THERE'S ONLY ONE word in my lexicon that comes anywhere close to describing the 2005 Bentley Arnage T: mind-blowing. The Arnage T is Bentley Motors' top-of-the range, four-door saloon, a souped-up version of the Arnage R - a pretty formidable piece of machinery in its own right.
But only a knowledgeable eye will be able to spot the exterior trim differences that distinguish the two. Inside, the differences are easier to see. The Arnage T has engine-turned aluminium panels set into the dashboard and door cappings - a throwback to its spiritual forebears, W.O. Bentley's legendary Le Mans winners of the 1920s. It also sports quilted leather upholstery and black-faced instruments instead of the R's cream.
The main differences between the Arnage R and the T are under the skin. They share the same V8, 6.75-litre engine with twin Garrett T3 turbos, Bosch ME7 engine management system and drive-by-wire throttle. But the Arnage R develops a mere 400bhp and 616lb/ft of torque, while the T produces 450bhp and 645lb/ft. Maximum torque is available at only 3,250rpm, and the rev limiter has been raised from 4,500rpm to 5,000rpm. This is enough to make the Arnage T the fastest production four-door saloon in the world, catapulting the 2,585kg car from 0-100km/h in 5.7 seconds. That's phenomenal.
The top speed is electronically limited to 270km/h. The 2005 cars comply with EU4 European emission regulations and in the US, they even achieve low emission vehicle rating. The four-speed transmission kicks down with just the right amount of encouragement and delivers overtaking performance that's startling for such a large car.
Darting out from behind a bus on a straight stretch of Tai Tam Road, your shoulders are thrust back and held against the squab while your arms feel as if they're being pulled out of their sockets as the hand-stitched leather steering wheel lunges at the horizon.
The front and rear 35cm disk brakes with four-channel ABS on the Arnage T are among the best on any car I've driven - thank goodness! Even braking hard from high speed, you feel there are still enormous reserves at your command, should you fail to anticipate correctly on Magazine Gap Road.
To assist over-enthusiastic drivers heading home up the Peak, there's also a traction control system, engine drag torque control and Bosch 5.7 electronic stability programme, which will automatically apply the correct amount of braking to the correct wheel, or the correct amount of throttle.
The rear-suspension system has been slightly rearranged to improve ride quality, particularly for rear passengers. The result is that the car glides like a magic carpet, with lumps and bumps being more heard than felt. Cruising along the Tolo Highway or hurrying up the old Tai Po Road, the ride is firm, but not harsh - but there's still a marked tendency to understeer. The car feels smaller than it is and is easy to place on the road. Considering the size of the Pirelli 255/45/R19 tyres, road noise is remarkably subdued - an improvement on my Turbo R.
The steering is the only real disappointment of the driving experience. It's light and provides virtually no feel. Around town, that won't worry me too much. But if you wind your way up Route Twisk, you need feedback from the wheels and the road. There's hardly any.
The Arnage T can cover large distances in a day, and the driver will arrive exhilarated and relaxed. Rear passengers enjoy great comfort in the electrically-adjustable club-like seats and a generous amount of leg room.
The Arnage T's interior is unique. We mustn't forget that, after the divorce between Rolls-Royce and Bentley, which became final on January 1 this year, the company we now know as Bentley Motors Limited inherited the factory and the people who trace their heritage back to Henry Royce and his workshop in Cooke Street, Manchester, in 1904.
Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars were supplied only in chassis form until 1946, but since that time the factory has employed a pool of highly skilled artisans capable of crafting the finest hides, woods and carpeting into the most sumptuous car interiors in the world.
The Arnage T doesn't quite have the traditional drawing-room feel of most other Bentleys. The engine-turned aluminium panels set into the dashboard and the door cappings, together with the quilted leather seats (each headrest with an embroidered logo) and numerous other touches, give the car an altogether more sporty feel. But, despite appearances, the driver's seat doesn't offer enough lateral grip when cornering at speed.
One of the joys of Bentley motoring for me has always been the tactile pleasure of using the beautifully made controls. In earlier models, knobs and switches were made in the factory at Crewe from chrome-plated brass. These days, there's more plastic in the switchgear, which cheapens the look and the feel of the car.
The delicate indicator stalk on my Turbo R, for example, is a delight to operate, like a knife through butter. The one on the Arnage T is large and crude by comparison and has a rough action.
I also don't much care for the woodwork. Like the woods used in many cars now, it looks plastic, and it has an applique Bentley logo stuck on it in the centre of the fascia that looks cheap and nasty.
None of this need be a problem, however. All Arnages are made to order, and about half of them have bespoke features from Bentley's in-house, coachbuilders, Mulliner. The appearance of the large twin-Xenon/halogen headlamps of the 2005 cars is a big improvement on the two smaller ones set behind a glass fairing of earlier models. They give the Arnages a family resemblance to their younger sibling, the Continental GT, as well as some of their forebears. The bonnet line and bumpers have also been revised for 2005, and a vaned radiator grille (instead of the standard laser-cut matrix) is once again an option.
It's difficult to make a complete assessment of a car such as the Arnage T on a short drive in a place such as Hong Kong, where road conditions and speed limits preclude the use of more than a fraction of the performance.
The Arnage T is easy to drive, for both sexes. The driver's seat is infinitely adjustable, so even the most petite woman could probably find a comfortable driving position. Having said that, the character of the Arnage T is of a masculine machine. The only point of buying the T versus the R is for the extra performance and handling. The T is a driver's machine.
Will chauffeurs find the new Arnage T easier to drive? Possibly. The Maybach and the Phantom could feel too big for Hong Kong's roads. The Arnage, although not small, is easy to drive, relatively manoeuvrable and offers an excellent driving position and visibility. The Arnage T is unbeatable on its stylish lines and performance. So, give your driver the day off - if he lets you - and yourself a day to remember. Now, where did I stash that $4.6 million?
Peter Wynn Williams is the investment director of the Henley Group
2005 Bentley Arnage T
What drives it? A 450 brake-horsepower V8, 6.75-litre engine with twin Garrett T3 turbos with a box, double wishbone independent front and rear suspension with computer-controlled adaptive electro-hydraulic damping system and automatic ride height control with auto load compensation and headlamp levelling.
How fast is it? Very, with a 0-100km/h in 5.7 seconds and a top speed of 270km/h.
Does it fit your parking space? It may be tight, at 5.4 metres. Width across mirrors: 2.125 metres. Body width, including door handles: 1.932 metres. Height: 1.515 metres. Power-assisted, speed-sensitive, rack-and-pinion steering offers 3.18 turns, lock to lock.
How thirsty? The T won't say no to 30.7 litres per 100km on a 100-litre tank.
Available: Yours for $4.6 million at Bentley Hong Kong (tel: 2890 1918).