Each week our team of experienced senior road testers pick out a new model from the world of innovative, premium and performance badges, and put it through its paces.
Bentley and grand tourers go together like Goodwood and motor-racing: very nicely indeed, with a venerable, tangible history.
Bentley’s first grand tourer, the 3.0-Litre, took to the stage in 1921, almost 100 years ago (Bentley itself marks its centenary this year, and will celebrate in style at the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard this summer). The car took first place at Le Mans in 1924 and again in 1927, proving its winning combination of sporting performance and long-distance durability.
The first car to bear the Continental badge, the R-Type Continental, arrived in 1952. It was capable of 100mph while carrying four passengers. Without any motorways in Britain on which to experience this potent combination, owners set off across Europe on their own trans-continental tours.
The modern Continental GT, to which the new model owes its nascence, was the first car designed from the ground up by a Bentley company under the patronage of the VW Group, where it remains today. And now we arrive at the third generation, a sleeker, more poised example of the grand tourer, available in coupe and convertible form, and with a W12 or V8 engine.
As well as a sharper suit, the new Continental GT displays a revolutionary (literally) new trick: it has a triangular rotating display mounted into the dashboard. A little button marked simply “screen” turns the display to show either three classic analogue dials, a 21st-century touchscreen showing three different functions at once (satnav, radio and telephone, for example), or simply a continuation of the fascia. The dash, by the way, in the new world of Bentley design, can itself be split in half horizontally to show two surfaces. And while we’re at it, splitting the steering wheel into two contrasting colours for the leather is also an excellent idea.
The rest of the cabin is however you might choose it to be – Bentley does a choice of leather patterns, stitching and colours like no-one else, with some breathtaking colour combinations you’d never think of, such as cricket ball red and an elegant grey, or navy and beige… There is no limit to the spectrum, other than taste (and even that flies out of the window sometimes). The names of the veneers themselves are like a book of automotive-design poetry that no other brand quite seems capable of matching: dark fiddleback eucalyptus, crown-cut walnut, liquid amber, tamo ash, and so on…
Oh and the Naim sound system – tick that box, please.
It’s stonking, obviously. The W12 is resolute in its peerless acquisition of the road ahead, strong, bold and defiant in its power delivery. It would never be so vulgar as to announce its acceleration: you simply arrive at point B, very quickly – in 3.6 seconds actually, if point B is defined as wherever you get to at 62mph from a standing start. Yes, there are a lot of horses (626) and a lot of torque (900Nm, or 666lb ft), but this is also a very heavy four-wheel-drive car. It’s not a sports car, so the dynamic wow factor is more focused on straight lines than hairpins – for the Stelvio pass, choose a 911.
The V8 engine, meanwhile, really does lend a different character to this car: it feels more agile, more poised, a little spritelier, which all ought to put it top of the list, but if you are minded to go Bentley you’ll be minded to go for the flagship W12. It’s just the way of the world – there’s a nagging doubt with the V8 that you don’t have The Big One. It’s silly, as the V8 makes for the better driver’s car, but there it is.
Oh yes, but oh so quiet, so understated: such very archetypically British passion. To enjoy a Bentley, one must understand Bentley itself – its glorious motorsport heritage, its extraordinary wins at Le Mans through the decades, its engineering prowess, its many owners and their place in the fabric of British society. One should also appreciate that VW Group, like Tata with JLR, has known when to leave well alone and let the marque get on with doing what it does best: create pillars of British luxury, and become a byword for the pinnacle of the motorcar. And then you understand the joy of owning and driving one.