In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Con­ti­nen­tal GT

Re­mem­ber the golden age of tour­ing, when a trip to the Med meant driv­ing miles, not book­ing Ryanair? Maybe Bent­ley’s new Con­ti­nen­tal GT can bring them back

CAR (UK) - - Contents - Words James Tay­lor | Pho­tog­ra­phy Alex Tap­ley

Europe’s best roads in Bent­ley’s coupe? Why not…

THERE’S NO DOUBT about it. The Bent­ley Con­ti­nen­tal GT is too big for Eng­land. With a wheel­base that could swal­low a Smart ForTwo, and two me­tres be­tween its door mir­rors, it oc­cu­pies ev­ery inch of its lane on a typ­i­cal Bri­tish B-road. On­com­ing trucks prompt a sharp in­take of breath (and a sweet lung­ful of con­trast-stitched leather and deep-pile car­pet aroma in the process – God it smells good in here). No, to be prop­erly ap­pre­ci­ated the Conti needs to make like its badge and spread its wings. Most of western Europe should do it; a di­ag­o­nal run across France un­til we run out of land, a sharp right at The Glit­ter­ing Med™, on into Spain and, even­tu­ally, Por­tu­gal. A proper grand tour for a proper Grand Tourer. Which poses its own ques­tions; does grand tour­ing as a con­cept stand up in 2018, or is it ir­rel­e­vant nos­tal­gia? Can the re­al­ity play out as glam­orously as the dolce vita day­dream?

France passes in a pleas­ant but mo­not­o­nous pas­tel blur. Near Greno­ble, our first overnight stop, the go­ing sud­denly gets all wavy, like giant hands have rucked up the ge­o­graph­i­cal rug. The Alps, and the Route Napoleon, beckon. With 700 miles be­hind us and more than 1800 to go be­fore the Conti and I part com­pany, this is a chance to re­ally get to know the new ver­sion of one of the big­gest suc­cess sto­ries in the Crewe firm’s long and glo­ri­ous his­tory. The first mass-pro­duced Bent­ley (by its stan­dards), some 70,000 ex­am­ples of the two pre­vi­ous Con­ti­nen­tal GTs were sold, do­ing won­ders for the com­pany’s prof­itabil­ity and lu­cra­tively broad­en­ing its cus­tomer base.

Hence the evo­lu­tion­ary de­sign. There’s no mis­tak­ing this car for any­thing other than a Con­ti­nen­tal GT, but by the same to­ken you could mis­take it for the pre­vi­ous one – from a dis­tance, at least. It’s kind of the same but el­e­gantly elon­gated (thanks to the pass­ing of the pre­vi­ous car’s stunted Phaeton un­der­pin­nings), brought into sharper fo­cus and, in stark con­trast to the el­lip­tic de­sign theme echoed most ev­ery­where else, fit­ted with a cu­ri­ously straight-cut mouth or­gan of a grill.

Parked in Greno­ble’s el­e­gantly frayed streets, in­ven­tive graf­fiti re­flected in its pan­els and a moun­tain view fill­ing its wind­screen, the over­rid­ing im­pres­sion is one of size: it’s big. The roofline is un­usu­ally high for a coupe and the body’s lower vol­umes rel­a­tively ob­long, but deft styling en­sures it still looks rak­ish over­all, like a well-cut suit hid­ing a gym-shy physique. You sit cu­ri­ously high in the Conti, al­most as high as you would in a cross­over, but that does re­sult in a good view out, and the tall roof means 5ft 11in me can sit be­hind my own driv­ing po­si­tion with­out first re­mov­ing my head.

The trade­mark art deco haunches re­main, now drawn into ar­rest­ingly sharp creases in the alu­minium body­work, made pos­si­ble by ‘su­per-form­ing’ the pan­els at 500°C. The quad head­lights re­turn too, now with cut-glass con­tours in­spired by ex­pen­sive whisky tum­blers. Un­der the body is the new part-alu­minium, part-steel MSB plat­form that also un­der­pins the cur­rent Porsche Panam­era. The Panam­era’s 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 will join the range later too, as will a hy­brid. In the mean­time, how­ever, the ‘12’ lo­gos in the air vents aft of the front wheels be­tray the enor­mous en­gine in the nose – the twin-turbo 6.0-litre W12, a mod­ern Bent­ley main­stay. It sends its not in­con­se­quen­tial ouput to all four wheels, with the lion’s share flow­ing to the rear, but up to 384

per cent can be di­verted to the front wheels when called upon.

