Bentley’s all-new version of the Continental GT is as good on the school run as let loose on the open road, Ben Oliver discovers
April 8 2020
BY BEN OLIVER
In 2012, Australia’s freewheeling Country Liberal Party won power in the Northern Territory. (Please bear with me, this does have some relevance to the new Bentley Continental GT.) Despite its endless arrow-straight Outback roads and the fact that many were once derestricted, Australia’s speed limits are now enervatingly low and solemnly enforced. The Country Liberals stuck two dusty, calloused, farmers’ fingers up at the global trend to reduce limits and once more derestricted a stretch of the Stuart Highway, which runs north from Alice Springs to Darwin, 1,000 miles away.
The Stuart is much like a British A-road, with a lane in each direction and no central barrier. I celebrated its liberation by driving along it in a standard Bentley Continental GT at a satellite-verified 329km/h (204mph), with the full approval of the local police and the assistance of a spotter in a helicopter who would advise me by radio of any ’roos, tractors or sun-crazed locals in my path. The car was so accelerative and so composed that despite a surface buckled by the furious heat and a heat haze that limited my visibility to a couple of seconds ahead, the entire exercise felt oddly undramatic and was over disappointingly quickly.
Another Continental GT sits outside my house as I write. This morning I put my two small children inside and drove them to school. A mile of rough, potholed farm track connects us to the public road. The car that carried me beyond 200mph in Australia coped with this more mundane task just as easily. Few cars have the extraordinary span of ability and purpose of a Continental GT – but that has always been its appeal.
We motoring journalists didn’t get that at first. I wrote about the first road test of the ‘Conti’ when it launched in 2003. The great names of British motoring were all being rebooted by new foreign owners then, and Volkswagen’s take on the Bentley didn’t seem as successful as BMW’s reinvention of Range Rover and Rolls-Royce. Its looks were a little lumpen by comparison with Continentals of old, which were glamorous, often bespoke ‘Gentlemen’s Expresses’ favoured by Peter Sellers, among other stars. We recognised that range of ability, but it seemed to bring too many compromises. The braking and cooling systems required to do 200mph made it monstrously heavy for a two-seat sports car at 2.4 tonnes, and its ability to do most things meant it couldn’t do anything brilliantly – it couldn’t glide like a Rolls nor handle with the precision of a Ferrari.
Buyers didn’t care. They loved the fact that this prestigious, 200mph supercar had saloon-like visibility, four seats, a decent boot, an idiot-proof automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive, which made its immense power easy to deploy on all surfaces and in all weathers. They bought 65,000 of them before this new version was launched earlier this year. The Continental GT is the most important Bentley ever made, simply for the fact that it has given the company a scale and stability it has long lacked. Sales leapt from 1,000 in 2003 to 7,500 in 2004, and were 11,000 last year.
The Continental GT that took the kids to school this morning is an entirely new car but shares the looks, layout and concept of the previous generation: Bentley has wisely chosen not to mess with the chemistry. The looks are shared inasmuch as this is recognisably the new version of the old car. But it is much more handsome. It is longer, lower and rakish, with a lamp and grille treatment that make it look less like a surprised halibut. Its incredibly sharp, pronounced creases have been ‘superformed’ into the bodysides with very high-pressure water jets – an expensive process. This creates an alternating light and shade that break up the car’s visual mass and give the impression of sharp tailoring over a muscular body – like Boisdale’s regulars.
On exiting the cabin you’ll remember how it felt more than its looks or smell. There is buttery leather everywhere your hands stray, from the headlining above you to the lining of the door pockets. The backs of the door handles and the ‘organ stops’ that open the air vents are knurled – a Bentley feature since the year dot. The veneers are piano-smooth and fit precisely. It’s a sensory treat.
It looks extraordinary too, of course. There’s little point describing mine in detail as you can have yours any way you want – any shade of leather, and wood from your own estate if you wish. But the architecture and underlying tech remain constant. Pleasingly, Bentley has eschewed the trend to simplify car cockpits by controlling everything from a touchscreen. Like everyone in the Eighties, my five-year-old judges the premium status of a car by the number of buttons it has, and the Conti has many. There is a touchscreen, of course, which is huge and intuitive to use, but it also motors around like James Bond’s number plates and is replaced by three Breitling dials with a compass, outside temperature gauge and stopwatch.
With the screen hidden it may look like 1983 again, but the new Conti’s impressive safety suite is still looking after you. It shares its platform with the new Porsche Panamera and so benefits from some very expensive, advanced tech, developed to be shared with its VW Group siblings. It can read speed limits, spot pedestrians in the dark and report this all to you on the fighter jet-style head-up display that seems to float above the Bentley B on the nose. Unlike my Australian car, it doesn’t have a spotter in a helicopter ahead, but you probably no longer need one.
I’ve described the looks, cabin and tech first as these will dominate your experience of the Conti. Modern roads and speed limits mean you will seldom, if ever, use all of the 6-litre, 12-cylinder, twin-turbocharged engine’s 626 horsepower. The car has lost a little weight but is still porcine at 2,244kgs. Yet that engine renders its mass irrelevant, accelerating to 60mph in 3.7 seconds (3.7!) and on to a V-Max of 207mph. It requires the driver only to fully extend their right foot and hold it out, and to have found somewhere safe and socially acceptable to do so. You’ll get the usual physiological effects of such instant acceleration – raised pulse rate, tightening of the chest – but there’s little fuss from the car. It just grips and goes. The exhaust note gives a crisper, harder bark under power, and a lovely deep rumble when you back off the throttle. But it’s muted and never intrusive, like distant artillery.
This new model is still struggling to reconcile all its ambitions. The need to cope with a top speed beyond 200mph means the suspension is too muscular to glide over London’s scarred surfaces, and its huge mass means it won’t handle with the deftness of a more focussed sports car. Never mind. It does both well enough for most, and more things well than most of its rivals.
Sadly, it will never do its 207mph through the Outback: the Country Liberals (what a name!) were kicked out in 2016 and speed limits re-imposed on the Stuart Highway. Later in its life this model is likely to get a hybrid electric powertrain and semi-autonomous self-driving abilities. A Bentley owner venturing that far in future is more likely to be driven to Darwin by his car than vice versa; the Bentley reading and strictly adhering to the limits while he plays with the buttons in that fabulous cabin. Things could be worse.
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