What is it?:
The Bentley Continental GT has had to contend with the whiff of nouveau riche hanging around its exhaust pipes since it arrived in 2003. The once cordial and symbiotic Rolls-Royce and Bentley marques were traditionally purveyors of enviable, hand-built chariots for the well-heeled gentleman or lady.
However, in the aftermath of the break-up of Rolls-Royce and Bentley – which was inevitable after Volkswagen had scooped the company from under BMW’s nose in 1998, only to find it didn’t have the licence to use the Rolls-Royce name – there was huge pressure to engineer quickly a new, cheaper car. One that would hopefully sell in numbers hitherto unimagined by anyone at the old Crewe factory, rejuvenate the brand and begin to recoup VW’s investment.
The result was the Continental GT, essentially a mass-produced model built using a VW Phaeton chassis with a new body. It was and still is constructed in Germany rather than at Park Ward, then shipped to Crewe for assembly and sold to a mostly cash-laden, burgeoning group of individuals who fancied something sporting a Bentley badge, with a bit less stuffiness.
And it wasn’t just voyeurs that were sniffy at the Continental’s more mainstream build methods and get-rich-quick patina. I was selling Bentleys at the time, and took a group of expectant customers on a factory tour guided by one of the old-guard workers. He firmly nailed his colours to the mast that afternoon.
Asked by one of the soon-to-be-owners why he’d spent well over an hour waxing lyrical about the Arnage line, then perhaps 30 minutes at best viewing the GT’s build process, our man unashamedly exclaimed in full-on Cheshire drawl: “Well, we have two companies here. Bentley on this side, and VW over there. And I work for Bentley.”
But for all his and everyone else’s lamenting of the changes at Crewe, there’s no doubt that the Continental has, in all its forms, not only saved Bentley from ruin but also transformed it into a huge success.
That success is like the proverbial runaway train, so here we are, 12 years on, looking at the latest incarnation: the 2016 model-year Continental GT Speed. What’s new? As with the rest of the Continental GT range there’s rebooted styling, led at the front by a remodelled bumper and slightly smaller grille. The most distinguishing features are the new ‘B’ motifs incorporating an air vent on the reprofiled front wings.
At the rear there’s a reskinned boot-lid and a wider-looking bumper that on the Speed and V8 S models incorporates a more pronounced diffuser. There’s also new wheel and exterior colour choices, while inside you’ll find a different steering wheel, a more sensuous knurled finish to the gearshift paddles and the addition of a SIM card that enables onboard wi-fi.
Most notable is the cylinder deactivation that’s been introduced on all the W12 engines. This switches from running on 12 cylinders to six for better efficiency when you’re on a light throttle and above 3000rpm. Don’t get too excited though: the Speed will still slurp fuel at an enormous rate, but at least it should get you farther between fill-ups.
What’s it like?:
If Bentley is forever associated with blowers, surely none in the brand’s history can claim to have been as effective as the two exhaust-driven units plumbed into the Speed’s W12. Whether you are squeezing the throttle with a fine Church’s brogue or an old Nike trainer there’s no elitism here; at 2000rpm they help deliver monumental surge that gives the Speed unseemly straight-line pace.
And rather than tailing off, this is one of those cars that pulls harder the higher the revs climb, at which point the sublime eight-speed auto serves up a new gear with the calm smoothness of a waiter at the Carlton Club delivering you your next G&T. Then you’re off again – once more pinned to your seat by that phenomenal torque.
Its only problem is one of character. Twelve cylinders should sound magical, multifaceted and mellifluous. The W12 never has, and even here, tuned to the nines, compared with an Aston V12 it sounds more like a 626bhp leaf blower, only with added drone when in Sport mode.
That said, you could argue that engine noise isn’t what a Bentley is all about. After all, the venerable old 6.75-litre V8 has always been a lazy-sounding brute, and maybe the W12’s monotone hum is more in character than the snarling, spitting V8 S?
What is apt is the GT’s name, for it’s never felt remotely like a sports car. However, it’s a sharper drive than ever before as Bentley continue refining the chassis, to a degree that it’s now a pretty effective cross-country weapon, considering the mass involved.
Set the suspension to sport and it manages to control the body’s excesses over dips and crests as you exploit that immense shove and fire yourself towards yet another corner. When you arrive and stamp hard on the brakes they wipe off speed almost as impressively as the manner in which it was put on in the first place – save for nose’s heavy dive as you decelerate.
The steering also helps it to feel more agile than it should. There’s precious little feel through the wheel but the rack is quick and accurate enough, with good weighting to make it feel intuitive, too.
As you turn the Bentley in, the initial body roll settles and on these 21in wheels shod with generous rubber, the grip levels are enormous. Even when you carry vast speed into corners, the GT won’t wander off into the bushes and embarrass you. Wet or dry, as you exit you can be quite the hooligan with that torque and it won’t give you a fright, beyond a manageable dose of understeer.
But of course hooning around tight bends isn’t really its main purpose, which is to be a comfortable long-distance cruiser. This is where the GT has always scored well, and still does.
Slacken off all the driving modes and the air springs help it patter over most road surfaces with an easy bent; the only time it lets itself down is over a deep pothole that creates a slightly unseemly thud through the cabin. That’s a rare occurrence, though.
The minor upgrades throughout the cabin don’t stand out, but do nothing to inhibit the sense of finery. For once I don’t have to mention scratchy plastics in a review, as there are none here; just lots of leather stretched tightly and stitched uniformly over the various surfaces.
What’s not leather will most likely be either deeply chromed metal – and often knurled, like those new gear paddles, for that extra je-ne-sais-quoi – or beautiful machine-turned aluminium, which adorns the wing-like dashboard design. Okay, this isn’t a coach-built car, but it’s still finished with OCD levels of attention to detail.
It really needs a new infotainment system though, because it’s far too slow-witted a thing to feature in a car costing over £200k with options – especially with Audi’s excellent MMI system within the group’s parts bin.
One of the Bentley’s less sexy but nonetheless key attributes is practicality. It’s a coupé that’ll fit real grown-up humans in the back, and despite the boot’s narrow aperture, it’s long enough to carry a couple of boxes of Beluga, and a case of Chateau Lafite – 2003, of course – to wash it down with.