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"IS that the car alarm?" my wife said as she shook me out of a dead sleep, and then I heard it, the WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! of the Bentley Arnage T's alarm system going off like Hell's Ladder Co. No. 5 in my driveway. It was precisely 3:48 a.m. Let me just now pause in the narrative -- the part where I run panicked through the night in my tighty whities and T-shirt -- to say that the Bentley's alarm system is the most piercing in automotive Christendom. I don't live that far from Forest Lawn, and I had visions of Sid Grauman and Irving Thalberg holding me while Norma Shearer punched me in the head.

Now I'm standing in front of the car with the key fob in hand -- see above re: tighty whities -- pressing the remote-locking button for all I'm worth. With an ordinary car, activating the key fob will shut off the alarm, but the Bentley

Arnage T -- $271,000, 500 hp, nearly 18 feet long and 406 stone (5,687 pounds) -- is about as far from ordinary as you can get. With my usual cool appraisal, I determine that I must move the car to a more remote location to avoid waking up anyone within earshot. This being Los Angeles, a more remote location is about 80 miles away.

And then I realize: That's how it happens -- driving around in the middle of the night in my underwear in a Bentley that's screaming, "Bloody 'ell, I've been stolen!" This is how people wind up on "Cops."

Life with a 2007 Bentley Arnage T proffers a peculiarly euphoric kind of automotive masochism. This is British luxury measured by the imperial tonne, a spectacular assemblage of diamond-quilt leather upholstery, French stitching, chromed switches, analog gauges, organ-stop vents and burled wood veneers such to bring a dendrologist to tears. Sic transit gloria Bentley.

To call it fast hardly does it justice. It's fast like a rocket-powered apartment building, a huge hunk of mass bullied about by staggering force. In the case of the Arnage T -- the sporting model in the Arnage line -- that force is a nice, even 1,000 Newton-metres (738 pound-feet) of torque at a mere 3,200 rpm. I stomped on the car once getting onto the 210 onramp. I think I gave my brain a hernia.

But all that old-world charm comes at a price, above and beyond the six figures: old-world electronics. Unlike the state-of-the-art Continental cars (GT, GTC, Flying Spur), designed after VW's purchase of the company in 1998, the Arnage dates back to the '90s, and so it has quite a bit more, um, character than those cars. For example: Even though the car has two Igloo cooler-size batteries in the boot (trunk), if you leave a map light on overnight, as I did, the car will generate a low-volt warning that will set off the alarm. This low-volt code doesn't go away until the alternator charges the batteries up again.

A driveway coronary seems a heavy toll for leaving the map light on, but on the other hand, I'll never do that again.

The Arnage T (there's also the 450-hp R and long wheelbase limousine, the RL) is a fascinating case study in car culture. On most counts, the Continental cars are far superior: lighter, stiffer, powered by super-efficient overhead-cam W12 engines and suspended on velvety cushions of air, with a multitude of semiconductor systems and sensors chatting away on the cars' high-speed data links. The Arnage has a more rudimentary nervous system. And so, for example, instead of an integrated navigation system built into the center stack, the Arnage gets by with a pop-up navigation head and a remote control that looks like it came with a Wal-Mart karaoke machine.

Also, the Continental cars are cheaper. The Flying Spur is about $60,000 cheaper than the Arnage.

But for about 200 U.S. customers a year -- many of them in Holmby Hills and Bel-Air -- the Crewe, England-built Arnage is a proper Bentley and the other cars merely VWs with delusions of grandeur. Let the untitled arrivistes, the spoiled, phone-throwing celebs have the Continental cars. The rivets-and-deck-plates Arnage -- haughty and majestic -- is motoring the way it used to be before, say, the Magna Carta.

It sure looks the part. In fact, of the three ultra-sedans on the market -- the Maybach, the Rolls-Royce and the Bentley -- the Arnage is unquestionably the most beautiful and elegant, though handsome seems to be more apt. But, unlike the Continental GT -- which frequently gets a thumbs-up from other drivers -- the Arnage T doesn't fill onlookers with much joy. From the outside, no car makes you feel more like a barefooted vassal.

Another side of the Bentley's unreconstructed appeal is the car's titanic torque, a characteristic gestalt of utterly effortless acceleration and fluid pace. We're talking major waft-titude. Under the long fluted hood is a low-speed (4,600-rpm redline), low-compression (7.8:1), 6.75-liter pushrod engine whose five-main-bearing bones date back to the 1950s. For 2007, this haymaker of a motor is dressed with huge new Mitsubishi-sourced turbochargers, replacing the previous Garrett units, and retuned in various esoteric ways to extract an additional 50 hp over last year's model. Also, the GM-sourced four-speed automatic has been replaced with a ZF six-speed transmission with sequential-shift mode.

Needless to say, the thrust is spectacular, capable of launching this steely ballista to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds on its way to a top speed of 179 mph. Just toe the accelerator and the thing jumps like it's been jammed with a very aristocratic cattle prod. It's a good thing Bentley recalibrated the traction control system because, without it, this car would be nigh undriveable.

A little more needfully said, the Arnage T gets the worst gas mileage of any car I've tested in 15 years of automotive journalism. I estimate eight miles per gallon. This car is a huge extended middle finger to all that is wholesome and good and virtuous in the world. You might as well use one to torpedo the Greenpeace Warrior.

Speaking of superlatives: The seat heaters are easily the hottest of any car. I'm talking instant sterility.

Other notes:

The audio system's sound reproduction is perfection itself, though the CD changer is, alas, in the trunk.

You would think this car would have a huge trunk, but it's actually only 13.2 cubic feet. I had a little trouble putting a set of golf clubs against the rear bulkhead.

If you define your terms very carefully, you could say this car handles well. The steering is heavy and direct, with lots of feedback through the wheel. Considering the sheer weight of this monster, it has good reflexes, corners well and maintains its composure, particularly if you activate the Sport system, which tenses up the adjustable dampers. However, the Arnage T doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. I found it significant that I kept humming, "Jesus, Take the Wheel."

The Arnage is the template for the new Brooklands Coupe -- say it properly, coo-PAY -- and the next generation Azure convertible. These are ultra-low volume, bespoke motorcars aimed at a very discriminating class of car connoisseurs (and pro basketball players). The Arnage T is a car that makes virtues of its glorious idiosyncrasies. The rich really are different from you and me. At least they wear a better class of underwear.

dan.neil@latimes.com

2007 Bentley Arnage T

Base price: $244,990

Price, as tested: $271,000

Powertrain: Turbocharged and intercooled 6.75-liter overhead valve V8; six-speed automatic transmission; rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 500 hp at 4,200 rpm

Torque: 738 pound-feet at 3,200 rpm

Curb weight: 5,687

0-60 mph: 5.2 seconds

Wheelbase: 122.68 inches

Overall length: 212.6 inches

EPA fuel economy: 11 miles per gallon city, 20 highway

Final thoughts: Curiously strong

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