Fresh out of the box, Bentley’s all-new Continental GT has cruised past its rivals to become the best GT on sale. Here’s why
|W12, 5950cc, twin-turbo||626bhp @ 5000-6000rpm||664lb ft @ 1350-4500rpm||3.7sec (claimed)||333kph (claimed)||2169kg||$201,500|
So there was this restaurant I used to frequent – whenever I had an interesting car on test, basically – and it was run by a delightful old bloke called Derek Bovet-White, who used to fly Hurricanes during the Second World War. He was a complete car nut. He had a V12 XJS with a manual gearbox and a silly exhaust, and an XK150S among other toys, and all sorts of people who were into cars would turn up at his place, for a natter – about anything, really, but mostly about the burning of petrol.
One day, one of Derek’s oldest mates was due to arrive in what Derek claimed was ‘the most beautiful car in the world’. ‘You wait, you’ll see…’ said Derek.
And when this chap eventually rolled up later that afternoon, everyone went out to see what he was driving – an early 1950s Bentley Continental, whose pristine, dark blue bodywork had been hand-made by HJ Mulliner. Sparkling in the sun that day as we all chatted, it was indeed one of the most beautiful cars I’d ever seen, or have ever seen since.
Which explains, to some extent perhaps, why I was so disappointed by the reinvented Bentley Continental GT when it first appeared in 2003. This was the first car to come out of Bentley since VW took charge, and although it had all the right on-paper credentials to blow the rest of the GT-car world away, in reality it was a bit of a blunderbuss. It was heavy, clumsy to drive and, to my eyes, not especially beautiful, and I never quite connected with it as a result.
Scroll forwards 14 years to the present day, however, and we have a brand new Bentley Continental GT, and not only does it look about ten times lovelier than the car it replaces but it drives rather beautifully as well. If anything, in fact, it drives even better than it looks, and there is one very obvious reason why.
Crucially, and unlike the previous Continental GT, the new car is based not on the underpinnings of a humble Volkswagen but those of a Porsche – specifically those of the excellent Panamera. And unlike last time, when Bentley’s engineers were effectively given hand-me-down parts and told to do whatever they could with them to turn a Phaeton into a Continental, this time they were involved in the car’s creation right from the word go.
It’s now over five years since they first sat down with their counterparts from Weissach and started work on the new car, and this time they were able to build the car, literally, from the ground up, shaping its hardware the way they wanted.
The result is a GT of quite astounding all-round capabilities. On the one hand the new Bentley is notably more comfortable and refined than the last one, with a sense of genuine majesty to the way it flows across the terrain, as if it were some kind of mobilised gentlemen’s club. You almost feel like lighting a cigar when you’re driving it, so soothing is the ride, so serene is the car’s gait, even when the road surface is far from perfect.
And the interior merely adds to the overall effect. It’s a place of rare quality, and of exquisite design and craftsmanship. This car might cost the very thick end two hundred and twenty thousand dollars but, inside, it feels more like a million. Yet at the same time there is every conceivable piece of contemporary technology you could ever wish for, all of it integrated into a cabin that looks, feels and even smells like an impossibly expensive hotel room. True, space in the back seats isn’t great but, well, do you really care about what those in the back think when you’re at the wheel of a Continental GT?
There’s another side to the new GT, though, one that will take you completely by surprise, and that’s how tidy it is when you reach for the button marked Sport and decide to drive it with a bit more gusto. In the old car, you’d do so for perhaps two minutes and then think better of it, because there wasn’t much point in driving it hard – for the simple reason that there wasn’t much fun to be had while doing so. The level of control simply wasn’t there in relation to the car’s weight.
In the new GT, however, it is extraordinary how much poise there is when you start to fling the car around. The fact that it weighs only 76kg less than before – meaning it still strains the scales at well over two tonnes – must be largely ignored, because the computer-controlled air suspension does a quite phenomenal job of controlling the car’s mass.
In addition, Bentley has configured the four-wheel-drive system to allow much more torque to flow to the rear axle this time; in Sport mode, in fact, just 17 per cent of the power and torque goes to the front. So if you then switch the stability control system off and bury the throttle out of a corner, you will, and do, get a quite fantastic hit of power oversteer. Which is a rather wonderful thing to experience in a Bentley Continental GT, for all sorts of reasons.
And last but by no means least, it’s also quick, the new GT. As in teeth-clenchingly so. The 6-litre twin-turbo W12 is an all-new motor, even to the point that it has a different firing order to make it smoother but also sportier in tone than the old one. But the fact that it develops 626bhp, and a whopping 664lb ft between 1350 and 4500rpm, is arguably what matters most – because this is sufficient energy to send the GT to 100kph in 3.7sec and on to a top speed of 333kph. And once again this is a faintly hilarious thing to experience in a car that weighs 2169kg and wears a Bentley badge on its nose.
At last, it seems, the Bentley Continental has been properly replaced. By a car that will, at times, take your breath away. Just like the one from the 1950s did, back in the day.