The rich are about as popular in hard economic times as week-old pizza and they seem to know it; they're laying low these days, cutting back on the conspicuous consumption.
Ask Christophe Georges, the affable Frenchman who, from an office in Boston, runs the North American marketing arm of Bentley, the unit of Volkswagen that manufactures exotic rides priced at $176,000 and up. His sales are off by almost 60 percent this year from last - as are sales of most luxury autos.
"It's not seen as being the right time for it," he said yesterday at an event upstate to show off the company's newest model, the 621 hp., twin-turbocharged, 204 mph-capable, $273,000 Continental GT Supersports, just now going on sale. It's the British brand's second most expensive model after the $341,000 Azure T convertible. And its fastest ever.
Drivers seeking blistering performance will love it. Those who want to "fly" first class are apt to be disappointed. The racing seats, there to save weight, are firm and very supportive but have only the minimal fore and aft and backrest angle adjustments. There are none for height, bottom cushion angle or lumbar support. The steering wheel adjusts up and down but not enough. Company officials say they're considering offering more conventional seats.
Fine leathers upholster the interior but the carbon fiber that panels the center of the dash and the center console left me cold; I've seen it in many much cheaper cars and it looks dull and cheap. Equally unimpressive is a cross-stitched fabric on the interior door panels and seats - "diamond-quilted Alcantara" - that reminded me of old quilts in restored 19th century hotels. Few would guess the price of this car from its interior.
The two-seat Supersports is the latest in the Continental GT series introduced in 2004. The ride is surprisingly civilized, even though its suspension was retuned for better handling and is nearly unflappable no matter how hard this car is pushed.
Reducing weight and upping horsepower, Bentley cut six tenths of a second off the 4.3-second zero to 60 mph time of the four-place GT Speed launched in 2007. Zero to 100 takes just 8.9 seconds - impressive in a 4,900 pound car. There's a beastly 590 pounds feet of torque available. And massive carbon ceramic disc brakes - over 16 inches in diameter.
The Supersports is as delightful to listen to as to drive, with a powerful exhaust tone and an assortment of pops from the tailpipe as the revised six-speed transmission briefly cuts the ignition to reduce torque for quicker upshifts and automatically blips the engine for a smoother downshift. The tranny can be shifted manually. In full automatic on hilly roads, there was some annoying "hunting," between fifth and sixth gears.
Yes, even a car costing more than your first house (and maybe your second one, too) can sometimes disappoint.