REVIEW DATE: 12 Nov 2007
The Continental GT Marked A Massive Shift In Focus For Bentley and did more than a little to shake up the whole of the luxury coupe sector. Andy Enright Reports.
One can only imagine how Bentleys of yesteryear were priced. "What do you reckon to this one? £100,000? Let's call it £150,000 to be on the safe side." Truth was if you wanted a Bentley, you'd pay the asking price. Times change and Bentley has, under the auspices of the Volkswagen Group, undergone huge change as well. The first product of their union, the Continental GT is a rather striking case in point.
Here is a Bentley that weighs in at Porsche money and that stakes a claim as the most technologically advanced car on sale. Powered by a 6.0-litre twin turbocharged W12 engine good for 555bhp in standard form, with four wheel drive and a paddle operated gearbox, the Continental GT was born in a virtual world. Every nut, bolt and washer was designed in concert with the Data Control Model - the computer simulation that would then design the tooling to physically build the car.
Although a Bentley coupe had been high on the company's priority list since the early eighties, it wasn't until VW injected nearly £500 million into Bentley that the dream could be realized. Harking back to the R-Type Continental of the 1950s, the Continental GT's designer Dirk van Braekel reprised a number of enduring design themes. The sweep of the rear haunches, the bluff front and the delicate coachline running back from the front wheelarches are all redolent of elegant Bentley coupes of days gone by.
Rather than the established aristocracy, the Continental GT appeals largely to buyers new to the Bentley marque, who would have baulked at paying for the Arnage series but who consider the Continental GT to be good value in comparison with a Ferrari 612. The Speed model is some £17,000 more expensive than the standard car and sitting between these two fixed head offerings is the GTC convertible.
"Here is a Bentley that weighs in at Porsche money, that stakes a claim as the most technologically advanced car on sale..."
One thing's for sure. Once potential buyers have had the opportunity to take a good look round the car they'll be looking for a dotted line to sign. It's a shape that works a good deal better in the metal than on the printed page, where it can sometimes look a little lugubrious. Watch one on the move and you'll witness a lightness of touch, a simple design elegance and a car that hints at the potency that lies under that long bonnet. The W12 engine is adapted from a Volkswagen design and is astonishingly compact, yet can still pump out 555bhp, due in no small part to the two KKK turbochargers. Forced induction has become something of a cause celebre at Bentley, stretching back over 20 years in the modern era and being traceable right back to the supercharged 'Blower Bentleys' of the 1920s. Buyers who find the standard car a little limp-wristed can upgrade to the 600bhp GT Speed model with its 202mph top speed.
Power is transmitted to the road via a rear-biased four-wheel drive set up which gives the Continental GT a handy advantage when the going gets slippery. Advanced ESP stability control technology helps here too with its 'Sport Traction' mode allowing extra scope for the driver to enjoy the car's handling with the safety net still in place. The link between the driven wheels and the engine comes courtesy of a six-speed automatic transmission built for Bentley by ZF. This can be marshaled via paddles behind the steering wheel should you wish, or else it can be driven like a conventional automatic. This was a surprisingly controversial feature, with some engineers arguing that a car with this much torque didn't need a six-speed gearbox. Yes, you could lock the Continental GT into third gear and surf languidly along for much of the time, but the enthusiast owner profile eventually dictated the six ratios. Emissions and economy have been improved with a more efficient exhaust system and crankcase design yielding a 3.5% boost.
Another first for Bentley was the attention to aerodynamics. A car that can accelerate to 60mph in less than five seconds and on to the far side of 190mph requires sufficient aerodynamics that its owner can be assured of it remaining dirty side down. The Continental GT benefits from the expertise of the best aerodynamicists the Volkswagen Group had and the venturi tunnel under the rear of the car and the cooling ducts in the engine bay all attest to their labours. The latest models are 35kg lighter than the originals thanks to increased use of aluminium suspension parts and alterations to the cooling system. They also feature revised Servotronic power steering that's designed to give greater feel and low friction dampers that aid ride comfort.
The interior is demonstrably Bentley with acres of leather and wood veneers. The fascia has been designed with a notion of symmetry, the centre console rising up to divide two swathes of veneer that were designed to resemble the Bentley winged logo. It's said that Bentley's designers even took a tape measure to a team of New York basketball players to ensure that headroom is acceptable even to those at the extremes of the morphological scale. The Continental GT is a proper four seater, although a broad transmission tunnel runs down the centre of the cabin.
Certain Bentley trademarks endure - the bullseye chromed ventilation outlets and the organ stop controls, but don't get the impression that this interior is a quaint retro pastiche. A touch screen LCD display on the centre console controls the air conditioning, satellite navigation, computer information and entertainment systems, whilst many of the minor controls can be operated without removing hands from the steering wheel. It's this blend of old and new that's particularly fascinating. Craftsmanship techniques have been similarly updated. For instance, wood paneling can be dramatically curved in a way that was once impossible. By the same token, while the leather is still applied to the car with the same hand crafted care, it's cut from hides using a digitized process that reduces waste and optimizes efficiency.
In bringing Bentley into a new era, the Continental GT is a hugely significant car. Purists may grumble at the Teutonic influence, but one can't help feeling that if WO Bentley is watching, he'd be mighty proud of the coupe that bears his name.
|For CONTINENTAL GT|
|OVERALL||7.4 OUT OF 10|
|Space / Versatility||5|