Very few people in the world can afford the requisite $200,000 to buy a new Bentley Arnage R. We are not among those who can.

Fortunately, because we're professional motoring journalists, we still get the occasional opportunity to sample a true exotic like the Bentley, which until this year was twinned with Rolls-Royce, another traditional British ultra-luxury brand.

But now Rolls is part of the BMW group, while Bentley is controlled by Volkswagen's Audi subsidiary. And until the handsome new Continental R goes on sale later this year, the only Bentleys to reach the market in 2003 will be the old-fashioned Arnage R and its high-performance companion, the Arnage T.

She: I'm sure a lot of people reading this will figure, 'Oh, she's just envious of the people who can afford a $200,000 car. That's why she gave it a low rating. She'd buy it if she wasn't clipping coupons and digging change out of the couch.'

But I had the chance to ask the richest of the rich whether it makes sense to buy these expensive sedans. Last year, at a Mercedes-Benz preview where Clint Eastwood was the guest at the cocktail party, I asked him if he was planning to buy the super-luxury Maybach, which debuts this year and will cost around $300,000. He looked at me like I was crazy.

"No," he said. "I'm afraid it would get dented in a parking lot."

So my question is -- if even Dirty Harry is worried about dings, where does that leave the rest of us?

He: I'm guessing that Shaquille O'Neal doesn't have that problem when he parks his Arnage. I mean, who's going to mess with Shaq? And the best part is that you can almost pretend you're a celebrity when you're driving the Arnage R.

We took ours to a local restaurant for dinner on a Saturday night, and the valet practically genuflected when we handed him the keys. When we came out, he still had the keys in his pocket, rather than up on the board with the other commoners, and the Bentley was parked reverentially in front of the place, with orange cones around it.

Now that's star treatment.

She: Only trouble is, I didn't feel like star in the Arnage. I felt like a British matron. I was disappointed in how it looked and how it drove. It's far too boxy and old-fashioned looking, with its enormous hood and oversized rear end. The driving experience is not to be believed. It handles like a barge. So I guess you're paying all that money for image, not performance, huh?

He: Wrong, Your Majesty. Didn't you feel that twin-turbocharged 6.75-liter V-8 kick in when you tapped the throttle? With 400 horsepower and 616 pounds-feet of torque under foot, even a 5,700-pound boat like the Arnage feels more like a rocket when it begins to accelerate.

While it doesn't exactly handle like a Ferrari, I would describe the Bentley's ride as stately, and that's exactly the image it's trying to convey. You can have almost as much fun riding in the back seat as you can in the pilot's chair -- but the Arnage is still quite entertaining to drive.

She: You've got to make a better case than that. It's not like you can't get heated rear seats, picnic tables or rear vanity mirrors on other vehicles -- vehicles that cost far less money.

He: That's not what Bentley is all about. The company will probably bring fewer than a thousand of these cars to the United States this year, so exclusivity is a big part of the appeal. That, and features like hand-stitched leather, thick wool carpets and some of the finest burled walnut in the auto business.

I can think of few cars that offer this complete a package of performance and luxury amenities -- unless, of course, you prefer to wait for that $300,000 Maybach or the new Rolls Phantom, which will retail for around $320,000. That should make the Arnage look like a bargain, in comparison.

She: Don't tell that to P. Diddy, another famous Bentley owner.

He: OK, so it's still beyond the reach of average auto writers like you and me. The Arnage is still a great fantasy ride -- at least until my personal favorite, the new Continental GT coupe, hits the market in about nine months.

Bentley Arnage R

Paul's rating: Above Average

Likes: For the price, nothing else like it in the world -- until the new Rolls-Royce Phantom arrives later this spring. Stunning twin-turbo V-8. Smooth transmission. Stately ride. Stability control and anti-lock brakes make winter driving safer.

Dislikes: Dismal fuel economy. Looks too much like its old Rolls-Royce siblings.

Anita's rating: Subpar

Likes: Makes valets practically genuflect. Excellent choice if you want to feel like the Queen Mum. Real walnut wood trim in cabin. Heated rear seats and rear-seat air conditioning. Good safety features, including side curtain air bags.

Dislikes: Way too stodgy and old-fashioned in appearance and feel. Handles like a barge. Rear end is big and ugly. I was constantly afraid of denting or scratching it. Rear tray tables up too high. Would rather have drop-down rear mirrors than the strange, half-accessible ones mounted in the rear pillars.

By the numbers

Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan.

Base, $199,990; as tested, $$207,385

Engine: 6.75-liter V-8; 400-hp; 616 lb-ft torque.

EPA fuel economy: 10 mpg city/14 mpg highway

Key competitors: Mercedes-Benz S600, Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph (2002)

12-month insurance cost: $3,353

Where built: England

(inc. $1,995 delivery charge and $5,400 gas guzzler tax)

Estimated by AAA Michigan. Rates may vary depending on coverage and driving record.