What happens when you take one of the world's most famous luxury brands of automobile and mate it with a superstar in high-end audio? Now imagine being invited to drive not one, but two Bentley cars while enjoying music through a Naim Audio system. Upon receiving my invitation for such an event, my first reaction was "Oh no, it'll be a two day Dog And Pony show.' Those who have met me know i hate D.A.P. shows!!! Yes, three exclamation marks. Since Bentley and Naim were willing to allow me to drive both iterations of the Bentley plus put me up at the elegant Boston Harbor Hotel, which was a mere two hour drive from my home, i gave in and said yes. Besides, this is a $250,000 car, around $125,000 for a previously owned 2005 model, and so was interested in how the newest models stacked up against the older models. You will learn about my interests in this, and why i know used car prices, as you read on.
A Brief Note About Me
With the Ferrari (see my Ferrari factory visit here) being long sold due to it being too slow and impractical for daily usage, my goal is to find a true luxury car for daily driving. The Ford F250 Superduty is our property workhorse while also being put to good use pulling the enclosed trailer for the much-more-capable-than-a-Ferrari Formula 2000 open wheel weapon i race in SCCA (see sister site Enjoy the Track for details on my race efforts). Have taken a Rolls-Royce, chauffeured of course, for a nice romantic visit to the Empire State Building on Valentine's Day with my wife. Have driven more sports cars and luxury cars than i care to mention. The reason i mention racing is that Bentley offers a Speed version of their car that is claimed to be sporty, and while a Rolls-Royce is for those who desire being chauffeured, a Bentley is for a proper gentleman who prefers driving himself to places. The Bentley is also a torque and horsepower beast with an enormous 12-cylinder engine under the front bonnet. The same type of engine can be found under the hood of the very best Ferrari cars, with Bentley's engine being a close facsimile of the 12-cylinder engine being found under the rear hood of modern Lamborghini sports cars.
Another point to note is that i somehow doubt Naim Audio knew about my years of experience as a regional and occasional national judge for the International Auto Sound Challenge Association (IASCA). IASCA, the nations leading car audio competition organization, holds events where the very best in custom car audio systems fighting it out for supremacy in sound quality to earn trophies. As a judge, i have literally heard $20,000 car audio systems that took nearly a year to design and install. The late great Bill Burton, a man who was technical editor for many years with such magazines as Car Stereo Review and Car Audio & Electronics, was a good friend of mine and we would judge the nation's best car audio systems together at IASCA events. We would also meet for dinner during CES and talk about everything from audio systems to music to technical details that need to be overcome in the mobile audio environment. My main point with this section of the article is to inform you that my benchmark is extremely high and am perhaps the best, or worst depending on your standpoint, person to attend this Naim and Bentley D.A.P. show. So if i get extremely critical, please take it with a grain of salt as my standards are perhaps much more concentrated than the run-of-the-mill journalist.
The Audio System
Surprisingly, the in-dash head unit does not feature a touch panel. Color me quite surprised that such a fine car of this caliber is still stuck in 1999 technology of dials and buttons. Shame on Bentley for such a relatively 'prehistoric' unit in this day and age of touch panels (especially if the owner dares to use the GPS system, which Top Gear TV show has correctly noted it has the voice of a British Prison Matron). Of course we are audiophiles, yet once you hear the GPS voice you may choose to buy another unit for a better voice and more intuitive touch panel operation. This also has a negative affect on using the DSP modes and EQ settings, as one must touch this button, turn that center dial above the shifter, etc. Even my lowly $1100 Kenwood in-car DVD unit has touch panel, acceptable GPS voice, Bluetooth, iPod-ready, USB port-enabled, digital radio capable, etc and so is enjoyable to use.
Before i forget, the speakers all use neodymium magnets to keep weight and size down, some employ long-throw surround and mating voice coils. The tweeter units use latest catenary-profiled domes for high-frequencies while bass units are loaded into ultra-rigid enclosures. Like the specifications for the car, you can learn every small detail about the Naim Audio system within the Bentley from various online sources. Am writing this on the 11th hour; as the August 2008 Review Magazine is to be launched in only a handful of hours from now. While i had hoped to have this done for the July midmonth update, my workload has been tremendous.
Track one on the IASCA CD is the opening track to Telarc's Time Warp [CD80106]. While this song is all electronic, i find it a fun way to begin the day and start warming up a system. Next up was right/left channel identity, and yes the channels were correct yet you'd be amazed how many systems i have judged that failed this simple test. Before i go any further, yes the system was set to 'Audiophile' mode and did some customizing of the treble, midrange, and bass plus front/rear and right/left balance to what i felt was the most balanced and appropriate.
