Stealth wealth. What else to call the phenomenon of deceptively simple $15,000 Hermes Birkin bags, or customers requesting Tiffany purchases in plain brown shopping bags rather than the iconic blue ones?
British carmaker Bentley has been practicing the art of expensive subtlety since well before the recession, launching the Continental GT in 2003 for $150,000.
No flashy Ferrari this: The big-boned coupe doesn’t say Bentley anywhere on the outside -- aficionados will recognize the double-winged “B” badge, while others could mistake it for a $30,000, first-generation Chrysler 300.
The Chrysler had a similar upright grill, but isn’t available with Bentley options like a $7,000 stereo system or a $550 removable hard case for storing keys.
Bentley has followed up the base GT with ever more expensive “Speed” and “Supersports” versions, not bothering to brand them either. Pay an extra $17,000 to $77,000 without obvious bragging rights.
Even modern classics must be remade, and so the Louboutin-heeled get an all-new 2012 model which looks amazingly like the old. Starting at $189,900, it takes a practiced eye, or a Bentley dealer, to tell the difference.
The Continental has always left me cold. Cramped inside considering the sizable girth, it’s a heavyweight. I also prefer a bit more pizazz for my hundreds of thousands.
Yet several days driving the 2012 model left me liking everything more. In most every way, the Bentley is better.
The exterior has been gently re-sculpted with a little nip, a little tuck. It’s as if sagging lines were crisped by metal-firming Botox. Without an older model alongside for comparison, I couldn’t tell the exact differences, yet slight wrongs were righted.
My $211,640 test car came in “Thunder” -- an interesting gray -- with 21-inch wheels. The interior was camel-colored, with walnut veneers covering most surfaces that weren’t stitched leather.
A hide-covered ledge juts out beyond the dash, framing the driver and cascading to the center console. There’s a new navigation and infotainment system, but we’ll come back to that. Bentley’s interiors have always been a major selling point, but this one was superlative. It still isn’t as expansive inside as you might hope, but it is a luxurious perch.
It drives better as well. It’s hard to truly call the Continental a sports car. Even the Speed versions felt heavy and bulky. With lots of horsepower, they were better suited to hard blasts of acceleration than high-speed cornering.
But last year Bentley released the 620-hp Supersports, which drives like the devil is chasing it. The suspension and all-wheel-drive system was tweaked just so: Now, it blasts around curves.
That finesse has filtered down. Because now when you slap the GT’s accelerator, the engine makes a delicious roar and the car stands on its tippy toes. Take a challenging line on a curving road and this GT will set to it, following that first command of the wheel rather than hedging its bets by asking you to seesaw the wheel to account for clumsy weight.
As before, the suspension can be dialed from normal to sport, going from lily-pad soft to moderately hard, though it never approaches spine-rattling. It’s a grand touring car, after all.
So, more sports car, less bull in the china closet. Drivers should still remember to brake early into corners -- there’s no help for the 5,100-plus pounds. But the brakes are superb and the whole car feels more self aware. The steering is firm and likes a slow hand.
Lost in Jersey
The car is all-wheel-drive and power comes from a large 6.0-liter W-12. This one delivers 567 horses and an impressive 516 pound-feet of torque. A 4.0-liter V-8 will also become available and should help with sorry gas mileage.
Even the ridiculous behind-the-wheel paddles, which I’ve previously compared to Dumbo’s ears for their odd placement and shape, have diminished in size. I’m guessing the average Bentley driver ignored them anyhow.
Which brings us to the navigation system -- a pain point for any person who’s ever driven a modern Bentley. They are owned by the Volkswagen Group, so I’ve always wondered why they didn’t simply source one from Audi, just as once electronically-challenged Lamborghini has done?
To give you an example: Not so long ago, the navigation in a $308,870, flashy red Continental Supersports convertible led us straight to the dodgiest neighborhood in New Jersey it could find, ostensibly on the way to Pennsylvania -- then kind of shrugged and gave up.
The new GT has an 8-inch touchscreen that uses Google Maps and has a 30-gigabyte hard drive. While it still isn’t better than your average Honda system, I’ll wager it can find the state of Pennsylvania.
Leave it to Bentley to do a redesign this subtle. To be confident that the new car is exactly what customers were already looking for: More of the same, only better.
The 2012 Bentley Continental GT At a Glance
Engine: 6.0-liter, twin-turbo W-12 with 567 horsepower and
516 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: ZF 6-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 12 city; 19 highway.
Price as tested: $211,640.
Best features: Better looking, better driving.
Worst features: Interior still feels small for size of the
car. Miserable mpg.
Target buyer: Luxury lover who prefers to cruise under the
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)