One step back, two steps forward
THE BENTLEY ARNAGE WAS NEVER DESIGNED TO TAKE AN ANCIENT 6.75-LITRE ENGINE. NOW VOLKSWAGEN IS IN CHARGE IT HAS BEEN FITTED AND THE RESULT, SAYS ANDREW FRANKEL, IS A DRAMATICALLY BETTER CAR LITTLE MORE THAN A YEAR AGO, BENTLEY LAUNCHED THE ARNAGE,
the saloon to take the marque into the 21st century and one that would take the first steps to redefining its role in the market place from that of quaint old thing to that of peerlessly constructed and capable supercar manufacturer; values which, I need not tell you, are those upon which the firm was founded 80 years ago. The big change would be technological and you only had to look under the bonnet of an Amage to know it. Where once simple presumption told you would be a pushrod 6.75-litre V8, now sat a quad-cam, twin turbocharged, 4.4-litre V8 which was pure BMW from the cam covers south save the turbocharging installation which came courtesy of Cosworth. The old overhead
valve engine was dead and would struggle on in the two door coupes simply because they only have another two to three years to live and could not, therefore, justify being re-engineered for the new engine. How times change. You will not need detailed reminding of the subsequent turn of events for the marque, how it ended belonging to Volkswagen while its sister, Rolls-Royce (or at least the right to use the name, which remains in the gift of the aero engine company Rolls-Royce PLC) went to BMW. Suffice to say VW now has Bentley and it’s not an acquisition it feels inclined to leave sitting around as
as it tends to the myriad larger fish already in the frying pan.
Now it seems that the demise of the old V8 for the new was rather premature and, as recently as last September, the VW board approved a plan to put it in the one place it was categorically never meant to be: under the bonnet of an Amage. And the proof of this particular pudding is not only has the venerable V8 been comprehensively reworked but so has the Amage. Some, but not all of this was unavoidable thanks to an engine bay never designed to accommodate An engine which, seen in isolation, you’d swear was recently recovertd from a World War Two bomber. Now, it seems, there are one or two details of the original plan that weren’t quite as transparent as they had seemed. Ask why the Amage, in the year after it launch, now has an engine the car was specifically designed to exclude and everyone from
chief executive Tony Gott downwards will say because it can.
The root of the truth, as ever, has pound signs attached. Vickers paid for the development of the Amage and were not prepared to keep an old engine on life-support when ever more stringent emissions legislation made it ever more expensive and tricky to build. Why would anyone design a car around a bulky and difficult to package engine already destined for the scrapheap? At the risk of repeating myself, because it can. The ‘it’ in this case is VW and, in particular Ferdinand Piech, its boss and figure head. There had always been a suspicion at VW that, where Bentley was concerned, bigger would always mean better and the fact that the Amage Red Label went from drawing board to production
reality in less than a year gives some impression as to the urgency and importance ascribed to the project by its mercurial Big Cheese.
The sheer difficulty of this task is made clear by the simple fact that, even Wit had fitted, the boys at Crewe could not just have dropped in the old engine, changed the badge background from green to red and sat back. Just for a start, the front axle weight had gone up by 100kgs. In fact, changes were made at the most fundamental level, the body in white, and extended to every area of the car. Naturally with the engine change comes stiffer front suspension. Bigger brakes
were needed too, which themselves precluded the old 17in wheel rims. New 18in items were drawn and clothed with 255/50 ZR 18 Pirelli P-Zero tyres. The extra torque of the engine required extra body stiffness as did the gnawing certainty that the secondary ride of the Amage was still not good enough.
Still not done, the Bentley engineers redesigned the seats and relocated the rear bench, pushing it down and back, liberating 50 per cent extra knee room and enough headroom for your top hat. At this stage it should be mentioned that the Red Label does not replace the original Amage, which continues as the Green Label along with those modifications enjoyed by its new sister not specifically related to the installation of the engine. And perhaps we should not be unduly detained by the fact that Bentley seems somewhat confused over origins of the label colours it+
WO always reserved green for the fastest variants of his cars, the 100mph 3-litre and Speed Six, while red was only ascribed to the Speed Model 3-litre. The real question is, who now is going to buy an Amage with a BMW engine?