Next up were a few tonal tests that included "Use Me" by Junior Wells [Telarc 83380], "Lux Aeterna by the Turtle Creek Choral [Reference Recordings RR 57CD], "Scherzo-tarantella op. 16" by Eugene Fordor and Kiyoshi Tomagawa [Clarity CCD 1017], and "Aint But One" [Mapleshade MS 05452]. The music sounded quite impressive, and perhaps one of the best stock audio systems my ears have heard to date. It also faired quite well to the no-holds-barred megabuck systems my ears have heard at competitions. From harmonics to dynamics, the system was quite impressive. The bass was full and fairly tight, yet still suffered from the typical bass hangover you find with some car audio systems. This might be due to the resonant frequencies in car audio due to the cabin's space. Running through the frequency sweep test, my ears did not detect and major flaws throughout the frequency spectrum. Though an RTA meter would have been helpful, over the years my ears have been 'trained' to detect extreme frequency anomalies within an audio system when using a frequency sweep test. The many pluses include a nice, pleasant and natural sound. The upper midrange was properly balanced and the uppermost frequencies sounded quite extended yet never etched. Midbass was impressive and only when we got to below 50Hz or thereabouts did the bass lose a bit of speed and accuracy. Keep in mind that car audio is much more challenging to get right in the lowermost frequencies versus home audio due to the cabin size and dimensions. So when compared to a great home audio setup, the Naim Audio system within the Bentley was extraordinary!
There are two drawbacks, besides the actual operation of the unit, which are my only main criticisms. One being the imaging suffers from the usual left to right spacing of the front imaging and the other is the inherent hiss within the system. Due to the front dash loudspeakers being at different distances from the listener, the system does suffer from a pinched left to center and wide center to right imaging. While i can not find one of my old IASCA judging sheets, will use the image seen here with numbers so you have an idea what i am referring to.
On track 17 of the IASCA disc there are seven snare drum taps that go from the left channel to the right channel in equal spacing. Therefore the fourth snare drum tap is dead center, with the others falling either far left, in-between, or far right. In the image here you can see where i heard each of the seven snare drum taps. The other drawback is that the system does have a hissing (noise) problem. While not distractive at listening levels, partly due to the usual road nose and the other being the music's volume level, there is some hiss in the system. This last critique will probably virtually never be detected by the listener, yet in ultimate IASCA rules there would be points deducted for this problem.
All in all the Naim Audio sound system is very impressive. Am sure that Bentley owners will find it far better than virtually every other car in the marketplace and, perhaps, better than their home audio setup. With many DSP modes and the ability for bass, midrange, and treble adjustment, the system offers good versatility over most others. I still wish the Naim Audio system offered Q settings and the ability to choose the exact frequency of the equalization as found within my $1100 Kenwood head unit, yet can understand that some users would possibly not be able to fully deploy such adjustments, or worse still, make a mess of the audio system by making uneducated adjustments. Upon mentioning this drawback to the Naim representative, i have to agree the K.I.S.S. method is best for the majority of users.
While the car weights in at around 5500 lbs, during the twisty bits of the road i must commend Bentley for making the car feel much lighter and being quite nimble. For cruise control junkies such as myself, there is a radar system built into the front grill so that once you set the speed and distance desired, the car will naturally slow down and increase speed up to the set mph automatically. This means that even if you leave the cruise control on and reach a stop light with a car in front of you, the car will stop, then move forward to follow the car in front of you until you reach the set speed. It is quite unnerving to have a car automatically brake to a stop. While i trust technology, being at the wheel of a loaned $250,000 automobile and trust it to do the right thing is another matter entirely. The radar-controlled cruise control speed system worked flawlessly.
The steering wheel gives a light yet reassuring feedback as do the brakes. Speaking of brakes, to keep rotating mass down Bentley chose to use carbon composite rotors. These are usually found on top-notch sports cars and in Formula 1. Also of note is that the front rotors are the largest offered in a consumer car, at a staggering 420mm! The rear rotors are 356mm and the brake system employs antilock with Electronic Stability Program (ESP). Here is where i love to hate to love the car. While the brakes were excellent given the immense weight they need to stop, they were more an on-off system than something that allowed for a smooth and easily modulated stop so as not to abruptly change the momentum. The first car i drove had a front left pulling of the steering wheel, which then turned into a vibration upon my first hard use of the brakes, which i feel was due to needing a brake caliper fluid bleeding as it would be hard to fathom a rotor of this type being warped.
