2019 Bentley Continental GT review

Australian first drive

Bentley promises benchmark luxury, refinement and performance from its all-new W12-powered Continental GT. And it'll need to be special and faultless enough to deliver on its maker's claims.

The crew from Crewe (England) has pulled out all the stops in its quest to make the 2019 Bentley Continental GT coupe the “best grand tourer in the world”. Unlike the second-generation version, which could be seen as something of a facelift of the 2003 original, this third gen really is all new in the broad strokes and heavily revised in the details, even if its somewhat familiar appearance at a cursory glance suggests otherwise.

The new Conti’ GT promises “benchmark luxury, refinement and performance” and, wearing a Bentley badge, that’s a reasonably expected feat, if one increasingly challenging to achieve in the premium car universe constantly raising the nicer, finer and faster motoring bar. That this is indeed a smarter, more efficient, more lightweight and quicker device is really a matter of evolutionary course. But it should deliver more to earn – or perhaps maintain – the mantle of top dog of the ultra-premium grand touring pack.

It should be extra special. It should be nigh on faultless.

As we discovered at the car's international launch in May, the Continental GT menu is thick with want-for-little indulgences to brighten that ‘speciality’ halo. From the cut crystal-inspired Matrix LED headlights to the motorised James Bond-style infotainment display – that rotates between a digital screen, an analogue gauge fascia and a blank panel – and the ‘diamond in diamond’ quilted trim embroidery to the Côtes de Genève Swiss watchmaking-inspired knurling of the centre console, there’s some flamboyantly conspicuous jewellery on show.

And from its 92 ECUs (with eight kilometres of wiring) to the 48-volt active anti-roll suspension smarts, there’s plenty more excess under the skin, which is now mostly aluminium that’s ‘superformed’ – heat and pressure moulded – in order to achieve those neat, sharp accent creases along the body lines. Anthony Crawford deep-dived the details back in May – I won’t rehash here – but it certainly seemed, at the time, to offer fulsome opulence and somewhat compelling value, in an ultra-premium context mind you, for its $422,600 list price.

It just wasn’t clear at the time what was standard and what was optional.

Yes, premium marques, including Bentley contemporaries such as Ferrari and Porsche, charge like wounded bulls for options. And, yes, the desire to personalise when money is of little object results in eye-watering-cost optional extras, where Naim For Bentley audio is $17K or First Edition accoutrements bundle for $91,234. But some of the point-of-difference features separating the Conti’ GT from, say, an E-Class Coupe, such as the Rotating Display and the diamond seat and door trim quilting (part of the Mulliner Driving Specification packs), add $12K and $20–$25K respectively. If all key Conti’ GT features are must-haves, you’ve already sailed over a half-million baseline.

No major foul, though. It’d be remiss not to point this out…

Indulgent personalisation is one thing, but charging extra for basics at this pricepoint makes for a target for criticism. Want low-range (8–85km/h) AEB? You’ll need the City Specification at $10,381.80, which also adds pedestrian warning, rear cross-traffic alert and 360-degree camera. Fancy adaptive cruise control with high-range AEB? That’s an additional $16,244.80 and also bundles lane and traffic assists as well as night vision. Adaptive cruise, as a standalone, is $5855.85… And really ought to be fitted to a $422K product when such tech comes standard on a $25K Korean hatchback.

The price creep was evident on our primary test car during the Conti’ GT’s Australian launch, taking in the highways and hinterland backroads in and around the New South Wales-Queensland border. Ours sat on standard 21s (not the sexy-look 22s), had no diamond quilting, had plain piano-black inlays (no exotic Hawaiian Koa wood), and even the pedals were nondescript black (partial-metal sport pedals cost extra). It seemed bare-boned in so much as a Bentley might. And yet the 13 cost options added lifted its list price to $495K.

It’s certainly an arresting visage, familiar if broader-looking, more purposeful than strictly handsome. Shorter front overhang, increased mass between the front axle and A-pillars and lower-slung bonnet line, it looks measurably larger than the older gen II, though at 32mm longer, 19mm wider and 4mm taller in roof height, it’s only fractionally so.

