Passion Play

With a badge that stands for passion as well as heritage, this last ‘True Brit’ offering from Bentley is all we could hope for. By Andrew Frankel

Apparently, it’s all in the badging. All you need to know about the purpose in life of a modern Bentley is to look at the colour of the winged ‘B’ on the radiator. If it’s green, the car is designed to reflect ‘thoroughbred’ values, blue is ‘glorious’ while black equals ‘daring’. The new Bentley Continental SC pictured here has a red badge and, for those of you yet to pick up the thread, this means ‘passion’.

So there you have it: the entire range of two-door Bentleys described in just four words. If marketing speak ever gains a foothold on the Clapham omnibus we’ll talk ourselves out of a language in as many days.

There is, you will not be surprised to hear, rather more to it than this. And, insofar as Bentley had been using badge colours to reflect and exploit its heritage in the days before the cheques were written in Deutschmarks, it’s a policy we’d go well to support.

Besides, it is not as if Bentley has just been dishing out the colours without understanding their original meaning. You may find what follows a little contrived but I think we should allow the benefit of the doubt. These days the ‘glorious blue’ badge belongs on the front of the Azure, the soft, fully.convertible and least sporting of the breed. Originally it applied to the standard 3-litre, 6 1/2-litre and all 8-litre Bentleys which can be generally categorised as the more comfort-orientated of the Cricklewood cars.

Today’s black spells Continental T, the short-wheelbase, rock-solid 170mph powerhouse of the range; back then it meant 4 1/2-litres with or without superchargers and, as such, the most raw and sporting of the vintage cars. The green badge only ever appeared on the Speed Six (and a tiny run of special 3-litres tuned to be capable of 100mph) and now it decorates the Continental R, a car as swift and civilised compared to its peers as the Speed Six was then.

Which leaves the red badge. The badge of passion. This, it should be said, is a little more difficult. Yes, it appeared on Speed Model 3-litres, the same model which won Bentley’s first two Le Mans in the 1920s but it’s hard to forge much more of a link between that car and this targa-topped extravaganza. Perhaps it doesn’t matter and maybe no-one cares any more; besides, what other colour was it going to be?

More historical confusion. The SC stands for Sedanca Coupe, echoing the Sedanca de Ville body-style made famous in the ’20s and ’30s. Then your Sedanca provided a cosy enclosed rear for you and your chums while in the front seats sat your staff, exposed to the elements; today’s Sedanca changes the priorities right around. Two removable glass panels in the roof that can be fitted or removed and stowed in the boot in well under a minute mean the best of the weather can be enjoyed by those in the front while, because Bentley has based the car on the short-wheelbase Continental T, the cheap seats are emphatically the elegantly crafted but undeniably cramped chairs stuffed into the back. Call it a delicate way around using the dreaded ‘Targa’ word and you’d be closer to identifying this car’s true role than any title or coloured badge Bentley is likely to offer any time soon.

Let’s not quibble further over the details. The fundamental significance of this is car is as follows: it is the last Bentley to have been commissioned and designed while the company was British owned. The true importance of this is yet to be established. The only two comparable marques recently to fall from British ownership are still counting their lucky stars; few indeed would now regard the influence of Ford at either Jaguar or Aston Martin as anything other than of life-saving benefit and the companies are still considered British despite their American parent.

This might, of course, be simply because Ford’s marketing machine is so effective and its British facilities so often in our newspapers that the popular perception is that Ford is indeed British, a trick few are likely to fall for with Volkswagen. Either way, it’s hardly like to do much harm to sales of the Sedanca. It will appeal to those want to own the last Bentley paid for in Sterling and also those who will enjoy the reassurance of the knowledge that it was driven and signed off by Ferdinand Piech himself.

The only hurdle then to be leapt is the £245,000 asking price. Should have mentioned that earlier; the Continental SC is also the most expensive production Bentley ever to be offered for sale.