The powerful engine truly has some get-up-and-go power, with stunningly fast acceleration from a stop or rolling from 35mph up to legal highway speeds. Both the normal and Speed versions seemed to suffer from an approximately 1.5 second turbo spool up delay. You see, the car likes to cruise at about 1,300 rpm, so if you want to power through a turn or quickly avoid an obstacle via use of the throttle, you can forget it unless you are good and forward-predicting the system's delay. A workaround would be to use the paddle shifters by the steering wheel to downshift the transmission, yet this, too, takes time yet is quicker than waiting for the car to figure things out by just mashing the loud pedal down. Lastly, being a two foot driver, with right foot on the throttle and left foot on the brake, during a turn i decided to see how one could balance the car by dragging the brake. This technique is great for spirited driving where if you take a bit too much speed through a turn you might be able to input the appropriate brake pressure to not upset the car's balance too much while achieving the desired speed and trajectory of the vehicle. While i realize that my efforts may be one of the extremely few who drives the Bentley to try this technique, the fly-by-wire computer system choked and did not know what to do. Once i released the brake and throttle input, the system went back to normal and worked flawlessly. If Bentley makes their cars for distinguished gentleman who wants to drive a car, perhaps they will find a way to greatly reduce the turbo drag and fix the algorithm to allow for two-foot drivers such as myself. Why have so much engine and braking power if they can not be fully exploited in the Speed version of the Bentley Flying Spur? Please remember, my driving the car and that of a more, well, normal person means that when i test something it is truly a hard core test versus Joe/Jane causal cruiser. This included my deploying some of the most aggressive, or obscure, techniques depending on one's point of view. Being familiar with how to finesse the brakes with a heavy load due to my large truck with over 21 foot enclosed trailer attached, finesse is key to keep the weight shift smooth and controlled during braking for stoplights and evasive action due to the odd maniac who may cut me off on the highway.
The one thing Joe/Jane American might be depressed about is the placement of the front cup holders. Ok, you can stop laughing now, but i am serious in that American drivers actually do care about such things while they get their mocha latte with skim milk. To access the cup holders you need to raise the comfy arm rest to their upright position to place your drink within the holder. This also means you lose your armrest! Ok, so my Ford F250 Superduty has, count 'em, four cup holders in the front compartment. None of them interfere with the arm rest for my 8+ hour long hauls. Now if my workhorse of a truck costing well under $40,000 can have properly situated cup holders, one of the foremost authorities in elegance and comfort should at least provide a single cup holder for the driver so that they can drive and enjoy a comfortable armrest in their $250,000 vehicle. Apologies if this sounds like i am making a big deal of it, though if Bentley called their American customer base and asked them about the cup holders... Keep in mind Ferrari has zero cup holders and my Formula 2000 does not even have room for storing a pack of cigarettes, let alone i have never seen a cup holder handle 3+G's so we'll have none of that rubbish (though it does have a nice two-way radio system located between the front Penske triple-adjustable shocks).
So we must ask ourselves the obvious question, is the Bentley Flying Spur comfortable and does it hit the targeted audience, plus look and feel like it is worth $250,000? Ah, that depends on what one's requirements are. i feel the on-off brakes are not a deal killer yet do not help. And, frankly, i bet you few will ever notice the cup holder problem until they drive the car home and stop for a drink of coffee or proper British tea (make mine the Morning blend from Fauchon in France). The good news is that Chrysler makes a car that looks quite a bit like the Bentley, so you might go unnoticed on the roads and discretion is a good thing in this day and age of closing companies, falling home prices and banks going belly up nearly each week. So perhaps being a gentleman who enjoyed the finer things in life would choose the Bentley for the gracious interior and wonderful comfort while having the ability to drive virtually unnoticed as the car does not scream Look At Me like boy toy Ferraris and Lamborghinis.
Before i forget, road comfort was good though you could feel medium and large bumps on the road. This is not my mother's 1972 Cadillac, after all, which was a more akin to a comfy couch on wheels. The suspension does do a very good job at muting small offenders and large offending potholes are dealt with quite well, yet not totally absorbed. Overall, the ride was quite comfortable and smooth.
As for the car, i guess this is where the keen-eyed reader remembers how early on i mentioned i was in the market for such a car. It saddens me to report that the Bentley has too many flaws for my personal preferences. The turbo lag is the main killer, as is the on-off brakes. Do not want a Ferrari 599 or the like either, and so will have to now try the Mercedes S series and see how that fares. Not the AMG version mind you, i just desire a simple 8 cylinder engine car that responds well, a comfortably ride, has modern electronics and is well made to last many years. Sadly, Mercedes uses the same lackluster non-touch panel head unit like the Bentley. You can not remove the offending head unit, as other systems are controlled through them.
So yes, color me one very hard to please journalist. Am sure there will be glowing reviews of the cars, yet perhaps my thirst for luxury and performance combined with modern technology electronics is a few years ahead of its time? Well, at least we can rest assured that Bentley owners should be quite pleased with their Naim Audio sound system. Lastly, my deepest appreciation to everyone at Bentley and Naim Audio for holding such a wonderful event. They were the consummate host and truly cared that my questions and needs were met during this event.
Addendum (Added July 2010)