When it comes to luxury convertibles, they don't get much more luxurious or, erm, convertible than the Bentley Azure. The Azure is a two-door, four-seat soft-top based on the same platform as the imposing Arnage sedan. Unlike the relatively cheaper Continental GT and Flying Spur cars, these are the old-school Bentleys, hand-built in England, using a V8 that dates back almost to the days of the British Empire.
Well, that's an exaggeration, but the Azure has this undeniably opulent, imperial vibe, and the 6.75-liter engine is nearly 50 years old. However, a good basic design, a couple of turbochargers, and a development budget only a company the size of VW could afford have brought this torquey monster burbling into the 21st century. In the Azure, it develops an irresistible 645 lb-ft at just 1800 rpm, giving the car a kind of languid yet forceful strength. Peak power is a magnificent 450 hp at 4100 rpm. Connected with the new-for-2007, super-smooth ZF six-speed automatic transmission (replacing a GM four-speeder), the Azure boasts slightly improved performance figures of 5.6 seconds in the sprint to 60 mph and a top speed of 171 mph. Pretty darn impressive for a vehicle that weighs 5941 pounds.
Despite having carbon fiber cross braces, other reinforcements, in conjunction with the pop-up rollover protection apparatus, have contributed to the car's bulk. The good news is the Azure suffers from none of the body flex that many convertibles display.
Even if you deliberately sought out rough road surfaces to drive over, the Azure disdainfully tramples them underfoot, as if they and it should not have to share the same universe. Now that's ride quality. It's all done with an expertly tuned chassis, a relaxed 122.7-inch wheelbase and 45-section tires on 19-inch wheels.
For such a mountain of a car, the Azure won't lose its dignified manner on a mountain road. It takes a corner with something that might be construed as suppressed relish, like it wants to be wild but is too well bred to ever indulge in such a base instinct. Even so, the new model's electronic driver aids have been reprogrammed to allow a somewhat looser rein-in keeping with a marque that made its reputation at Le Mans. The result is fun of sorts. Not fun in a Lotus Elise, point-and-squirt way, more like fun of the 'I really shouldn't be doing this' kind.
It feels as if the Azure has a character, that it's not just a collection of parts assembled in a soulless industrial complex. Which makes it easier to forgive the car's foibles. Like the laughable amount of up/down adjustment on the steering column (half an inch-it doesn't adjust for reach at all). Or the crappy cupholder in the center console that threatens to spill hot tea over the front seats' electrical (16-way) adjuster controls.
Which would be a terrible shame, because the Connolly leather, deep-pile carpet, billet aluminum vents, various knurled metal surfaces, and beautiful woodwork are just too damn classy to soil with anything so plebeian as tea. It's also really charming how the fuel gauge reads 'Full' and 'Empty.' Not so charming to see the needle head dizzily toward 'Empty' to the tune of 12/20 mpg city and highway. But an Azure owner is hardly likely to worry about where the next gallon of gas is coming from. For a while, at least.
What might be harder to forgive is the price. Our test vehicle wouldn't leave the showroom for less than $350,000. Which is a mountain of cash for what is essentially a car that's nearly as old as the hills. Pardon the apparent oxymoron, but the Azure just has the basic luxuries, nodding to modern times with Bluetooth connectivity, tire pressure monitors, and a reverse camera (as long as you choose the satellite navigation option that provides the screen). Then again, the Azure will be bought by the more, ahem, mature customer who probably knows how to park a car without mechanical assistance. And with only 125 cars coming to the United States this year, the Azure will be exclusive, even in Palm Springs.
So that's the luxury bit covered. On to the convertible. Because it's an old car, it has an old roof: a three-layer fabric example that folds neatly into the body, beneath a hide-covered tonneau, its electric motors performing the operation in about 25 seconds. When in place, it does a good job of keeping noise levels low and the car retains its patrician good looks in either position.
The thing about this car is that it feels indisputably special. Almost like it's come from another world. Considering its esoteric price and heritage, maybe it has. Yes, the Azure is old-school, but remember: Oxford and Cambridge are old schools too.
2007 Bentley Azur
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
Six-speed automatic with sport and sequential shift modes
Double independent wishbones
Two-piston calipers, 13.7-inch rotors
Length x width x height (in.): 212.6 x 83.7 x 59.7
Wheelbase: 122.7 in.
Curb Weight: 5941 lb
Peak Power: 450 hp @ 4100 rpm
Peak Torque: 645 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm
0-60 mph: 5.6 sec.
Top Speed: 171 mph
*Why we love it: It's a whole
different way of driving
*Why we don't: See below
The Price Tag: $329,990