Though it would never be so gauche as to admit it, I suspect Bentley hopes what I believe and that hardly anyone will opt for the small engine. The price differential is minimal with the Red Label costing £149,000, just 1,4000 more than the BMWpowered Green Label and, having now driven both, there is no question which is both the better car and the greater Bentley.
One simple fact tells you most of what you need to know. The Red Label, at just over 2000rpm, produces 2001b ft more torque than does the Green Label, anywhere in its power band. That’s 619I1 ft at 2150rpm, backing 400bhp at a suitably relaxed 4000rpm. These, once more, are very Bentley figures.
Yet its performance is curious in a way the Green Label is not. With a more conventional ratio of torque to power, the smaller engine feels rapid from rest to red-line while the Red Label feels relentless at the first but less convincing as the revs rise. Kept in the thick of its torque curve and the Red Eke’ feels able to overtake anything but, hampered by a gearbox too keen to find a lower ratio, this majestic effect is often compromised.
It’s a small but significant point; when you have that much torque, it is irksome not always to be allowed to use it. Make no mistake however, this is a quick car and any engine capable of accelerating a 2.5 tonne mass to 60mph in under 6sec is worthy indeed of your respect. Even so, and incredibly in my view, this is not what the Red Label does best.
I’m not sure if Bentley should be castigated or congratulated for the fact that what’s most remarkable about this new car has scarcely anything to do with the engine. It would be only a minor exaggeration to say the Red Label feels like a new car in an old shell. Whether it is extra body stiffness, better judged suspension rates or the quality controllers from Wolfsburg who now get to see how they are built, I cannot say. I expect it is a combination of the above which now makes the Amage flow down the road in a way that its predecessor, still new remember, could not imagine.
Do not misunderstand me. The old Amage set standards of ride and handling which had never visited Bentley before but this is another step forward. Whereas you would choose another Bentley for comparison, now you can include the most expensive products from BMW and Mercedes in your trawl without giggling breaking out all along the road from Munich to Stuttgart.
The Red Label is genuinely proficient cross country, providing reasonable grip, superb brakes, an impressive resistance to understeer and viceless body control while doing a passable impression of a car weighing two or three hundred kilos less than it’s 2520kg kerbweight. I’d shrink from calling it a sportscar, but it is sporting in nature and pleasing, even rewarding too, when called upon.
Better than this, however is its straight-line ability. At 70mph with three people on board, it rides well and, with those new seats, is sublimely comfortable, even more so in the back than front. All the Creaks of old have been finally exorcised, leaving just smooth progress and less than 2000rpm on the clock. The tall driving position is as wonderfully imperious as ever and the interior ambience remains uniquely satisfying.
But there are still problems and you need simply to put your foot down to know it. There is too much wind noise at 100mph, sufficient to make me wonder whether it would actually prove wearing to cruise for extended periods at three figure velocity, a feat still rightly demanded by many owners.1 think it would.
What 1 no longer doubt, however, is either the fundamental excellence of the car or the validity of re-engineering the old V8 to meet future emissions law and finding a way to put it into the Amage a car which, in Red Label form, is a splendid machine.
How long can it last? Long enough. VW is not done with the V8 and there was enough winking at the car’s launch to know the Black Label Amage is less than two years away. Eschewing Bentley history again, this now is the high performance badge so expect more power, upwards of 450bhp, but especially more torque, perhaps as much as 680lb ft of the stuff.
All this is in preparation for the engine which will finally replace the V8. It has 8-litres and 16 cylinders, arranged in an overlapping ‘W’ formation of four banks of four. Expect too a new small, sub .£100,000 Bentley and production at Crewe to reach 10,000 units in five years, three times Ferrari’s current annual output. Expect also a new Styling and Design Centre at Crewe and, within the next three years, a works race team to return to Le Mans.
The Bentley Amage Red Label may only be distinguishable from the outside by its new wheels and redesigned indicators but as the first of the VW era it is more than an improved car: it is a sign of things to come and if VW can do this much to an already fine car in so short a time, the future for those who work at Crewe can never have looked so bright.