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First drive: Bentley’s flying Continental GT

No-so-gently Bentley: Ballistic new Continental GT is the world’s fastest four-seater.

The first all-new Bentley in 70 years is unlike any that has gone before it

Bentley logo14 Nov 2003

FORGET everything you’ve ever known about Bentley. With the Continental GT - the first all-new Bentley in 70 years - the historic British car-maker has produced a model like none before it.

Fresh from winning Le Mans this year, the born-again Bentley brand’s new Continental GT is billed as the world’s fastest four-seater production car – and it’s just been launched Down Under.

Bearing no mechanical relationship with either the Arnage large sedan model line nor the Rolls Royce clones dating back to early last century, the new Conti is the first product of the new mid-sized Bentley (MSB) model family.

But mid-sized is a relative term when it comes to Bentley because the GT actually starts life on a steel monocoque platform that lurks beneath Volkswagen’s big new Phaeton sedan.

Powered by a top-shelf twin-turbocharged and intercooled version of the Phaeton’s 6.0-litre 48-valve W12 engine, the Continental GT produces 411kW at 6100rpm and a muscular 650Nm of torque from just 1600rpm.

But this Commodore-sized Conti needs every one of those Newton metres to propel it, via an Audi A8-sourced AWD system, to the stratospheric top speed and acceleration figures it claims. Despite its substantial 2385kg mass, the former is a dizzying 318km/h, while the latter stands at 4.8 seconds, placing the GT firmly in supercar territory.

Of course, the rapid new Bentley doesn’t throw tradition out the window completely. Big, heavy, powerful, hand-built and expensive, the new Conti has styling to die for, with strong links to the past via hallmarks like a trademark matrix grille and prominent rear haunches.

Like previous Bentleys, it is also eminently practical, offering seating for four full-size adults and plenty of stretching room in all directions – a rarity for 21st century supercars.

But the fact remains that the Continental GT would never have seen the light of an assembly line without German automotive giant Volkswagen Group, which bought the Bentley name and resurrected the brand for 750 million euros as part of a complex deal that also saw BMW claim ownership of closely linked British brand Rolls Royce.

As such, Volkswagen has brought leading edge technology and manufacturing processes to Bentley cars, which are still manufactured at Crewe in the UK.

The result is one of the world’s most desirable coupes that will come to the Australian market at the bargain-basement price (for a Bentley) of $379,995.

As GoAuto’s first drive at the Australian launch this week proved, the first new generation Bentley also represents much more than the sum of its parts.

First deliveries of the least expensive, most popular Bentley ever begin in January and a staggering 230 Australians have already signed up – including no fewer than 40 since its local public debut at the Sydney motor show just a month ago.

With annual production capacity of just 3500 and about 6000 deposits received worldwide, a third of buyers will need to wait until 2005 to take delivery. Like Ford-owned Aston Martin, Bentley is in the enviable position of having to balance waiting periods with just how many vehicles it should build before the exclusivity for which it has attracted such demand is diminished.

With an all-new four-door Bentley due on sale in 18 months and a Continental GT convertible likely to follow, the issue of exclusivity will become even more crucial for Bentley as it moves even further into Porsche, Ferrari and top-end BMW and Benz territory.

At about $7000 more than the CL600 V12 flagship – its most direct competitor - the newest Bentley remains within price reach of the world’s premium sports coupes, although Ferrari’s direct competitor in the 456 2+2 GT and its forthcoming replacement command around $200,000 more.

The result is the highest conquest rate of any Bentley, with a staggering 79 per cent of customers being new to the brand and the remaining 21 per cent including most of the A-list celebrities who have owned Bentleys in the past.


800000”>DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

WITH some justification, cynics may argue the Continental GT is little more than a modern Bentley body and interior slung over a recycled Volkswagen.

But one drive in it is enough to convince even the most ardent of badge engineering opponents the born-again Continental is the real supercar deal.

For a start, the Conti is hand-crafted at Crewe, the home of Bentley since 1946. The interior is more Bentley than Volkswagen, offering swathes of hand-stitched leather, plush-pile carpet and real woodgrain trim.

The deep-set, chrome-ringed instruments are 1920s-style and the four highly supportive, deeply sculpted bucket seats are power-adjustable in every direction, including squab extensions that increase thigh support for the longer legged.

Chrome touches abound and where there’s no leather or wood, there’s carpet. The few plastic items include minor switchgear adapted from Volkswagen, which is light to touch and superbly intuitive, including the multi-function steering wheel that offers controls for everything from cruise control, telephone and audio functions to the trip computer.

Of course, the tiller itself is power-adjustable for both reach and height, and behind the largish-diameter, thick-rimmed wheel lies a pair of gearshift paddles that, unfortunately, are fixed to the column not the steering wheel.

The only other minor blight on the eminently ergonomic cockpit is the positioning of the boot/bonnet release buttons ahead of the window switches on the driver’s door armrest. While we’re complaining, some of the woodgrain inserts did not appear to fit seamlessly into the leather dash and one of the pre-production cars we drove developed a squeak within its dash.

