Hand-crafted by the Bentley Motor Company in Crewe, the improved Continental GT is a three-door sporting Grand Tourer that's even more desirable than ever. Jonathan Crouch reports at the wheel of the top W12 model.
Ten Second Review
Nearly a century of Bentley history has seen the Crewe company bring us many legendary models. But the Continental GT has out-sold all of them combined. And in second generation guise, it can be focused as well as fantastically luxurious. Brutal performance, high-tech engineering and elegant design continue to characterise this car's appeal. There's an efficient V8 to tempt Ferrari folk, with the continuing twelve cylinder engine we look at here prioritising laid back luxury. Sharper, smarter and easier to live with, it's the kind of car WO Bentley would have been proud of.
There's no doubting the importance of the Continental GT to Bentley. With well over 50,000 sold since it arrived to impress a Volkswagen Group stamp upon the Crewe company in 2003, it has provided an entry-level point to ownership of this famous brand without diluting the exclusivity that makes the marque what it is. The first generation model was basically a very powerful, very luxurious long distance touring car with a sporting heritage. Which was fine if you were a buyer also considering a Mercedes CL or a Maserati GT. But perhaps less what you were looking for if your wish list covered supercars like Aston Martin's DBS or a Ferrari 599. In second generation form, both customer groups should be happy. Ferrari folk are provided with a newly-developed and powerfully eco-conscious snarling 4.0-litre V8. And more laid back land owners? Well, they can luxuriate in the top 6.0-litre W12 variant we're testing here. Either way, though the story may be similar to what went before, we're told that the plot has evolved with careful subtlety to create a much more satisfying ending. And a very desirable car indeed. Let's try it.
You expect a drive in a Bentley to number amongst the world's great automotive experiences and behind the wheel of this one, there's no disappointment on that score. Ease yourself behind the wheel with an admiring glance at the handcrafted leather and veneered wood and slot the key in the ignition. Push the exquisitely chromed starter button and somewhere in front of you, the huge engine bursts into life. If, as in this case, power is being delivered by the 567bhp W12 cylinder unit, the engine note is deeper, baser, more relaxed than that of the alternative V8. But you're still left in little doubt that the drive you're about to make has the potential to be a very rapid one indeed. How rapid? Well, persuading 2.3-tonnes that sixty should be reached from rest in just 4.4s is no small feat but 700Nm of torque is enough to do it. Keep your right foot buried in the deep pile carpet and 100mph will flash by in under 11 seconds before, if you're either very brave or have an aircraft runway on hand, ultimate velocity is reached at 198mph. That's if you're in the W12 variant we tried. Like its V8 stablemate, it benefits from a whole package of changes, the most important of which is a revised 4WD system that now sends 60% of the engine's output to the rear wheels and 40% to the front, instead of equal amounts to all four. Add to that a wider track and various suspension refinements and you've a car that feels significantly different in MK2 guise. It's more agile, less nose heavy, easier to place into fast corners. Ultimately, more satisfying all-round.
Design and Build
You might assume from a casual glance at this second generation model that it's merely a minor facelift of the first. You might assume that. But you'd be wrong. Nearly every exterior panel has been changed to sharpen and modernise the exterior, but brand heritage is ever-present, the familiar power lines and rear haunches echoing the original 1950s R-Type Continental model. At the front, the smarter headlight design, with its traditional four-lamp format, has exquisite jewel-like detailing, including eye-catching, LED daylight-running lamps. At the rear, Bentley signature 'floating' LED tail lights extend around the corners of the wings, emphasising the car's width and purposeful stance. Overall, it's a more assertive, more modern, more dynamic look, suggestive of the more important changes in place beneath the superformed aluminium skin. Chief Engineer Ulrich Eichhorn had little to do with the original version of this car but he's certainly set out to put his stamp on this one. There are larger wheels and not a single suspension joint has remained the same, with a wider track front and rear necessitating a body 40mm wider than before. But it's still the hand-finished interior you'll remember most. Tug open the long, heavy doors and you'll find it as gloriously appointed as ever. As before, you sit quite high in front of a dash styled to echo the wings of the Bentley badge. The chrome-bezelled dials are beautiful and everywhere you look are soft-touch leathers, exquisite wood veneers, cool-touch metals and deep-pile carpets, all individually crafted by skilled artisans at the Bentley factory in Crewe.
Market and Model
You're looking at having to find somewhere in the £135,000-£140,000 bracket for this W12 moel but at least for that, you'll find most of the expected features appropriate to such an expensive car. In second generation guise, these include a re-designed colour touchscreen 30GB infotainment system with an SD card reader, able to store up to 15GB of music you'll be listening to on nothing worse than an 8-speaker, 8 channel set-up. Built in is satellite navigation with dynamic route guidance, seven-digit postcode entry and Google map compatibility. Safety has been as carefully considered as you would expect, with twin front, side and curtain airbags, plus a driver's kneebag, active anti-whiplash head restraints and the usual electronic aids for braking, traction and stability control. Other standard features include beautiful soft leather trimmed 'Cobra'-style seats that of course are heated and 14-way electrically adjustable, an electrically adjustable steering column, rain-sensing wipers, a multi-zone automatic climate control system, 20-inch alloy wheels, park distance control and bi-xenon projector headlamps with daytime running lights. I love the little touches too: this Breitling clock. The powered door latches. The chromed organ stop controls on the air vents. Must-have options include the peace of mind of a GPS Tracking system and, if I had a spare £5,000 extra, the fabulous11-speaker Naim for Bentley audio set-up. If I were going to be driving the car hard, I'd also want to consider the Carbon Ceramic Brakes, recognisable by their black brake callipers - a cool £10,000 extra.
Cost of Ownership
Even if you drive this W12 model with restraint, its 17.1mpg combined cycle fuel figure is only going to give you around 338 miles between garage visits. CO2 emissions are up at 384g/km. An engine start-stop system would help but it isn't fitted because Bentley's engineers reckon the fuel savings from adopting this would be marginal - which seems to fly in the face of worldwide engineering opinion and automotive fact. If you really want to complete your eco-credentials at the wheel of this car (why?), you'll want to run your Continental on fearsomely expensive E85 bio-ethanol fuel - if you can find a garage selling any. What else? Well insurance, as you might anticipate, is a top-of-the-shop group 50. Servicing won't be cheap either. Residual values are pretty solid though, but don't spend a fortune on costly extras then expect to get it back at resale time: you won't.
Bentley's original Continental GT was a fine machine but it wasn't a sportscar. This second generation version can be. With V8 power, it's more agile, more tactile, better sounding and, if you care, a whole lot more economic to run. Which has led most to question the continuing need for the pokier W12 model that we've been testing here. I wouldn't. Not every Bentley owner wants to throw their car around. Over 50,000 existing customers worldwide are very happy with a relaxed, sporting Grand Tourer - and this MK2 model is an even better one. What's important is that this famous maker now offers the market a choice. That it now not only has a plutocratic sporting two-door GT but also a car to more credibly take on Aston Martin and Ferrari. A car that as well as taking you across the Alps, can take in a lap of the Nurburgring on the way there. The German hierarchy, it seems, have finally got a proper handle on what a Bentley should be - what the marque is all about. And British enthusiasts can finally relax. On this evidence, this famous name is in good hands.