Were this a Hollywood script, the story would likely begin with a flashback. To a top-secret session in a well-guarded room hidden deep beneath PALExpo center on the outskirts of Geneva. After producing the appropriate credentials and signing an ironclad agreement of confidentiality, a journalist would be allowed to enter. He'd be stripped of camera, notebook, cellphone, pen, virtually everything but his shoes and belt buckle. And then, the room would grow dark.
The story would then shift to the present tense. On a narrow, winding road wending its way across the ancient fields and hillocks of Welsh sheep country. That same journalist would be seated behind the wheel of the new Bentley Continental GT. The same car he'd been given a glimpse of 18 months before.
This is no movie. And there was good reason for all that secrecy. After nearly three-quarters of a century, the marriage of sporty Bentley and stately Rolls-Royce was coming to an abrupt end. Once given up for dead, Bentley had staged a surprising rebirth during the 1990s, unexpectedly eclipsing its long-standing partner. Soon it would be on its own, but rather than simply maintain course, Bentley was planning a dramatic shift in direction, one it was admittedly uncertain about.
That darkened room held the first clay model of the car that would redefine the British brand. But if company officials went in worried, their fears were soon put to rest. The reaction among the select few given the opportunity to see the new car was overwhelming. And so, with the help of its new parent, Volkswagen AG, Bentley raced to put prototype into production. This coming November, the first Continental GT will reach English showrooms, with a U.S. debut scheduled for early next year.
No matter how sleek, or bold, or striking, a clay model is still little more than a sculpture, of course. So TheCarConnection could hardly ignore an invitation to test one of the first running GTs, taking the car for a long day's drive from the factory in Crewe, up through the mossy green countryside of Wales.
You hear the term "DNA" a lot in the auto industry these days. It's become a catchphrase on the order of "jeweled headlights." So, use the word heritage if you prefer, but whatever you call it, the Continental GT sports the elegant lines and aggressive shoulders of the legendary 1952 R Type Continental. If you're really up on your Bentley background, you might also pick up a few cues from the '28 Speed Six.
The GT belongs to a relatively new class of automobiles, the affordable supercar. Of course, affordable is a relative term. If you're used to spending $300,000 for a Bentley Arnage, or $250,000 for a Lamborghini Murcielago, the Continental GT is a veritable bargain. Bentley's also betting that for those who might otherwise opt for a top-line Porsche, Mercedes-Benz AMG, or maybe the new BMW 760, the GT won't be all that much of a stretch.
What Bentley's new two-door delivers is a blend of top-line luxury and incredible performance. With its twin-turbo, 6-liter W-12 pumping out a thrilling 551 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque, the Continental GT is among the dozen or so fastest and most powerful vehicles on the road.
Yet for those who expect Bentley to be synonymous with bespoke, the new car won't disappoint. Like the massive Arnage, it boasts some of the most elegant woodworking ever put on the road, each car requiring 20 hours of skilled craftwork to complete the carefully honed and polished matching pieces. That's more time than it takes many mass manufacturers to build an entire car. All told, each GT involves 200 man-hours of labor. Equal care goes into preparing the car's leather, which uses as many as 17 matched hides. Even the steering wheel cover is hand-finished, a task requiring no less and no more than 234 eye-crossing stitches.
If you can keep your own eyes sharply focused, you might notice a couple of interior details that reveal Bentley's new parentage. Under the leather skin, the basic steering wheel is shared with VW's new, top-of-the-line Phaeton sedan.
So are some of the control systems in the GT's center stack - though their knurled aluminum knobs are even more elegant. Other interior features, such as the pull-stop air vent controls, are pure and classic Bentley.
By Bentley's estimation, there are more than a billion separate build combinations available for the big Arnage. The number might be a bit less for the Continental GT. You'll likely not see a rear-seat DVD entertainment system. But surprisingly, there is a real backseat, and not just the sort of cramped compartment even kids would complain about. You wouldn't take two adults cross-country back there, but they'd certainly approve of the ride to your country club.
There's also an unexpectedly spacious cargo bay, 370 liters according to European specs, enough room for that foursome's luggage if they don't pack everything they own.
