In recent decades England’s top wheels, from Jaguar and Land Rover to Lotus, Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce and Triumph (motorcycles), all have been revitalized: New owners applied boatloads of cash and deft touches of global engineering, yet left them in Britain, where craftsmanship, pride and heritage could finish the job.
No great marque has benefited more from this evolution than Bentley, which was freed from Rolls-Royce when it joined the VW Group in 1998.
Today Bentley is a jewel in an automotive crown that also includes Bugatti, Lamborghini, Audi and Porsche.
Each of these legendary carmakers not only has kept its own distinctive personality, but reached new heights of performance and sophistication. Bentley’s Continental GT is a perfect case in point.
This is the hardtop two-door, a four-seat fastback armed with a twin-turbo 12-cylinder motor tuned for 567 horsepower and 516 pounds of torque. This enormous muscle flows to the enormous (21-inch) wheels and Z-rated (149-plus MPH) tires through one of the few outsourced components, a dual-mode German ZF automatic transmission, and an all-wheel-drive system that splits the power 60/40 between the rear and front axles.
Unexpectedly, the AWD, plus normal ground clearance and an adjustable suspension, makes the Continental GT an all-weather, all-roads supercar. In Wales last month, the BBC’s Top Gear ran one of these machines, straight off the factory floor and complete with double-glazed windows and electric door latches, against racing cars half its size in the World Rally Championship. (The show will air in February. Time and speed are closely guarded secrets, but the Bentley crushed the gravel course, with its two jumps and two water crossings.) And last year Bentley set the world ice-speed record with a variant of this car: 205.48 MPH on the frozen Baltic Sea in Finland.
My own, more humble moment of truth came when traffic parted on the highway to reveal the carcass of a truck tire in the middle of my lane. With sports-car agility, the two-and-a-half-ton Bentley simply pirouetted around the obstacle with zero drama. The nose followed the steering wheel, the tail followed the nose, and my passenger looked up and said, “Oh, what was that?”
(This is even more impressive when we realize that 58 percent of the car’s mass rides on the front wheels. Shifting the transmission to the rear would balance things out, but at the cost of passenger and trunk space. Bentley opted instead to amp up the suspension to compensate.)
In the days that followed, we put the Continental GT over two mountain passes connected by several hundred miles of winding rural roads. At times the discreet rear spoiler, which deploys at 90 and retracts again at 65 MPH, was flapping up and down like a semaphore. My passenger remained unruffled. She stopped trying to guess our speed because the car is exactly as serene at 70 as it is at 80, 90, 100, 110 . . .
As Bentley’s chief vehicle-dynamics engineer noted, with justifiable pride, at speed the Continental GT seems to shrink-fit itself around the driver. In fact, the entire performance envelope—staggering acceleration and speed, precise steering and confident braking—is an integrated whole managed by perfectly weighted driver effort.
Driving, then, is spectacular. Equally brilliant is the car’s sumptuous, subtle interior. Every surface is hand-crafted—machined, fitted, stitched, buffed and polished to the nth degree. If it looks like wood, chrome or leather, it is. The seats, scratch-built at Bentley, remain comfortable hour after hour. Senior citizens can program the transmission, suspension and even the satnav.
Yet there’s a welcome degree of simplicity. Other luxury cars may offer more toys, but do heated and cooled cupholders really improve the driving experience? Bentley evidently disdains mere gadgets and understands that, in a road car, luxury without performance is meaningless and speed without comfort is useless. Bentley has created the very definition of a deluxe automobile, a blend of functional opulence with epic poise and performance.
The Continental GT is fully focused, usable and approachable—if not, unfortunately, affordable. With $45,000 worth of upgrades and fees, this Aegean Blue-over-Beluga example lists for $222,565.
Every other extravagantly priced car that I know demands some sort of sacrifice or accommodation from its driver. In exchange for mind-rattling speed and cornering, ineffable comfort or sensual sheet metal, the visibility suffers or the ergonomics are funky, or it handles like a canal boat or just plain beats you up. The Bentley, however, despite its phenomenal performance and looks, short-changes neither passengers nor driver in any conceivable way. I’ve driven much more expensive cars than this, but I cannot say I’ve ever driven a better one.