Your money does, however, buy more than a glass-roofed Continental. It has a specification unlike that of any other Bentley, even the Continental T upon which it is ostensibly based. The reason, says Bentley, for choosing its more cramped and compromised T instead of the original and more spacious Continental R is, first, there is a considerable advantage in torsional rigidity and also that the more sporting nature of the T aligns more precisely to the passionate character of the SC. Yes, that passion word again.

To an extent, Bentley is right. For a start, nothing is impossible and if it’s a long wheelbase, glass-lidded Continental you must have, have one you will. All you need are abyssal pockets. What is, perhaps more to the point is that this is a sporting Bentley, one in which to drive rather than waft, though, it should be said, it is formidably proficient at the latter too.

The bad news, however, is that not only does all the ironmongery required to turn a T into an SC add the thick end of 160kgs to the car, heaving its kerbweight up to near 2.6 tonnes, but Bentley, in its wisdom, has also seen fit to reduce the power of the engine. This is more marketing for you – I can think of no other reason, as the engineers assure me the car can take full Continental T power without a problem. So now our Continental is not only more expensive, it is heavier, less powerful and, inevitably, less structurally stiff too. You would be forgiven for thinking the package lacked promise.

I thought that until I drove it, just minutes after a couple of hours of glorious thrashing around in a Continental T. Though, as you will shortly see, it is not really the point, the roof works exceptionally well. The smoked panels are light, stow neatly in the boot and lock into the roof with the twist of an elegantly chromed switch. From these chaps you would expect no less.

Airflow across the front seats at a steady 70mph varies from a gentle breeze with the windows up to exhilarating gusts if they are lowered, while those in the cramped back at least have the benefit of a third, fixed smoked panel above their heads. With the panels in place, not only does the SC assume coupe levels of refinement, there is also the added benefit of hugely better headroom, until now always a problem for big Bentley coupes.

The above, however, constitutes but a fraction of the SC’s charms and fails to show why, despite its obvious limitations, it is the best of its breed. Forget, for a start, the power loss of the famed 6.75-litre all-alloy engine. It still has 400bhp, compared to the 420bhp of the T and the 385bhp of its other two-door siblings. It still goes down the road like an avalanche down a mountainside, dismissing all who snap at its chromed exhaust with the merest dip of an elegantly drilled pedal.

Forget the reduced rigidity too. Torsional stiffness is a relative term and, roof removed, the SC still feels like it has the structural integrity of a bank vault. Enjoy instead the myriad changes in both the cosmetic and engineering departments that Bentley has wrought to give the SC an identity of its own.

There are new seats for a start, as good as any fitted to a Rolls-Royce or Bentley of late and, as such, among the very finest in the automotive world. The centre console has been freshened up too, but not at the expense of the huge red starter button. On the outside, there are bigger sills, a new front airdam, fresh wheels… the chaps at Crewe are nothing if not comprehensive in their approach.,/p>

My favourite modification is to the suspension. In almost every way it is Continental T suspension, from its spring rates to its tyre pressures, and yet if you drive both they feel utterly different. Where the T jumps and darts around, the SC feels softer, more composed and, unless you’re driving very quickly indeed, rather better. All this comes from two tiny changes in specification: slightly softer suspension bushes and a fresh programme for the electronic dampers.

To an extent, there is no doubting that the Sedanca Coupe represents a marketing opportunity on wheels. Bentley expects over half of the 80 which will be produced each year to end up cruising the American Interstate network and there’s no denying a car which looks like a Continental T but with a slightly softer, more cuddly nature should do well over there.

But who are we to begrudge Bentley that? Twenty years ago a Bentley was just a badge and a dodgy radiator on a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow; today it is a proud and individual marque that, quite rightly, comfortably outsells its former owner. And as the marques go their separate ways once and for all, the SC is one more reason to conclude that, in product terms alone, VW has had the rather better end of the deal.

It’s a car I grew to like in a very short period of time and one, I have no doubt, which would only grow further on those rich enough to afford prolonged exposure. But passion? My dictionary defines passion as ‘strong, barely controllable emotion’. I don’t think I’m quite ready to feel that way about a car just yet.