In the in­dus­try-stan­dard nought-to-speed-limit-leav­ing-ade­serted-French-mo­tor­way-toll­booth ac­cel­er­a­tion test, the cricket ball-coloured Conti leaves the line like it’s just been thwacked for six. A 2.2-tonne car re­ally has no busi­ness get­ting from zero to 62mph in less than 4.0 sec­onds but, when you’ve 664lb ft spread broadly across a flat-iron torque curve, some­times physics is left with no op­tion but to politely step aside. There’s only so much cheat­ing of sci­ence the Conti can get away with, though – you can’t com­pletely dis­guise that kind of kerb­weight. De­spite its on-pa­per fig­ures, in re­al­ity the Bent­ley feels swift rather than su­per­car-fast, partly a re­sult of its heft, partly its clois­tered re­fine­ment. So ef­fec­tive is the dou­ble-lay­ered glass and sound-dead­en­ing at keep­ing the out­side world out­side that at the 130km/h (81mph) speed limit you feel you could climb out and jog along­side. As­sum­ing you’d ever want to get out of seats this fine; lounge-like arm­chairs with sup­port in all the right places, and more elec­tric mo­tors than a Scalex­tric col­lec­tion.

Climb­ing out of Greno­ble, empty wa­ter bot­tles in the doors are slowly crushed by an un­seen hand as we gain al­ti­tude, the air thins and the road be­gins to snake into bunches. It’s im­me­di­ately clear that the Conti knows how to han­dle it­self. The Bent­ley is re­mark­ably stable at speed, with sur­pris­ingly ex­cel­lent power steer­ing – fast enough that you rarely need to re­po­si­tion your hands for tight turns, and do­ing a de­cent job of com­mu­ni­cat­ing what the 21-inch front Pirellis are up to. De­cent feel through the giant steel brakes too, which have plenty of car to brace their shoul­der against, like At­las against the globe – and thank­fully, like him, they seem never to tire. The gear­box is an eight-speed dual-clutcher by ZF, and it too han­dles it­self with aplomb… mostly. It oc­ca­sion­ally gets a lit­tle shunty, and doesn’t al­ways down­shift quite when you’d like it to. But then, it does have an aw­ful lot of torque to deal with.

We’re well into the Route Napoleon now, the back­drop start­ing out scrubby and grad­u­ally be­com­ing more pic­turesque as it forges south, the vil­lages tak­ing on a more Mediter­ranean ter­ra­cotta feel. Even the mist on the hori­zon changes colour, gain­ing a blue tinge that speaks of warmth, sun­shine and long lunches. Around an­other switch­back, un­der an arch drilled through the rock, and sud­denly we’re on that stretch of road, the D4085 trans­formed into a zig-zag­ging carousel cut into the cliff-face, the W12’s rasp­ing ex­hausts re­ver­ber­at­ing into the val­ley be­low, punc­tu­ated by pre-pro­grammed, syn­thetic-sound­ing belches on each up­shift. In­side the cabin, win­dows closed, it’s far more sub­dued, sound­ing a cu­ri­ous note some­where be­tween butch and mel­low; less rau­cous than a V12, more cul­tured than a V8, but not quite as nice as either to these ears. It’s a smooth en­gine, though – its but­tery bal­ance and com­pact di­men­sions be­ing two key rea­sons Bent­ley is so keen on the dub-12.

The fi­nal stretch into Grasse, with the sun set­ting and dark­ness fall­ing, just gets bet­ter and bet­ter as the road stretches down­hill to­wards the hori­zon. The Bent­ley also keeps get­ting bet­ter. Its huge front-end grip in­vites you to turn in later and later, this open4

WHEN YOU’VE 664LB FT SPREAD ACROSS A FLAT IRON TORQUE CURVE, PHYSICS MUST POLITELY STEP ASIDE

road’s sight lines en­abling you to crosshair cor­ner apexes far in the mid­dle-dis­tance and bulls­eye ev­ery one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a far more re­mote, de­tached driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence than an As­ton or a Fer­rari; you still wouldn’t buy a Con­ti­nen­tal GT purely as a driver’s car. But it can make a pretty good fist of it.