But these are micro glitches on prototype vehicles that otherwise impressed with their precision engineering, attention to detail and quality of finish.

As expected, the single model GT comes dripping with top-end equipment as standard, including power everything, quad-Xenon headlights with washers, keyless starting, satellite navigation, tyre pressure monitor and telephone.

Safety features are not overlooked either, the GT offering seatbelt pretensioners for all four seats, plus a total of eight airbags: two up front, side bags for each occupant and a two full-length side curtain bags.

It goes without saying the all-wheel drivetrain is aided in passive safety terms by ABS, EBD, ASR traction control, ESP stability control and Hydraulic Brake Assist.

Yes, there are options, such as different woodgrain and leather trim choices, heated steering wheel, valet key and split alloy wheels instead of the standard 19-inch items wearing 275/40-section rubber.

Befitting its price and positioning, GT employs adjustable air suspension, offering four levels of ride height and four levels of damper tune. The system automatically lowers ride height by 15mm at 160km/h and can adjust its shock absorber characteristics many times during a single event, such as when it hits a bump.

The A8-sourced air suspension and Torsen differential-controlled all-wheel drive system are integral to the GT’s driving experience, which is nothing short of memorable.

Firing the Conti into action via the push-button starter brings a crisp, clean and guttural metallic burble at idle that is distinctively un-V8-like in its nature. Blip the alloy throttle pedal and it becomes a menacing bark that leaves nobody in doubt about its potential.

The ZF six-speed Tiptronic auto is the same as that found in 7 Series, XJ, S-Type and LS430 but, as with the A8, it has been developed to cope with AWD. Different again to its specification in A8, the ZF unit in the GT employs different gear ratios and has the ability to lock its torque converter in all gears.

Combined with massive reserves of torque from the 12-cylinder turbo engine, the result is seamless acceleration response from any speed, super-quick and virtually immediate manual gearshifting and a high level of adaptivity, with early automatic downshifting offering refreshing engine braking under deceleration.

The generous torque spread spells arm-stretching acceleration all the way to the 6500rpm redline, until the torque converter cuts in to grab the next gear.

Claimed 0-100km/h pace is in the ballpark of the Porsche 911 – which, incredibly, weighs around a tonne less - and, as such, acceleration feels just as forceful. But it is in the upper gears that the GT really shines, delivering a relentless stream of pupil-dilating pace until, inevitably, the road runs out.

All the time the ZF-sourced rack and pinion steering, with a tight 2.7 turns lock to lock, remains amazingly responsive, communicative and tactile. Offering AWD 911 Turbo-like levels of precision and feedback without the merest hint of engine torque effect, the GT’s brilliant steering is perhaps the most obvious clue to the development work that’s beneath this Bentley.

But there are other top-shelf hallmarks as well, like the whisper-quiet cabin and the impeccable ride quality which goes from comfortable to sportingly firm at the twist of a dial but never feels busy or out of its depth – even on some of the deteriorated Victorian roads used for the launch program.

While it is certainly not as nimble as, say, the 911, Continental GT certainly doesn’t feel a tonne heavier either. Belying its 2385kg kerb weight, the GT feels relatively light on its feet and remains balanced and composed all the way to the limit of its adhesion.

While that limit is difficult to find on any public road, a short stretch of gravel revealed the AWD system’s propensity to alloy a degree of power oversteer, even with the ESP switched on. Without it, the Conti remains neutral but offers limitless levels of sideway fun, without so much as a whiff of understeer.

The multi-link alloy suspension at all four corners was designed specifically for the Continental, as were the brakes, which are claimed to be the largest ever fitted to a production car. The vented discs measure a massive 405mm x 36mm up front and 335mm x 22mm at rear, and provide levels of feel and retardation that would impress an Elise drive, let alone one of a 2.4-tonne vehicle. The GT’s braking ability is as outstanding as its pace.

Brilliant brakes, steering, ride quality, comfort, handling and performance aside, perhaps the GT’s greatest asset is its practicality. Nothing this big and versatile has a right to be so quick and Bentley has cornered a unique place in the market with a four-seater faster than any other.

Four-doors like the Maserati Quattroporte and even Bentley’s own forthcoming sedan will try, but few will match this coupe’s pace despite its creature comforts.

Convenience is not limited to the generous rear seats – which provide just enough head and legroom to make the 911’s kids-only rear seats look silly – with easy entry/exit to the large front pews and a clever seat-mounted seatbelt system that removes the need to stretch for the seatbelt as in most other coupes. Only Benz comes close to this convenience with its belt extenders, but can't match the Bentley's space at rear.

Throw in a 370-litre fully lined boot big enough to swallow two golf bags and the GT makes a solid argument as one of the world’s most spacious coupes.

Indeed, Continental GT makes a solid argument on many fronts. Here is a modern grand tourer with a distinctive Bentley look and top-shelf cachet value only the exclusivity of its badge can bring.

Adding a whole new dimension, however, the big Bentley coupe combines supercar performance with sedan practicality.

No longer must Bentley customers buy on emotion, styling and exclusivity alone.

GoAuto can help you buy a new Continental

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