Going hell for leather across Austria’s epic high alpine pass known as the Grossglockner isn’t the kind of natural habitat for a spanking new-generation Bentley Continental GT.
It’s known for its tight switchbacks and ice-banked walls, even at this time of the year. Not the sort of place you want to be going at it in a 4.85m long (and almost 2.2m wide) coupe with a $422,000 price tag hanging off it – plus on-roads and options, of course. Though, the views are spectacular.
Perhaps the British luxury carmaker was out to prove a point, or simply to shake off the age-old criticism levelled against the company all those years ago by Ettore Bugatti, with whom they once competed.
Bugatti was said to have described Bentley motor cars as “The fastest lorries in the world”, due to the fact that those cars built by founder W.O. Bentley were heavier and more substantial than the lightweight Bugatti racers of the same era. Bugatti was clearly rattled by Bentley’s multiple wins and podium finishes at the 24 Hours of Le Mans races.
Fast-forward 94 years from Bentley’s first win in 1924 and the company is still building relatively hefty automobiles, but the all-new third-generation Continental GT proves Bentley also knows how to build one of the world’s most accomplished grand tourers.
While previous generations have aged remarkably well over the last 15 years – it’s hard to pick them apart – the new model is an entirely new design inside and out, using cutting-edge production methods that marry old-world craftsmanship with leading-edge technology.
It might be an all-new design and up there with the contemporary best, but even at a glance the new car is instantly recognisable as a Continental GT, such is the strength of the model’s generational lineage.
There are three key power lines that have defined the Continental GT from day one: that from the front wheels, the muscular haunch of the rear wheels, and the heavily tapered roof line. All of them originating from the 1952 Bentley R-Type Continental – in its day, the world’s fastest four-seat coupe.
Aviation also played its part in the new design, with the surfacing and form language drawing influence from the visually stunning 1934 Spartan Executive aeroplane, once owned by the likes of billionaire Howard Hughes.
Bentley customers added their bit too, playing a key role in the car’s development by providing collective feedback that suggested a lighter and faster car was in order next time around. Mind you, they still wanted a grand tourer, only louder and sportier, which is exactly what the factory has delivered.
Compared with the previous generation, the new GT moves the front axle forward by 135mm, as a shorter front overhang and longer bonnet. The exterior panels are all aluminium, with the exception of the boot lid that is fashioned using a composite material. The new aluminium body side is actually the largest ‘superformed’ panel in the automotive world.
Weight-saving measures mean the new car is lighter by 80kg, with at least 50kg of that number coming out of the body shell. The chassis is a combination of aluminium, high-strength steel and 50,000 hours developing the car’s structural performance.
There’s an inherent masculinity to its form that seems to balance well with its hugely powerful engine.
Under the bonnet is a further development of the Bentley’s handmade 6.0-litre W12 engine, with two twin-scroll turbochargers and a combination of high-pressure direct injection and low-pressure port injection to produce 467kW and 900Nm of torque from just 1350rpm – less than a third of the time of the old Continental GT.
There’s no handmade plaque on the engine cover like some rival makes, but given each W12 powertrain features 294 individual components and requires 6.5 hours of assembly by hand, it’s near enough to.
That’s also 25 per cent more torque and 7.5 per cent more power than the previous-generation motor. Flatten the right pedal and this nearly 2.5-tonne behemoth can accelerate from standstill to 100km/h in just 3.7 seconds. Top speed is an autobahn-munching 333km/h.
The turbos spool up very rapidly. We know that because of the louder-than-usual whistling easily heard through the double-glazed windows.
There’s some good low-down noise too, especially on the overrun as we lift off the throttle and go hard on the brakes at each and every hairpin in these parts. Just don’t expect the same kind of intoxicating thunder that bellows from V12 rivals like Aston Martin’s DB11.
Don’t get me wrong, the Bentley likes to rev, and at full-throttle acceleration is nothing short of ferocious, but it tends to sound more like a blown six rather than the more meaty V12 growl. Put that down to the W12 configuration versus a V12 design.
The trade-off, though, is that the Bentley is also fundamentally economical despite its huge output. Using advanced cylinder-deactivation technology, it can run on six cylinders in gears three to eight, below 3000rpm and up to 300Nm of torque, for a claimed consumption of 12.2 litres/100km. That’s 16 per cent more efficient than the previous Continental GT, and good enough to meet Phase 2 of Euro 6 and US LEV III targets. Bentley also claims a range of 800km from its 90-litre fuel tank.
It’s also difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint the precise moment when 12 become six, because the instant you give the throttle a right-old prod there’s buckets of lag-free power on hand to put this thing into veritable warp drive – as we experienced first-hand on the autobahn as the needle nudged 270km/h in what was a very short stretch of derestricted zone. And believe me, there was plenty of pedal travel remaining under my right foot.
Even at these speeds, noise-cancelling measures like the latest laminated acoustic glass effectively isolate the cabin from wind and road noise. It’s extraordinary, really. Despite this car’s sizeable proportions, there’s a -9dBA improvement, which almost eliminates outside traffic noise. Not to mention a drag coefficient of just 0.29 – the result of 2.3 million CPU hours logged in aerodynamic simulations, while another 340 hours were spent in wind tunnels.
For the first time, the engine is mated to a ZF eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, replacing the previous model’s torque converter automatic. Power is sent to all four wheels, only this time it’s an active all-wheel-drive system providing variable torque bias to either front or rear axles.
Frankly, we didn’t expect such silky refinement from a dual-clutch transmission – even a ZF ’box. But even in the most aggressive drive mode in a sustained low-speed crawl, shifts were as refined and seamless as any eight-speed auto we’ve tested recently, namely that in the DB11.
