1996 Bentley Azure

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$39,995
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chicagotribune.com
Slice the metal roof off a Bentley Continental R coupe, replace it with a soft top and you have the 1996 Bentley Azure, a $319,000 salute to open air motoring Rolls-Royce style.

Bentley is Rolls' performance division.

Actually, the Azure is created by noted coach builder Pininfarina of Italy, which transforms the coupe into the Azure convertible.

Azure's attraction is open-top motoring. It takes only a push of the console button to unfasten the top from the front header, roll down the windows, open the rear stowage bin and fold the top away in its hiding place before you drive away to enjoy the sun or moon or wind.

Mercedes-Benz SL roadsters have offered the same automatic lowering/raising feature for years, but Bentley's top is novel because the rear window is plastic, not glass. Rolls went with plastic to make the window bigger for better sightl ines yet allowing it to fold up in the storage compartment. Glass, even in a Bentley, doesn't fold.

Despite a folding top, Rolls installed reading lights in the cloth-lined roof and put a vent in the back of the rear seats so when you turn the heater on, warm air is directed onto the plastic window to keep it defrosted.

Though the windows automatically roll down when the top is going into storage, they don't automatically motor back up when the top is raised. Vernon Smith, of Steve Foley Cadillac/Rolls-Royce in Northbrook said the intent of keeping the windows down and making the driver push a button to raise them is to prevent injury to a child. Nice touch.

And should the Azure battery go dead with the top open, the car comes with a metal crank that can be inserted into a pair of holes along the header to manually raise the top. At $319,000 you might want to have someone else perform the chore, but at least you have a crank to hand over to the serviceman once he arrives.

The top isn't the only noteworthy feature of the car. When you remove the ignition key, the steering wheel automatically raises up and out of the way to make for easier exit. The wheel will also motor out of the way if the key is left in the ignition but you open the driver's door. Re-insert the key or reclose the door and the wheel goes back in place. Sounds like an Infiniti Q45. Shhh. Don't tell Rolls.

The Azure also comes with heated seats, though the control buttons are blocked by the parking brake handle.

The center console between driver and passenger seat houses a cellular phone and a six-disc CD holder. The same console features a coin holder, but no cupholder. Perhaps those who spend $319,000 on a car prefer a Thermos?

The instrument panel features an analog clock, not a not digital one. The thermometer for outside temperature readings is not digital, either.

Another button opens the petrol (gas) filler door, another the boot (trunk lid) or bonnet (hood). You can store the convertible top crank (crank) in the boot.

Two other buttons are on the dash: one pictures a snowflake to be pressed on slippery surfaces to start in second gear to prevent unnecessary wheel spin; the second--labeled horn--gives the choice of two notes--baritone or soprano.

Azure incorporates electronic suspension to adjust settings from soft to normal to firm within one-one hundredth of a second based on road surface and condition. We found no matter how quickly the system works, the stiffness of the leather seats and the 6,500-pound weight of the car makes for a firm, heavy ride. And you need apply the brakes early to bring the 6,500 pounder even with the stop sign.

A very nice feature is the seat belt built into the side of the driver and passenger seat. It's not only easy to use and to adjust, but by being in the seat and not in the side pillar, there's no belt to climb over when trying to enter the rear seat in this coupe.

And when you lower the front seat bac ks and push a button along the seat side, the seat moves forward to give your passenger even wider open access to the back. Nice touch, though when you get in back you'll find headroom a bit lacking. Good thing the top is soft.

In the boot (where you hide the crank), there's a kill switch to disable the car's electrical system to ward off the thief or joyrider. But, the car can still be trailered away--boot, bonnet, crank and all.

Azure is powered by the same 6.75-liter, 385-h.p., turbocharged V-8 as the Continental R coupe. You quickly can accelerate from 50 to 70 miles per hour to slip into the passing lane, but you'll be reminded you have 6,500 pounds in your hands. May you never have to parallel park in this boat.

When the turbo kicks in, the Azure can act rather light on its feet--if you are moving forward.

A word of warning, however. When the turbo kicks in, the petrol gauge kicks down from F to E with such speed you won't need a crank to keep it moving. The rating is 11 m.p.g. city/16 highway.

Azure comes with dual air bags and ABS as standard.




    Expert Reviews 1 of 2

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