1997 Bentley Continental

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$89,400
Estimated MPG

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washingtonpost.com

Spare me the sermon about the meek inheriting the Earth. They can have it. I want to go to Heaven in a Bentley.

If that's too sinful a wish, I'd like to ask the Almighty for more time to raise Hell in the tested Bentley Continental T. The way I figure it, the car could lift the value of that burned-out neighborhood -- by more than $300,000. By $324,500 to be exact.

That would be a deed good enough to earn celestial consideration. That's the upside. The downside is that a car such as the Continental T could cause another War Between the Angels. Jealousy, you know. Messes up things all the time.

Look at what happened to me during my day in the Bentley, which is manufactured by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Inc. in Britain. I was tooling along Washington's streets, minding my own business, when a woman pulled up next to me and shouted into my half-open window.

"How much you paid for that beautiful car?" she asked.

I told her that I didn't pay for it. She seemed puzzled.

"Well, how much does it sell for?" she demanded.

I told her. She gasped.

"GD rich people," she said, though she didn't use the letters "GD."

"You're drivin 'round in a car worth more than my house; don't even have to pay for it; probably don't pay no taxes, while other people strugglin' just to get by. GD rich people. Must be nice."

She stunned me. But I've since thought about her mini-harangue, and concluded that she was right: Driving the Continental T was nice. Rich is nice. I like rich. I like rich very much.

Background: The rich are different from you and me. We buy cars for transportation, fun, sex, work, the thrill of the ride. The rich buy prestige and tradition, even when those things make no practical or engineering sense.

Consider the Continental T, a two-door, four-seat, rear-wheel-drive car: You turn the key on the ignition, located on the brushed-aluminum instrument panel, left of the steering wheel. Nothing happens -- until you push a red "starter" button on the console to the right of the steering wheel.

I asked a Rolls-Royce representative why Bentley cars still used a technically obsolescent starter button. He replied: "Well, don't you know? It's a Bentley tradition. Our Bentley customers expect it."

Those customers also expect maximum plush, and they get it in the Continental T: the finest leather upholstery on the seats, doors, dashboard, ceiling -- every color-coordinated piece perfectly stitched; Wilton wool carpeting and lambs wool rugs; straight grained mahogany inlays on the doors and console; power, heated front seats with lumbar support, a standard Motorola telephone; and what I call "rich smell," the smell of old, interest-laden money, lots of it.

Technically, the vast majority of the things found on the Continental Talso are found on other far less expensive cars, including some economy models. For example, Rolls-Royce engineers boast of the Bentley's "electronic traction assistance system," whic h limits wheel slippage on wet and icy roads (for people who are foolish enough to drive this car in foul winter weather).

Anyway, big whoop. You can buy a perfectly workable and comparatively competent traction-control system on a Saturn passenger car for a tiny fraction of the Continental T's cost.

Other Continental T safety items include a four-wheel, anti-lock disc braking system; pre-tensioning safety belts for the front seats; big anti-intrusion beams in the side doors; orthopedically designed seats to reduce driver and passenger fatigue.

Ah, the engine! It's a beast -- 6.75-liter V-8 with exhaust-driven turbocharger and liquid intercooler rated 400 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, with torque rated 590 pound-feet at 3,450 rpm.

All of which means the Continental T can move -- zero to 60 miles per hour in 5.8 seconds.

1997 Bentley Continental T

Complaints: Dumb starter button -- and ergonomically stupid power-mirror switches hidden on the center console.

Praise: An elegant celebration of wealth.

Head-turning quotient: Turns heads -- green!

Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces for a two-ton heavyweight. Excellent braking.

Mileage: Ha! Mileage? Geez. About13 miles per gallon (28.5-gallon tank, estimated 350-mile range on usable volume of premium unleaded), running, alas, driver-only and with no cargo.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette (120-watt), with six-disc CD changer mounted in trunk. Installed by Rolls-Royce/Bentley. Excellent.

Price: $324,500. You can negotiate almost anything, of course. But at this level, few folks give ahoot.

Purse-strings note: Are you kidding?




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