Cranking it up and switching to the manual mode via the paddle-shifters, and for sure there’s more intent with each swapping of the cogs. But again, there’s none of that silly back-slapping nonsense you get in the V12 Lamborghinis.
Bentley’s Driving Dynamics allows drivers to switch between various drive modes including Comfort, Bentley, Sport and Individual, each of which changes engine character, gearbox, spring rates and damping, steering, roll control and torque distribution. In the Comfort and Bentley settings, up to 38 per cent of torque can be sent to the front axle, but in Sport it’s limited to just 17 per cent.
Certainly, you can feel the rear bias as we steered the car via the throttle on hairpin exits, but easily kept it in check. There’s a ton of front-end grip, too, with understeer rarely, if ever, raising its ugly head in the new GT, even when pushing.
Bentley might be billing its latest-generation Continental as the new benchmark in the grand touring class, but armed with such heavy-duty firepower, it’s also more than capable of taking the fight to the supercar club in more ways than just the power stakes.
Body roll isn’t something you’re ever aware of in the new Conti’ GT, even in these hugely demanding parts. It’s all down to Bentley’s 48V Dynamic Ride System, which is able to instantly counteract lateral roll with actuators in the anti-roll bars that can deliver up to 1300Nm of torque in a split second during cornering. Even at speeds beyond 240km/h through the sweepers, the Bentley remained rock solid.
It’s not just the active roll bars that give you the confidence to push on here. Bentley’s variable-ratio electric power steering serves up a naturally weighted steering feel at any given speed, though we thought a tad more on-centre weighting would be beneficial, at least for high-speed autobahn work.
Ride comfort even over the occasional broken road on the Italian sections was extraordinarily good. Given the sportier elements that the new GT had already delivered on, we simply weren’t expecting this level of ride comfort to boot. And, not just in Comfort either, we continuously switched between that and Sport, and there were no complaints whatsoever.
Yet again, the improvements are largely down to the latest technology. The Continental GT uses new three-chamber air springs, delivering 60 per cent more air volume in the Comfort setting in comparison with the previous system.
Standard-spec brakes on the new car are the largest ever deployed on a production-series car: 420mm rotors with 10-piston calipers up front and 380mm with four-pots down back. They are, of course, beyond reproach, though early signs suggested they didn’t pull the car up all that suddenly. Further testing, though, showed that the pedal pressure was calibrated for a thoroughly progressive pedal, yet no less effective in pulling the car up at big speeds.
In this era of lightweight metals and composites, it does seem inconceivable that a luxury coupe could tip the scales at near enough to 2500kg, despite shedding 80kg off the previous generation. By way of comparison, the DB11 V12 weighs in at 1825kg, while the S65 AMG reads 2110kg.
Bentley seems unconcerned when questioned, citing the fact that it is completely unwilling to compromise on the standard of luxury and handcraftsmanship that goes into each and every car it produces.
The cabin is simply spectacular. It’s a completely new design boasting a host of the latest on-board tech built around an electrical architecture that includes 2300 individual circuits, more than 8km of wiring, up to 92 ECUs and 100 million lines of code.
The centrepiece of the new infotainment system is the Bentley Rotating Display, a 12.3-inch three-sided rotating screen with three different screens able to be shown at the press of a button. It’s straight out of a Bond movie, and took two years to develop using 40 moving parts, including two motors with high-precision gearboxes and individual cooling fans. This feature alone deserves to be a standalone exhibit in the Louvre.
The main instrument display is also now fully digital and configurable, and it’s joined by a driver’s head-up display.
Customers can choose between three audio systems, commencing with the 10 speakers and 650W of power. The middle-ranked unit is by Bang & Olufsen and includes 16 speakers, four DSP sound modes, a 14-channel, 1500W amp, and using the company’s Beo Sonic Control Interface for the first time in an automotive application. The top-spec system is supplied by Naim and gets 18 speakers, 2200W 21-channel amplifier, eight DSP sound modes with active bass and two active bass transducers.
Every Continental GT involves up to 1000 production and craftspeople and 100 hours of time before completion. It shows, too.
Over 10 square metres of wood are used in each Continental GT, and it takes nine hours to create and fit the wooden inlays by hand. Each leaf of veneer can be traced back to the very tree it came from. Customers can choose between eight types of wood, including the highly prized Koa from Hawaii and Eucalyptus from Australia.
Every cabin is upholstered using nine Northern European bull hides, while accounting for 12 per cent shrinkage caused by the embroidery. Not only that, the interior boasts 310,675 stitches and 2.8km of thread.
Even the new diamond-look quilting is special and a product of 18 months of development of the special diamond-in-diamond embroidery pattern. Interestingly, each diamond is a different size, dictating new levels of handcraftsmanship.
Even the headlights are special, with the Continental GT using the latest LED Matrix technology, which allows the driver to use the main beam at all times without blinding oncoming traffic. So powerful is the beam that headlight washers aren’t necessary. Moreover, in each cut crystal-inspired headlamp there are 82 individual LEDs.
While buyers can choose their car’s colour from a palette of 17 exterior paint colours, and up to 70 different hues, there are also 15 carpet options and trim hides to choose from.
The new Continental GT also gets a suite of the latest active safety kit via two technology option packs: City Specification and Touring Specification. Collectively, the packs include hands-free boot opening, pedestrian warning, traffic sign recognition, top-view camera and city braking systems. There’s also adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist, active lane assist, head-up display, night-vision with infrared camera and pre-sense braking.
This is a properly handcrafted grand tourer with a level of detail that goes well beyond any rivals, notwithstanding its performance capability and high level of passenger comfort to boot.
Sure, we can sit here and cite its weight as a negative, if it genuinely affected the ride and handling. But after several hundred kays behind the wheel through various countries and conditions, it’s hard to argue against the finished product.