The over-the-top front fascia delivers the captain of industry message with ample volume. The remodelled tail, with those strangely smokey-pink elliptical tail-lights, is less convincing if certainly distinctive as a piece of styling. The pronounced so-called ‘powerline’ and haunch line creases, balanced with that sweeping low chrome accent line and front guard vent – with a neat ‘12’ for W12 logo – certainly inject some character to the swooping, pillarless two-door look.

This car’s cabin, one bereft of ornate quilting or excessive knurled alloy surfacing as specified, doesn’t quite feel as richly ostentatious as you might expect a Bentley should, despite the judicious use of leather, in extra cost two-tone colour, and endless tracts of double stitching. It’s very nice – not quite knock-your-Savile-Row-socks-off nice.

Part of it is that despite the impressive brightwork that abounds – the transmission controller, air vents, the switchgear – it suffers from arrays of labelled black buttons that drag it all a little downmarket. That said, the suspiciously Audi-esque steering wheel, and its multifunction button array, might only detract for those with prior experience in product from Ingolstadt.

Despite the myriad adjustability of the optional ($6949) Comfort feature, the front seats are nice if not quite exceptionally plush. They lack a little shoulder blade support, and drivers taller than my 180cm frame might find they can’t drop the seat base low enough to provide airy cabin head room. Nitpicking, yes, but perhaps one should in a vehicle claimed to set luxury benchmarking.

Further, there’s some evident ‘deviation’ that’s the nature of handcraftsmanship under close scrutiny, be it the less-than-machine-perfect alignment of some of the leatherwork, or the slightly sticky nature of how the rear console lid slides open or shut. Rear seat leg room is almost non-existent – with the front seats in any normal position, there’s about a hand’s width of space between the seat back and rear seat bases – though this ‘emergency seat’ format is mostly par for the course for any two-plus-two two-door coupe at any pricepoint. Boot space, though, remains at 358 litres, and is surprisingly roomy and useable.

The hand-built, twin-turbocharged 6.0-litre W12 has a rich rumble at start-up, before quickly settling into a muted and glassy-smooth character for the remainder of any trip regardless of how hard or softly it's pedalled. Despite grumbling from some journos on launch that it lacks bite and volume in soundtrack, for my money it’s the perfect fit for luxury-infused grand touring: impressively polite at a cruise and effortlessly forceful when called to arms.

The new Conti’ GT is measurably swifter on the march. In Comfort drive mode, the powertrain is a touch laggy in responding to full-noise instruction when sinking the right foot, but with 900Nm piling on from just 1350rpm, the sheer thrust the 467kW coupe plies is quite breathtaking and makes a mockery of the hefty 2244kg kerb weight. The heavier (2320kg) predecessor made do with just 720Nm and 434kW, and the formidable eight-tenths lift in accelerative prowess of this new version – now 3.7 seconds to 100km/h from a standstill – won’t be lost on loyal Bentley owners upgrading from the old W12.

Bentley claims a decent-in-context 12.2L/100km combined-cycle fuel consumption that’s said to drop to an impressive 8.9L figure on the open road. Though we didn’t get to test such claims, the W12 will shut down six cylinders in conditions where engine speed is below 3000rpm and no more than 300Nm is needed to maintain forward progress.

The ZF-sourced dual-clutch transmission is claimed to use seventh and eighth mainly for fuel-sipping at a cruise, whereas the Conti’ GT will hit its advertised 333km/h Vmax in sixth gear should you actually find somewhere, anywhere in Australia where you could safely and legally explore it. Good luck with that…

The Conti’ GT’s move to a dual-clutch arrangement and away from a conventional automatic design is a bit of a head-scratcher in a fit-for-purpose sense, as so many big, bona-fide German high-performance figureheads these days opt for the latter. And Bentley admits that the dual-clutch design's inherent penchant for trading refinement for crisp-shifting immediacy has meant a huge amount of calibration work to get a suitably smooth-enough result.

