B on the bonnet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am

There's an art to handling the biggest, plushest Bentley in Hong Kong, and I'm receiving driving advice some socialites might seek. 'Remember that the Arnage RL is a big car and, at 5.64 metres, about as long as a minibus,' says the kindly Bentley guy, who doesn't want to be named. The Rolls-Royce Phantom is longer, at 5.834 metres, and its extended-wheelbase version is an ominous 6.084 metres, but this Arnage's dimensions worry me, particularly when I hear that too many of Hong Kong's Arnage-owning rich have come a quiet cropper in their limousines.

The most common problems in the Bentley Hong Kong workshop, my instructor says, are the scuff of wheels and tyres against curbs, and wing dings from careless driving.

'That, and flat batteries from underuse,' he says. The annual mileage of an Arnage RL in Hong Kong can be as little as 'about 2,000km', the Bentley guy says, because their owners often commute in smaller Continentals and Mercedes-Benzes, and roll out the Arnage RL for special occasions.

Scrapes are easy, then, in such a large car, and in a town you think you know so well. Expensive, too - 'replacing a wheel costs about HK$10,672, plus HK$200 fitting, and repairing a scratched wing costs about HK$4,500', the dealer says.

I've driven in Causeway Bay since 1979, and have revved Rolls-Royces since I was 14, but Hong Kong's teeming roads seem to shrink at the clink of a Flying B's keys. And with Arnage RLs costing 'from HK$5.88 million', I'm jittery. This big Bentley is a knee-wobbling 2.125 metres wide between wing mirrors, 13.5cm broader than the Phantom (1.99 metres) and with 22.3cm more girth than the lithe BMW 7-Series (1.902 metres). It's in a different league.

So I let the Bentley chap glide the test car from his Leighton Road showroom to the Hong Kong Stadium, where he shows me what knobs are what, and we swap seats.

If you've never driven a car as big as the Arnage for a while, a quiet dummy run makes sense, ideally among the learner drivers of So Kon Po. The area's streets are as narrow as they get in Hong Kong and the local truckers and roadworks crews are conditioned to the bumble of learners in little Toyotas - and now, one big Bentley.

The Arnage's controls can be assimilated in about 10 minutes, but if you plan to save your limousine for special occasions, and expect your drive to be all right on the night, you - or your chauffeur - might want to 'walk the car', to get a feel for its edges before you drive.

The Arnage RL is a grand looker in Black Sapphire and is probably more suited to the sweeping lawns of blue-skied property ads than the confined reality of Hong Kong roads. Few bonnets glint like the RL's chrome grille, and the 'B' badges on the D-pillars remind me of my privileged drive. Bentley Hong Kong doesn't lend its keys to just anyone.

You sit high in the Arnage's seat and the retractable Flying B on the bonnet seems ominously distant, but the controls are easy to understand. Bentley has improved the Arnage's driver ergonomics by increasing the length of its steering column by 25mm. And I don't need my reading glasses for the cream-faced dashboard dials. The footbrake ergonomics seem quaintly archaic, with the pedal by the block and its release handle to the right of the steering wheel, but you might expect such quirks in a Bentley. The ignition is predictably quiet, and a whoosh of the 63/4 litre twin turbo engine scatters sparrows over the stadium. You're allowed one rev in an Arnage RL - any more is uncool in this Helen Mirren of cars.

The 2007 model's V8 promises 450 brake horsepower, 50bhp more than its predecessor - yet it seems so easy to control. I'm soon addicted to the accelerator, for it flatters a driver. You can inch at the lights as easily as a little Smart ForTwo, or hoof it, Lotus-style, along Wong Nei Chong Gap Road. You have 875Nm of torque if you need it, and the claimed sprints seem possible.

The marque's latest engine tweakings raised the RL's top speed by 21km/h to 270km/h, but I'm happy averaging 50km/h to 60km/h in a three-tonne dressage of Jardine's Lookout.

Two new low-inertia turbochargers enhance the Arnage's efficiency at lower engine speeds, and I feel neither turbo lag nor guilt at leaving Tai Hang Road with 465g of CO2 per kilometre in fug. On the contrary, the test car's effortless cruise has probably raised the lucky locals' property values this morning.

The key to enjoying such a large car on small streets, as the Bentley guy says, is to look further ahead along the road than you might in smaller wheels, to allow for the car's momentum and squeeze. The Arnage's brakes are as efficient as the Jaguar XJ's, and the shift of the new six-speed ZF gearbox seems smooth, thanks, I'm told, to a 'sophisticated locking torque converter and an electronic management system'.

Increasingly confident, I kick it, until the anti-lock braking judders in a damp patch along Stubbs Road. The Bentley guy tells me to read road surfaces more carefully, particularly in the monsoon, even with a new electronic stability programme.

Reversing the Arnage RL is another leveller, as you can't rely entirely on mirrors. You need rear sensors, or a yoga instructor to stretch around and view, but this Bentley's easier on my neck in reverse than is a Lexus LS460.

The Arnage RL is probably the plush car to have in Hong Kong, now that the Peninsula hotel has bought 14 Rolls-Royces for its guests, the Shangri-La hotel has one and at least one tycoon has two. The Maybachs still seem rather new here and maybe the steel-tinged Arnage T is a bit Room at the Top for balls.

In the latest Arnage RL, madam can opt for a rear centre armrest bottle cooler and rSAP telephone, with a veneered rear centre cushion box in the back as standard. The ride's predictably comfy in all that soft leather and Cotswold finish, but what a pity that Bentley Hong Kong doesn't offer a reversing camera all-in, as the Le Mans-winning marque does in the US, EU and Australia. That costs 'about HK$50,000', a spokeswoman says.

The dealer's Ap Lei Chau paintshop could be busy - unless you ask for the Bentley guy who taught the Post bloke to glide one of the world's biggest, most beautiful, cars through the nob end of North Point, unscathed. And that's a joy.