Whether you’re about to embark on a transcontinental tour or a grocery run, there’s something profoundly satisfying about first declaring: Let’s take the Bentley.
Oddly, this works whether you actually own a Bentley. Try it! See?
The Bentley (hypothetical or actual) that you’re now thinking about is very probably a Continental GT. A big part of that comes down to statistics; since its introduction in 2003, something approaching 70,000 of them have rolled out of the works at Crewe, making it far and away the most successful Bentley model of all time. And though we’re all going to be seeing a lot (in relative terms) of Bentaygas on the road from here on out, it is the Continental GT that, more than any other vehicle, redefined the British marque upon its introduction, launching it into the 21st century.
The 2019 Continental GT is a totally new car. At a surface level, though, it looks very familiar: The proportions are classic, which is to say that they’re almost identical to those of the outgoing Continental GT, and the W12 — a new, 66-pounds lighter unit now producing 626 hp and 664 lb-ft of torque — still sports twin-turbochargers and displaces 6.0 liters.
But there are deep changes beneath the deeply creased (superformed, in fact) aluminum skin. The new Continental GT is lighter, trimmer and now riding on a longer 112.2-inch wheelbase. The VW Phaeton-derived bones are gone; it is now built around brand-new architecture co-developed with that of the Porsche Panamera.
Though the car is still all-wheel drive, it is no longer locked into a 40/60 front/rear split: The new system defaults to rear-drive, doling power out to the front axles only when needed, and you can dial in a bit more rear bias by switching into sport mode, which further limits the amount of power sent forward.
Gone is the old eight-speed automatic, now replaced by an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. DCT technology, Bentley says, has finally progressed to the point where such a gearbox is able to provide both adequate torque converter-like smoothness and reliably handle massive torque.
Thanks to the light-weighting, the stop-start technology and the W12’s ability to shut down half of its cylinders while cruising, fuel economy is up a stated 16 percent. Not that Continental GT owners are particularly eco-conscious (though there is surely a hybrid variant in the works); there’s a real logistical benefit here for prospective grand tourers. Thanks to its 24 U.S. gallon tank, you’ll be able to pull 500-mile stints before fueling up — although probing its 207-mph top speed will cut that significantly.
The 500-mile range means you’ll be spending plenty of time inside the Continental GT, making the interior as good a place as any to start the review. And with wood veneer sweeping from door to door and vintage-feeling textures everywhere, it’s a beauty. Industry-leading, even. From the available “diamond in diamond” quilted leather pattern on the door to knurled knobs, there’s endless detail — including textured surfaces in many places you can’t see, like the back of the interior door handles.
It’s rich, and clearly a showpiece for the capable craftsmen at Crewe, but not overdone.
Still, the Continental GT is not where you want to go if you demand cutting-edge tech. Compared to the last model, which was hobbled by an ancient electrical architecture (VW Phaeton bones, remember), the new car feels shockingly modern; in reality, features like a head-up display, adaptive cruise control and a modern infotainment system put it on par with, but not ahead of, the competition.
The single best onboard technology feature is the hideaway central screen: At the press of a button, it flips around like James Bond’s license plate to reveal a set of three analog gauges (temperature, a compass and a clock — all redundant, but still a nice touch). Power the car down and it rotates yet again to a blank panel. The panel gaps are tiny; the veneer matches perfectly. The overall impression is that technology is here to serve you when you need it, not dominate your field of vision when you’d rather pay attention to the world around you. Expect no less from Bentley.
On the other hand, the most pleasant surprise is, hands down, the powertrain. The eight-speed dual-clutch is at first glance a puzzling choice for a hushed grand tourer. Sure, other automakers have promised smooth dual-clutch operation in the past, but there have always been moments that caught even the best systems off-guard — a clunky downshift, or uncertainty at crawling speeds.
Not here. This box is downright silky in auto or manual modes. Work your way up and down the gears while maintaining a constant speed and ask your passenger to shout when you’ve shifted. Odds are, they won’t be able to tell. It’s a perfect match for the W12 and its seemingly bottomless well of low-end torque.
Prime mover: The 6.0-liter twin-turbocharged W12 serves up seemingly endless torque.
Speaking of, I’ve always struggled a bit with the W12; some buyers undoubtedly need an even dozen cylinders and the corresponding prestige, but we all know the V8 Continental GTs are livelier. In this application, however, and paired with this DCT, it’s the most enjoyable W12 experience I’ve had to date. I’m starting to see the appeal …
The motor isn’t vocal; even when winding it up and working through the gears, it’s more of a distant rumble than an assertive bark — which is what you’d want in this application. But that torque! The first time you hit the throttle, you’ll be catapulted forward with what feels almost like electric-motor twist and smoothness — 664 lb-ft of torque will do that for you. And it just doesn’t fall off. If it serves no other purpose, the head-up display is a great reminder that you’re probably rocketing down the road at some superlegal speed without realizing it. Getting sucked toward the horizon at an ever-increasing rate is just too easy, too drama-free.
