Introducing the new Bentley Continental GT
So just how good is Bentley’s long-awaited grand tourer? The Jackal’s motoring editor has spent the last year tracking its progress from behind the velvet rope – and he’s blown away
There’s no such thing as a ‘soft launch’ in the car business. Not deliberately anyhow; plenty of cars do still sneak out under a factory’s quality fence, the first six month’s customers doing the snagging work intended for development engineers, but it’s not considered good practice. New car development in the 21st century takes place at the nexus of the digital and real worlds. So much time is saved and so much ambition is realised by digital simulations that cars twice as complex as those a decade old are developed in half the time.
Simulation is great for individual components, even entire systems. It’s less good at understanding how they’ll all work together and in real, unpredictable circumstances from the coldest to the hottest places on earth. That’s why in February this year I flew from London to Stockholm and then way north to Luella and the drove another two hours to Arvidsjaur, just south of the artic circle to drive and ride in the new Bentley Continental GT.
To be clear, the new Continental I rode in and drove over two days was a mid-development prototype — rough-in-places, largely hand-built and covered in sticky tape and prosthetics to hide its then still-secret looks. It was considerably further back down the evolutionary line from the pre-production cars the fast boys from the car magazines drove recently and on which they will give their verdicts later today. That said, you can tell an awful lot about a new car from a prototype, mostly this; the new Continental is no blunt, old bluffer blustering its way by those who questioned its suitability for the role of King Grand Tourer with flamboyant power and speed. Nope; this one isn’t just a Bentley in which you can go grand touring, but one in which you’d actually want to.
Arvidsjaur in Lapland isn’t the kind of place you’d find yourself without a reason. It’s small and fewer than 5,000 folks live there, facilitating snowmobile and Northern Lights safaris and the global automobile industry. In the Hotel Laponia, the Bentley team are on nodding terms with the BMW team and the Mercedes team, and another crew from a Fiat supplier. Not that anyone wears team colours; it’s all strictly practical given in February the average high is minus five.
The Bentley boys are however more familiar with the Porsche team. Porsche formally became part of the the VW Group after Bentley did but are now — for the Continental team at least — development partners, and the new Continental is based on foundations that first saw the light of day as a Porsche, the superb second-generation Panamera to be precise. Having worked with VW and the altogether more hum-drum Phaeton platform in the first and second generation cars Bentley’s engineering team are clearly delighted. For engineers, having Porsche as part of the team is akin to having Lionel Messi up front.
Not that the new Continental is a re-bodied Panamera; not remotely. In many ways, its more removed from its elder sibling than the old car was from the Phaeton. There’s the engine for a start — Bentley’s six-litre W12, four banks of three cylinders and as unique in its character as its architecture. It’s always had more torque and power than strictly required, but was also the only way Bentley could power the then-new Continental past 200mph when it led the relaunch of the company in 2003. Trouble is, the W12’s sheer excess dragged along all kinds of other, heavy componentry, none of it located where it might best be and as a result the old Continental was a rather one-trick pony.
Working from day one with those Porsche engineers across the dining room chomping down on the Laponia’s signature dish — ‘reindeer three ways’, I kid you not — meant Bentley could sit that engine where they wanted, drive it through the transmission they wanted (Porsche’s twin-clutch ‘pdk’), along with the four-wheel drive system a car with aspirations of real agility required. They got the lot. You’ll have to read the fast boys to see if this translates to roads not under six inches of icing, but having experienced what the new Continental can do on Porsche’s track — on a frozen lake — I’m pretty certain it now qualifies as a sports car.
Of course, going fast is one thing, being beautiful quite another. And I wasn’t certain here back in February; the two-tone veneer strip that encircles the front-seat passengers was clearly a stroke of genius, as was the three-side ‘Dairylea’ panel with a choice of digital, basic analogue or no instrumentation. The centre-console however, was just too obviously Porsche. Or so I thought; in the production cars I has to wait until the summer to see, it’s a flat panel of precision switches enhanced with surfacing you’ve only ever seen on your wrist before. Throw in seats with complex stitching and embroidery (also hidden on the February prototypes) and you get one of, if not the most compelling attempt yet at combining the technological and the traditional.
Will it all work together? Well, that was why Bentley was inside the Arctic Circle in February. It wasn’t the new Continental’s first trip and it would not be its last. It’s a laborious process; drive, take notes, drive some more… day after day. But then again, one chance to make a first impression and all that. I’d be amazed if when we finally get to drive production cars next year, the new Bentley Continental will prove anything other than a landmark car.