Powering into steeply incised hills while dodging tethered donkeys, piles of firewood and rural folk unused to passing traffic, this Bentley Flying Spur felt as out of place as a spaceship; the craftsmanship lavished on the wood and leather lining of its patrician cabin as alien against the rough stone dwellings we passed as the high-tech gizmos on tap.
And then we looked up to see the Great Wall marching atop the crests above us, a link to China's mighty past every bit as evocative as the flying B adorning this car's flanks.
This rural hinterland isn't Bentley country but there's affluence in China. It's second only to the US in terms of Bentley sales, and its tastes carry clout in the hallowed halls of Bentley's Crewe, UK, design studio.
Asian customers are as likely to hire a chauffeur as they are to drive, and customer feedback suggested the first Flying Spur, launched as a four-door variant of the Continental GT, was a tad too sporting. So this new generation forges its own identity, with extra comfort dialled into the equation.
That meant a lower, wider body and a broader track, with changes to the face to differentiate this car from its coupe stablemate, more sculpted wings, more muscular haunches and a flowing line over the roof and c-pillar to a lower, longer boot. But it's the rear view that's changed most, the car tapering towards the boot, then cutting off into sharp angles achievable by using plastic composites, which also allowed Bentley to tuck the aerial under that luggage lid.
Disconcertingly different to start with, the more assertive tail is instantly recognisable in traffic. But there's more to it than the look, for it's part of a much improved aerodynamic profile - along with acoustic shields running the full length of the underfloor - that helped cut drag from a Cd of 0.33 to 0.29, impressive in a car like this.
The Spur retains the 6.0-litre W12 motor, using a management system upgraded to the latest Bosch ME17 and an eight-speed ZF auto transmission, and boasting a 12 per cent hike in power to 460kW at 6000rpm plus 800Nm from 2000rpm on up.
That makes this the most powerful four-door car Bentley has ever built. It claims a zero to 100km/h time of 4.6 seconds - impressive for a 2475kg car - with 160km/h in 9.5 seconds and a top speed of 322km/h. Fuel consumption has dropped to 14.7l/100km, not only because the engine is more efficient, but due to the car's better aero and a 50kg drop in weight via greater focus on using lightweight materials.
Other than the cabin, the biggest changes are to the suspension, with softer spring rates and anti-roll bars, and more compliant bushes mated to this stiffer structure. The aim was a more comfortable ride, especially at slower speeds, with damping and steering feel firming up as pace increases.
The eight-inch touch screen up front allows four suspension settings - my preferred option one down from the sportiest - and it's part of a cabin that's almost all new, with only the sun visors, grab handles, armrests and some dash parts carrying over.
Naturally there's a wide range of standard fitments and options, my favourites being the infotainment system that turns your car into a mobile hot spot, and the touch screen remote that's standard and lets rear passengers control or view almost any function, including the speedo. Spouse a remote hog? There's a smartphone app that mirrors most of the remote's features, and includes a tracker to lead you back to the car from shopping, or send your co-ordinates to the driver when you need to be collected.
The Bentley negotiated the anarchy that is Beijing's rush hour with an easy nonchalance which belied its size, and cruised the highway with breath-taking refinement. It was only in the narrow hill roads winding up to the Great Wall that the comfort compromise showed its Achilles heel, with a tad more body roll than I'd like, and a smidge more dive into suddenly tightening bends than I'd expected.
That said, the Flying Spur remains more agile than anything this size has a right to be, with an open-throated roar from its 12 cylinders that will encourage you to hold the revs through the bendy bits. It's just a shame that features like adaptive cruise and a reversing camera remain a cost option in a vehicle retailing from $365,000 for the standard Flying Spur, and $392,500 for the Mulliner.
This model will make up around 40 per cent of Bentley deliveries in New Zealand and is expected to boost brand sales here, from the 16 new and demonstrator registrations in 2012. So far, five forward orders and a demo car have been signed for delivery through to 2014.