Of course, that W12 is plopped down right on top of the front wheels; this is certainly not a front-midengine car, unlike, for example, the Aston Martin DB11. Weight distribution is 55/45 (though Bentley does its best to address this by claiming that two adults up front plus a load of luggage in the back makes it more like 52/48), and due to the W12’s relatively light weight and compactness, the balance won’t improve when Bentley installs a V8 up there. As a workaround, Bentley offers up that new all-wheel-drive system, plus a torque vectoring-by-brake setup to help distribute power side to side.
In any case, Bentley clearly isn’t worried about it: The drive route it chose to showcase its big new baby was a mini-grand tour starting in Kitzbühel, Austria (mountain roads), dipping into the northeast of Italy (narrower mountain roads, less predictable traffic, dour old men at streetside cafes) and then jogging back over to Klagenfurt, Austria (a fair bit of expressway cruising). All in all, a very full and varied day of driving.
The route takes us on the incredible Grossglockner High Alpine Road, a scenic pass created in the interwar period to attract tourists. Unique in the history of capital-intensive, tourist-oriented boondoggles, it 1. Was allegedly completed under budget and 2. Has proceeded to bring in even more tourists than expected. In addition to great driving, it offers stunning views of the Alps.
Or so I’m told; I was met with clouds. To carry the posted speeds through its turns, 36 of ’em over about 30 miles, without eating up both lanes — not advisable given the opposing traffic and Austria’s generally law-abiding sensibilities — you’d probably want to be on a sport bike, and you’d probably end up scraping pegs more than a couple times.
The Continental GT would not be anyone’s first choice of weapon for this road, but a job’s a job. The angriest woman in Austria waves me through the tollbooth as I point the Bentley up the mountain.
Switchbacks look great in photos but, in the wrong car, quickly become a chore. The Continental GT handles Grossglockner’s endless hairpins with ease — grace, even. The air suspension and body roll control system allow the appropriate degree of floatiness without setting you up for nausea-inducing side-to-side undulations during cornering. If you really focus on it, you’ll tell yourself you can feel the brake-actuated torque vectoring biting in to help rip you around the tightest curves; if I hadn’t told you about it, you’d have never noticed.
Yes, there is a lot going on under the skin of this car to make it move as confidently as it does, but like the concealable infotainment screen, it’s executed so seamlessly that during on-road driving it never intrudes on the overall experience.
And here’s something refreshing: The Continental GT doesn’t masquerade as a sports car. Some vehicles (for example, the Audi A8) feel weirdly unsubstantial for their given footprint — something that’s never been an issue for Bentleys. The new one tips the scales at just 4,947 pounds, but it feels appropriately weighty. If it’s a leather-trimmed bank vault on wheels, it’s a wieldy one. Steering feel is limited but precise, and thankfully not overboosted. The car doesn’t pretend to be small or light, not even in sport mode; instead, its mass-made-fast proposition becomes a key part of its appeal.
The expressway driving? Of course, it’s easy — restorative, almost, especially once I find and activate the seat massagers — but high-speed serenity is a given in a Bentley.
If there’s one downside to sitting inside the Continental GT, it’s that you can’t appreciate how good it looks in motion. The exterior design isn’t quite as cohesive as that of the interior: There are a lot of interesting elements, from the dazzling cut-crystal inspired headlights to a more upright front fascia to side character lines that subtly recall the R-Type Continentals of the 1950s. But there are one or two curious, almost awkward angles on the car, as well.
Yet it does, to fall into a car-writer cliche, truly look excellent going down the road; it has a real presence, the kind befitting of a car wearing the Flying B.
In many respects, the new Continental GT represents a conservative play by Bentley: Though totally new and substantially improved when compared to the outgoing model, its formula remains the same right down to the displacement of the W12. If you need to be on the bleeding edge, this isn’t the car for you. Heck, Bentley probably isn’t the marque for you.
But this time around, Bentley wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel — or itself. The automaker’s mandate was simple, if not exactly modest: Design and build the ultimate grand tourer, one that does everything the outgoing car did and then some. The result is a car that feels classic even though it’s only just debuted (and if its predecessor is any indication, it’s got a good long run ahead of it).
There’s a lot you can buy for the Continental GT’s starting price, including one very rakish Aston, but the Bentley has an on-road presence all its own and a hand-crafted interior to top them all. I wouldn’t hesitate to drive any distance in this car at a moment’s notice — the highest praise I can think to give a big tourer. The only way to top it would be to get in the back of a chauffeur-driven ride, which defeats the whole purpose.
Does anybody actually use grand tourers for anything other than commuting these days? Who knows. Maybe you, future 2019 Bentley Continental GT owner, could be the start of a revival. Maybe this is the car that makes you leave the private jet in the hangar, for once.
Why fly? Let’s take the Bentley.
On Sale: Spring 2019
Base Price: $214,600
Powertrain: 6.0-liter twin-turbocharged W12, eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, all-wheel drive
Output: 626 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 664 lb-ft @ 1,350-4,500
Curb Weight: 4,947 lb
0-60 MPH: 3.6 sec
Fuel Economy: 16.0/31.7/23.2 mpg (European cycle)(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Beautiful interior; excellent attention to detail; quiet, commanding on-road presence
Cons: Don’t expect a true sports car experience; cutting-edge tech fanatics, look elsewhere