Bentley Is Back, Faster Than Ever

From the looks of it, the new Bentley Supersports is at once flashy, purposeful, and elegant. It is also swift—from zero to 100kph in 3.9 seconds—showy, with beefy 51-centimeter wheels, and timeless in its curvaceous lines. And while these descriptors may together evoke an image as incongruous as an F1 Prius race car, here they make perfect sense. The Supersports is Bentley's latest entry in a lineup that has helped yank the storied British company from money-losing oblivion to belle of the automotive ball.

With so many Bentleys now parked in front of chic eateries along Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Florida, outside Harrods in London, and next to the fashion boutiques of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (Bentley's No. 1 market), it's hard to imagine that the brand that motors the queen around England was on the verge of collapse just a few years ago. From its beginnings in the roaring '20s, Bentley has consisted of serious machinery; the founder, W. O. Bentley, invented the engine that powered the Sop with Camel in World War I. If Rolls-Royce owners saw the world from the vantage point of the back seat, Bentley owners were proud to take control of the wheel.

From its inception, Bentley was considered a racing company. It won high-profile meets at Brooklands in England and Le Mans in France. Bentley's heritage as a winning race-car firm drove early sales. But it was slow to adopt new technology, and the design didn't evolve in response to changing times. Labor disputes periodically halted production. Over the decades, competitors like Mercedes-Benz and BMW won legions of automotive fans with their sleek, sexy rides. In 1931 Bentley was swallowed up by Rolls-Royce and marginalized by its parent company so that Rolls could become the unrivaled premier British brand. In short order, Rolls-Royce itself was on the sales block. But a dozen years ago, Volkswagen took over Bentley (BMW purchased Rolls-Royce) and began a lengthy revamping of its models. A huge infusion of Volkswagen cash and top-quality German engineering was all it took to revive this upper-crust car company. "It's now a very dependable vehicle that is completely contemporary, stylish, and relevant," says editor in chief Karl Brauer. "But I'm sure the majority of people who buy Bentleys today have no clue about its very successful racing heritage."

Volkswagen has done such a remarkable job modernizing the brand that it is becoming an increasingly common sight in wealthy neighborhoods. "Part of Bentley's appeal is that not everyone has one, like, say, a Mercedes," says Brauer. "In certain affluent towns, there is nearly a glut. They have to worry about making just enough but not too many." Last year's rough economy took care of that. In 2008 Bentley sold 7,604 cars worldwide. Last year buyers numbered just over 4,600.

But being owned by Volkswagen, the world's largest carmaker, means the brand can weather bad times. And unlike its owner, which makes vehicles for Everyman, Bentley has found a comfy niche in the price category that teeters somewhere between high-end production models, like BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and hand-built rides like Rolls-Royce and Ferrari. The Supersports model tops the Bentley price range at €197,763. In this stratosphere, the company hopes to sell to a select 250 customers this year.

It won't appeal to everyone. The Supersports looks so large and comfort-driven, it's surprising that it actually zooms the way it does. "Bentley Supersports is the sleeper hot rod," says Automobile Magazine's editor in chief, Jean Jennings. "They are rockets and absolutely gorgeous." Heavy use of lightweight carbon fiber to reduce heft—paired with a macho six-liter, W12, 621bhp twin-turbocharged engine—makes this the fastest Bentley ever. It tips the speedometer at 329kph with nary a shudder.

Inside, instead of the luxuriously lacquered hardwood veneer used in most Bentleys, the Supersports features a glitzy lacquered carbon fiber, which lovers of sporty cars will recognize as an expensive finish. Drivers can perform their fancy footwork on drilled alloy sports pedals, which look racy. There are quilted, diamond-pattern Alcantara suede inserts in the door panels; a thick, soft-touch steering wheel; and a roomy luggage deck, where the back seats would be if this were a four-seater. And the contrast piping and stitching on the leather seats are pure English posh, just what you'd expect for the money. An optional Naim 15-speaker sound system is a delight, though it's a question whether that many speakers is really necessary in a two-seat vehicle.

Is it worth it? To be sure, the Supersports is over the top. On a recent drive, I hit the "sport" mode and stomped on the gas pedal. The car nearly levitated, rearing its front end like the queen's horse gone wild. This is wheelie power. Days later, I had the chance to put pedal to metal on a closed-track Mojave Desert airport runway. Squeezing on the accelerator, and with the Supersports's wheels aimed straight down the jet strip, I was delighted to see the speedometer's needle brush the 317kph mark. If not for a crosswind, I probably could have bettered that. All the while, the car stayed sure-footed and straight ahead, thanks in part to its grippy all-wheel drive and seamless shifting.

All this power comes at a price beyond money. The Supersports is likely a car environmentalists will love to hate. Registering an EPA rating of 24.5 liters per kilometer in city driving, the Supersports probably won't end up on anyone's save-the-planet shortlist. Does it help that, beginning this summer, it will be flex-fueled, equipped to handle either gasoline or E85 biofuel? I didn't think so. By year's end, it's rumored that Bentley's refreshed Continental GT model will sport an engine that is 40 percent more fuel-efficient than the current GT.

While some of the world is clamoring for smaller ecofriendly vehicles, clearly not everyone is. "Bentley has done an amazing job of satisfying the buyer who wants to show off," says George Peterson, president of the Los Angeles-based automotive consulting group AutoPacific. "The pro athlete, the guy who just sold his first screenplay, the guy who wants to drive something more unique than a Mercedes"—for them, Bentley has another beauty waiting in the wings: the 2011 Mulsanne, the company's large flagship sedan. Early photos show that it flicks at Bentley's elegant heritage shape, but with decidedly updated lines. It still won't go faster than the Supersports.