Sure enough, over the next 100km of mixed driving, the first-ever dual-clutch Bentley shifted as smoothly as butter… Bar the three sharp second-third upshift jolts at light throttle at various times. Or three more than you’ll likely experience in a proper automatic…

Perhaps a dual-clutch got the nod for more practical reasons. This is, incidentally, the same ’box as Porsche’s Panamera, which just so happens to share its platform with the Conti’ GT as well. And while I’m not sure what technical kinship lies in the three-chamber air spring suspension or the active, torque variable all-wheel-drive system with other corporate cousin vehicles, the Conti’ GT’s active 48-volt anti-roll system is surely an adaptation of the system Audi uses in the SQ7.

Not that a) you’d pick it or b) nor should you care, because the general on-road vibe is very Bentley, very ‘grand touring coupe’, and noticeably more resolved as an all-round proposition than the model it replaces. Around town it’s quiet, polite and dignified. Taskless to cruise around in provided you’re mindful of its size and pay a little extra attention rearward, where vision through the rear glass is quite limited.

As the route heads out of town and into the snaking hinterland – a course that’s not terribly pockmarked with road acne, but is narrow going with lots of surface changes – its unfettered touring capabilities really come to the fore. I resist reaching for the Drive Dynamic Control to dial up Sport, the mixed and adaptive Bentley mode or even fiddling with Individual calibration, instead keeping it in its softest Comfort drive mode to assess how flexible the package is in what ought to be this car’s default state.

Thus set, it delivers well on expectation. A generally relaxed and consistently surefooted long-haul transit that simply wafts along without fanfare or pretension. A supremely pleasant vessel in which to eat up the tyranny of distance. It never gets strung out or unruly flowing from one sweeping curve to another, and doesn’t demand animated driver input or much change in velocity when tight corners suddenly loom.

Better yet, there’s enough proper engagement from behind the wheel to keep the driver satisfied – though not necessarily entertained – and it tracks its line and grips up so well that it’ll cover ground with impressive thrift without causing much of a raised pulse, let alone alarm, to occupants aboard. In fact, I find little reason to opt out of Comfort mode, which not only underpins the journey with innate ride compliance – that does a fine job of ironing out even large surface undulations with little more than a touch of body float – but still provides velvet-hammer potency in thrust from the W12 engine for impromptu overtaking manoeuvres at a flex of the right foot.

Sport mode does heighten the urgency in the powertrain’s responses and dials out some body roll leaning hard into corners. But the ride becomes a little too fidgety and too much vertical movement creeps into progress across lumpy hotmix, robbing the touring experience of that nice sheen of composure.

Sure, you can stick it harder into a corner, where the Conti’ GT does a reasonable facsimile of a sports car, and where poise and grip do a handsome job of masking the car’s portly heft. But do so and there’s an underlying sense that you’re literally and figuratively trying to push this regular Conti’ GT outside its comfort zone and into territory better suited to the inevitable Speed and Supersport variants this car will spawn.

One surprising ball drop is just how much tyre noise penetrates the cabin. Yes, it plies a lot of Pirelli P Zero to terra firma – 265mm/305mm on 21-inchers or 275mm/315mm on 22s – and, yes, Aussie chip is particularly coarse at times, but some extra noise suppression material in a car hardly chasing a waify weighbridge ticket would not only be welcome, it’d suppress what’s easily the most tiresome and discomforting characteristic of the entire package.

Another surprise is the wind noise at speed once you hit the motorway. Sure, the rustle that seems to creep into the soundtrack above 100km/h somewhere near the pillarless side window join is far from intrusive, but it’s conspicuous enough to be somewhat annoying in a nitpicky kind of way.

It might seem facetious nitpicking annoyances in what’s otherwise a package brimming with premium goodness. But surely the measure of success and indeed greatness comes down to how few annoyances and shortcomings surface in the experience branded with this badge, at this pricepoint, with “benchmarking” boasts attached.

That said, for some owners, these quibbles are insignificant enough not to tarnish the allure of what’s an extremely likeable and accomplished high street cruiser, and one of the most pleasant long-haul bombers I’ve driven, wrapped in that inimitable Bentley cachet.

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