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Two men prostrated themselves before the new Freelander — in gratitude, presumably, for anything more reliable than the previous model.

18 April 2007

3:30 PM

18 April 2007

3:30 PM

New York

Two men prostrated themselves before the new Freelander — in gratitude, presumably, for anything more reliable than the previous model — but it turned out that the turntable on which it was displayed had jammed. On the Hummer stand another man went from car to car covering the filler caps with sticky tape. I had no idea these were so desirable, but then this was the New York Motor Show and they were expecting 200,000 visitors. The filler cap is indeed satisfyingly chunky but the rest of the car looks as if it’s trying to be more than it is, like a man with shoulder pads.

Over at Mercedes there was consternation when the roof leaked on to the C50 Sport Sedan. The new C Class was disappointingly cramped in the rear, something you expect of the CLK but not from a four-door saloon. The CL65 AMG looked as potent as it is (V12, 0–60mph in 4.2 seconds), but you wouldn’t want to spend too long in the back of that, either. Nor, much more surprisingly, in the back of the BMW 7 series, where my head brushed the roof. It didn’t in the previous model.

This back-room business rapidly became my theme of the day as I hopped from car to car like an indecisive VIP. Others stared at the GM concept cars, or gobbled free sushi at the Nissan stand, or swigged Exhaust (water distilled from hydrogen cell power units) to keep themselves awake during the presentation by BMW’s technical director.

I didn’t bother with the forthcoming Ford Flex (sic), described as ‘a modern station wagon’ and looking like a 4×4 with a lowered roof designed for discreet use by undertakers. It should take four coffins. Toyota I visited more than once because, thanks to Exhaust, you had to go through its stand to get to the loos. I don’t know whether it chose or appreciated that association.

I focused on coupés, the most challenging for heads and legs. Audi’s new S5, its first coupé since 1992, was impressive — good-looking, 350hp V8, 4WD, only 30,000 to be made — but it’s not for grown-ups in the back. The Chrysler Sebring is definitely only for the legless. In fact, all the coupés bar one were inadequate in the back — unsurprisingly, since all bar one were small or medium cars or muscular sports models with long bonnets and sloping rears. There seemed to be no full-sized coupé, no equivalent of the older Mercedes S Class coupés that command such premiums in the classic car market.

Except one. The Bentley Brooklands, the new coupé version of the Arnage, has a long rear overhang permitting a lengthy, even slope from the top of the rear screen to the boot lid, which permits rear leg- and headroom. You can subside into acres of leather, rest your head against the padded sides and float into wonderland. Legroom is increased by interior designer Robin Page’s deployment of the thinner front seats from a smaller coupé, the Continental GT, rather than the fat ones from the Arnage.

I lingered. The purity of line gained by a coupé design rarely seems to me to compensate for the inconvenience of two doors, but the Brooklands is a beauty and it won me over. From the side the pillar-less windows form an almost perfect eyelid and the rear window line fades so gracefully into the boot-lid that you want to caress it. The back of a car is often the hardest to get right but in this case it is perfectly balanced by the long bonnet and the huge 20-inch wheels. Beneath it is the suspension architecture developed for the convertible Azure, while beneath the bonnet is Bentley’s 48-year-old 6.75-litre V8 in its most powerful form yet — 530bhp and 1050Nm of torque. The environmentally worried may be reassured that this engine can run on the exhaust gases of its 1959 ancestor. Or maybe they wouldn’t.

Stuart McCullough, Bentley’s board member for sales and marketing, is ex-Lexus, a very different culture from Crewe, but he’s clearly at ease with his new product and market. Perhaps there’s some overlap. Of the estimated 50,000 Bentley owners worldwide, he says, a number have bought more than 15 cars in the past three years. They probably already own any possible competition and the Brooklands is above all a car you buy because you like it, not because you need it. You’d better be quick, though: Bentley will make only 550 of this model, of which nearly 200 were ordered on announcement. It will cost getting on for £250,000, like the Azure.

It’s hard to imagine any other company putting up the business case for this car, but if Bentley has got its market as right as it’s got its product, it’ll be home and dry. And given that it went from 995 sales in 2003 to 9,200 in 2006, the chances are it has.

In the face of such automotive perfection it was almost a relief, therefore, when the showroom roof sprung yet another leak, this time directly over the Brooklands and just before the unveiling. But even this and the ensuing comedy of blokes, cranes, sheeting and pipes didn’t distract the CBS camera team from poking their lens up the unique rifled tail-pipe and doing it big time on Breakfast TV. For all the environmental talk, the concept cars and the fate of Ford, it was Bentley that made news in New York.

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