All-wheel pavement shredder
Significant in the fundamental concept behind the Continental GT is that this car is designed to be a daily driver. Its all-wheel-drive powertrain - a first for Bentley - is even meant to handle a snowy Michigan winter. But first and foremost, this is a serious sports car, as TCC quickly discovered during its journey.
As with a fast horse, it requires a few minutes to learn how to handle all the GT's power. It takes a simple squeeze of the accelerator to launch you up to freeway speeds. Tip the pedal to the proverbial metal and you'll find yourself pressed into the well-bolstered seat as if you were being launched off an aircraft carrier catapult. Let off suddenly and you'll shift forward noticeably in the subtly firm seat.
You'll also be greeted with a burble that sounds a bit like the snort of a racehorse being reigned in while in mid-gallop. One of the more subtly pleasing features of the car is its resonant exhaust note. It's something of a cross between that elegant precision of a Ferrari V-12 and the pure muscle of an all-American muscle car. One disappointment was the unexpectedly high level of tire noise, especially on rough pavement.
The car's paddle shifters, a pair of rabbit ears mounted behind the steering wheel, is likely to prove controversial. Whether you opt for manu-matic mode or simply operate the six-speed as a conventional automatic, we found the transmission to be surprisingly intuitive. It seemed to shift before we tipped into the throttle, quickly under hard acceleration, but almost invisibly during more normal driving.
To put some numbers to the Continental GT, the car will blast from 0 to 60 in just 4.7 seconds. And if you don't ease up, you'll feel that acceleration all the way up to a top speed of 198 mph. That's despite the car's surprising heft, about 5500 pounds, or as much as some large SUVs.
You don't feel the weight, though. "Spry," and "nimble" are two words that immediately come to mind. So does "responsive." Throttle and steering wheel become linked almost as one as we blast through dense woods and into open farmland. The blind hills and curves that might intimidate a driver in most cars only beckon one to push the GT a bit harder. The sense of confidence is further inspired by massive, 16-inch vented brakes.
While Bentley avoided the temptation of loading every possible piece of technology onto the Continental GT, the driver is given plenty of options and backup. There's an unobtrusive stability control system, for one thing. You really need to be over the edge before it kicks in and even with the AWD, the stability system will actually let a good driver hang the rear wheels out a bit while cornering hard.
During hard driving, we did switch the adjustable suspension to its firmest mode. The difference was marked in terms of handling, yet it didn't require too much of a trade-off in terms of comfort. Of course, those well-padded seats help.
The two-door Continental GT is the first of three body styles set to use Bentley's all-new, all-wheel-drive platform. A sedan will be shown sometime next year, and "a further variation" will follow "later on," hints Bentley CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen. We're ready to volunteer for another spy session wherever it's held.
The automaker's aspirations are nothing if not ambitious. Even with just the one body style, Bentley is aiming to sell 3500 to 4000 of the new cars, and it could build 5000 if demand is there. That'd be more than double what both Bentley and Rolls-Royce together sold during their best-ever year combining all of their various models.
Can the newly divorced Bentley pull it off? Initial orders suggest Bentley's onto something with the GT, though it will need to sustain demand for more than one or two years. Where once there were few cars in the $150,000 price range, that niche is getting crowded in a hurry, with everything from the GT to the Lamborghini Gallardo, the new Ford GT and others vying for attention.
If a first drive is any indication, the car from Crewe should draw its share of consideration. The Continental's classic lines are striking and timeless. It's unexpectedly roomy and every bit the driver's machine the automaker has promised. So for those who have the money, it'll be hard to ignore Bentley's new offering.
2005 Bentley Continental GT
Base price: $149,990 (U.S. est.)
Engine: 6.0-liter, twin-turbo W-12, 552 hp/479 lb-ft
Transmission: Electronic six-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifts for manual mode, all-wheel drive
Length by width x height: 189.1 x 82.7 x 54.7 in
Wheelbase: 108.1 in
Curb weight: 5258 lb
EPA City/Hwy: N/A
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, dual thorax side airbags for front seat and full-length (front and rear seat) head curtain airbags, load-limiting seatbelts with pretensioners, ABS, traction control, stability control
Major standard equipment: Electronically adjustable suspension, electric memory seats, navigation system, leather and wood interior, auto/manual ride height control, rear seat ski-snowboard sleeve, Breitling in-dash clock, CD changer
Warranty: Three years/unlimited miles