolls before the war but will this time be applied to what Rolls-Royce insists will be the most powerful and beautiful car in its history. The power component will be easy enough to deliver with a mild tweak to the extant and understressed 563bhp 6.6-litre twin turbo V12 already under the bonnet of the Ghost. But if it’s more beautiful than AX201 — the original Silver Ghost — or a Gurney Nutting Phantom II, that will indeed be a triumph.

What we do know about the Wraith (Rolls’ house style is to drop the definite article and just call it ‘Wraith’, which I find excruciating) is that it’s a coupe based on the Ghost’s platform and running gear. It is likely to have a shorter wheelbase than the Ghost and, as already mentioned, a highly power output — though whether the increase is nominal or meaningful remains to be see.

All I hope is that, however much power it has, Rolls has the sense not to make it in any way sporting. I can remember being appalled by the appearance of a ‘Sport’ button on the Phantom coupe and there’s no need for any more of that nonsense here. Make the Wraith as powerful as you like, but while it can and should be poised on a decent road, the temptation also to make it pointy is to be avoided at all costs.

As for Bentley, hours before this page went to press they did finally release images and details of its new Flying Spur saloon. Over here Spurs are a far rarer sight than Continental GTs and GTCs but in places like China the Spur should do huge business for Bentley, so this model is a massively important car for Crewe.

The saloon is also the most extensively altered of all Bentley’s recent model updates. It’s a much sleeker shape now than before, with styling that eschews the very traditional sit-upand-beg three box design of the outgoing car for a more fastback shape. It’s also lighter, if only by 50kg which is not much for a 2.5-tonne car, but at leastit’s turned out no heavier.

Interestingly Bentley is launching this car with just one engine, the full-bore 616bhp W12 from the Continental GT Speed. It is claimed to offer 200mph, though in reality it’ll do nearer 210. Clearly this version of the Flying Spur is just an opening bid: a 500bhp V8 version is a certainty, not least because if you’re to sell large volumes in China, a relatively conservative displacement is essential.

Schumacher gets new role at Mercedes

Mercedes-Benz has announced that Michael Schumacher is going to be involved in developing its range of road cars, in an ambassadorial capacity.

Could it be that this has happened in response to a column I wrote on the website in September pondering this very point? Speculating on his future, I said “I can see him in an ambassadorial role for Mercedes” and concluded, “I’d get him involved in car development to an extent never seen before.”

OK, it’s a coincidence. But it’s good to see a manufacturer making the most of the talent at its disposal. Michael is more than the greatest driver of his time. He is also intensely intelligent and any chassis engineer would be foolish not to value his opinions.

Alfa 4C nears production

One year after stunning the Geneva Motor Show with the 4C coupe concept, Alfa Romeo seems to have kept its promise to change the look for the production version as little as possible.

Details will have to wait until Geneva this year, but Alfa confirms it will have a 1750cc turbo four, and power to weight ratio of 250bhp per tonne. That’s on a par with a Porsche Cayman R, though achieved through lighter weight. Expect a sub-5sec 0-62mph time and top speed well over 160mph.

GT widens 3-series choices

BMW has shown pictures and released details of its new 3-series GT. Essentially a 3-series hatchback — the estate or Touring version is unaffected — this is the first time the 3-series has been given the GT treatment, although some might argue it harks back to the days of the old Compact models.

In fact while the Compacts were just abbreviated saloons with tailgates, the GT is quite the reverse: longer, wider and taller even than the 3-series estate, its interior packaging is likely to compare more closely to a 5-series than a 3-series. It has a bigger boot than the Touring (it’s the same size as a 5-series saloon) and a massive 70mm of extra rear legroom.

At launch it will come with two diesels (318d and 320d) and three petrol motors (320i, 328i and 335i) though obvious gaps in this range, in particular the lack of a big diesel, are soon likely to be filled. But while the car will be available with all the usual M Sport bodywork, it is not thought to be in line for the proper ‘M’ treatment when the new twin-turbo M3 arrives in a year or so.

BMW is expected to charge a premium of about £1500 for the 3-series GT. This can be seen either as quite a lot given that it’s not exactly pretty and has huge parts commonality under the skin, or an absolute bargain if it means you buy one of these rather than the physically larger but apparently no more spacious 5-series.

Far east speed tweaks

Two in-house Japanese tuning companies have been displaying their wares this month. First comes Nissan whose Nismo offshoot has been employed to add a much-needed emotional dimension to the brand.

Interestingly the Nismo brand is not being used to justify a raft of entirely cosmetic ‘improvements’. Changes are not radical but in the first product, the Nismo Juke, there’s another 10bhp from the engine and bespoke suspension settings to go with minor visual enhancements to justify the extra £1700 asking price.

The second car to get the Nismo treatment is the 370Z. Unavailable to automatics or convertibles, the manual coupe Nismo 370Z gains 16bhp to take its output to 344bhp. Like the Juke it comes with unique spring settings, plus body changes which, says Nissan, are aimed not so much at improving its appearance as its aerodynamic performance. Prices have yet to be revealed. It was never going to be long before Toyota sought to capitalise on the ocean of goodwill swamping its GT86 coupe. The result is the GT86 TRD which while only a single vowel away from a truly unfortunate acronym actually stands for Toyota Racing Developments.

Perhaps disappointingly given hints of superchargers, there’s no more power for the GT86 nor any suspension modification. Instead there’s a full bodykit, a new exhaust and a rear diffuser claimed to improve stability. But the price is massive, adding fully £6500 to the £24,995 of the standard GT86. True, only 250 are coming to the UK but unless exclusivity is vital, this looks more like a triumph of form over function than a truly worthwhile upgrade.

And that reminds me

You can’t drive a Le Mans winner down the Champs-Elysées can you?

How much organising would it take to arrange to drive a Le Mans prototype not only through the middle of London from, say, Marble Arch to the City via Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly Circus, but to do so in the middle of the Monday morning rush hour? More likely with Boris than Ken, I concede, but still close to unimaginable.

Move the location to Paris, however, and it seems anything is possible. Ten years ago Bentley won Le Mans and the next day the bug-splattered race winner, all the drivers, the exhausted team and a few hangers-on like me met near the Arc de Triomphe. The idea was to hold a victory parade from there to the Eiffel Tower. The winner would be flanked by the two vintage ‘Blower’ Bentleys still owned by the factory: Birkin’s 1930 team car and the original factory demonstrator. Derek Bell would drive the Speed 8 prototype with the old-timers, each with three race drivers perched on their back seats, handled by then Bentley chairman Franz-Josef Paefgen and, er, me.

It seemed scarily ambitious, but I knew Bentley would be well prepared and arrived expecting to find most of the Parisian gendarmerie on standby to guide us through the traffic. In fact there was one bloke on a bike. But Bentley had a Frenchman in its Bentley press office who wandered over and affer a brief exchange returned with his thumb up. Jean-Philippe Coulaud (for that was his name) may choose to correct me, but so far as I am aware, that was all the organising that was done.

Which, of course, is why it went so well. Having given no chance for anyone to say no, we jumped in the cars and headed off in the craziest convoy I’ve ever known. Apart from the race car inevitably overheating right at the end, an event you probably couldn’t plan in six months passed off without incident in a few minutes. If you wanted proof that fortune really does favour the brave, it was there on the Champs-Elysées, June 16, 2003.