Bargain Bentley showdown: why they’re more tempting than ever

With stereotypical German frankness, the Volkswagen Group’s 1999 report attributed the losses made by Bentley, its recent acquisition, to “unsatisfactory sales volumes”.

Back then, the Crewe firm struggled to sell 1000 cars annually. Yet last year, Bentley cleared £100 million and built a record 11,817 vehicles, almost half of which were Bentayga SUVs – a model unimaginable 18 years ago.

The revolutionary concept behind Bentley’s success under VW? Better cars. And now you can buy several of those better cars for less than £30,000. Yes, for the same money as a fancy VW Beetle, you can choose from Arnage, Continental Flying Spur and Continental GT. We’ve gathered one of each to explore the prospect.

This article was originally published on 30 April 2017. We’re revisiting some of Autocar’s most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times. 

The Arnage saloon was box fresh when VW took over Bentley in mid-1998, but changes were soon afoot – partly because the launch model used a 350bhp 4.4-litre twinturbo V8 from BMW, with whom VW had clashed over the sale of Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Bentley’s ancient 16-valve pushrod 6.75-litre V8 returned in the turbo 400bhp Red Label in 1999, when the 4.4 was rebranded the Green Label. Both got stiffer shells, but the Red’s mammoth 619lb ft dwarfed the Green’s busier 413lb ft, dragging the 2520kg fourdoor’s 0-60mph time down to 5.9sec.

In 2002, the BMW lump was dumped, and lag-slashing twin Garrett T3s replaced the single T4 turbo on the venerable V8. The Red Label became the R, the hotter, firmer 450bhp T was introduced and further structural reinforcement increased rigidity while ESP helped tame the torque. Further power and sophistication came in late 2006 but, as with each of our trio, £30,000 limits us to early 2006 cars and older.

Which brings us to the 2003 Arnage R we’ve borrowed from Paul Heron at Keystone Cars, a family-run treasure trove of mainly noughties-era sports and prestige metal on the edge of the New Forest. Once a £150,000-plus motor, it’s up for £29,995, and that price includes an impressive service history, extendable six-month warranty and just 34,500 miles.