Sus­pen­sion is an elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled three-cham­ber air spring set-up, as is the Porsche Panam­era’s, linked to the three driv­ing modes you set via a ro­tary con­trol; Com­fort to Sport through ‘Bent­ley mode’ – nor­mal, in other words. Sec­ondary ride is a tad thumpy in Bent­ley mode, but in Com­fort it smoth­ers bumps like an as­sas­sin with a pil­low. The big­gest party trick, how­ever, is the car’s 48-volt ac­tive anti-roll con­trol, as de­ployed on the Ben­tayga SUV. A key part of the way the Conti goes about its busi­ness, it’s a very ef­fec­tive sys­tem, but one that changes the way you con­nect with the car when you’re driv­ing, like hav­ing to trans­late a dif­fer­ent lan­guage. Nor­mally when pedalling a car quickly you’d turn in, feel the car set­tle on its sus­pen­sion and adopt an at­ti­tude, then go from there. This is a dif­fer­ent process. Turn the wheel and a frac­tion of a sec­ond later you feel the sus­pen­sion push­ing back, like the car’s wear­ing giant in­vis­i­ble out­rig­gers. At first you add a bit more lock to com­pen­sate for the roll that never comes and have to take it off again (ac­cen­tu­ated by the rel­a­tively fast power steer­ing). Like­wise, when you un­wind the lock on cor­ner exit, the sus­pen­sion re­bounds more quickly than most cars. But you quickly be­come used to it and learn to make the most of the big car’s body con­trol, which will no doubt grow ever more fluid and in­tu­itive as the soft­ware evolves.

BE­FORE LONG we’ve reached the glit­ter­ing Med, and the glit­ter next to it that is Monaco. If the Bent­ley seemed sur­pris­ingly at home on yes­ter­day’s driv­ing roads, it’s very much in its el­e­ment here, turn­ing as many heads and smart­phone screens in Casino Square as any of the parked mid-en­gined ex­ot­ica. It’s start­ing to feel like a big car again, though, es­pe­cially as I’m out­braked by scoot­ers into junc­tions like Schumacher in his pomp. I be­gin to wish we were in one of the var­i­ous lightly scarred French hatch­backs that pop­u­late the streets, partly for their size and partly for the coolly in­verted snob­bery.

Easy though it is to re­coil from the self-con­scious op­u­lence and dis­play­ing of wares in Monte Carlo, it’s hard not to get caught up in the sheer thrill of be­ing here, of re­trac­ing the wheel tracks of Grand Prix he­roes in the epi­cen­tre of where the other half live. I feel the same way about the Conti GT. There’s no get­ting away from the fact that the es­sen­tial part of its rai­son d’être is as an ob­vi­ous sym­bol of wealth. But it’s also an ex­pres­sion of en­gi­neer­ing achieve­ment and crafts­man­ship, and a very im­pres­sive one. A friend who’s a big fan of light­weight cars and minimal de­sign of­ten dis­parag­ingly refers to over­weight cars as ‘land yachts’. That’s ac­tu­ally a per­fect de­scrip­tion of the Conti in both weight and ethos – but in a com­pli­men­tary sense. As a lav­ish pro­jec­tile to climb into and cover huge dis­tances, it’s the way to travel.

There’s a suit­ably nautical feel to the in­te­rior, too, with big wooden pan­els like the deck of a lux­ury cruiser and myr­iad chrome in­lays. To climb aboard is to seal your­self off from the out­side world. Pull the door gen­tly to and mo­tors qui­etly whir-click it closed, while an un­seen ro­bot but­ler mo­tors the seat­belt for­wards from over your shoul­der. Fit and fin­ish is quite epi­cally per­fect. Not a stitch or a fi­bre out of place. Con­trol weights, too, are ex­em­plary, a per­fect ex­am­ple of a car feel­ing just right through its touch­points. Ev­ery­thing you touch, from the in­di­ca­tor stalk through the per­fectly damped cupholder cover to the or­gan-stop plungers on the air vents, is a plea­sure to op­er­ate. So too is the touch­screen, one of the safest and slick­est I’ve used, and part of a neat three-sided ro­tat­ing dis­play within the dash­board, spin­ning through flush wood to ana­logue di­als to touch­screen at the driver’s be­hest. Very Q Branch (Bond did drive a Bent­ley in Flem­ing’s nov­els, after all), and very ex­pen­sive; it’s a £4700 op­tion.

This par­tic­u­lar car also has the op­tional Naim for Bent­ley au­dio sys­tem. That’ll be £6500. Worth ev­ery penny, though: Brown Sugar sounds like you’re ac­tu­ally in Mus­cle Shoals stu­dio, at the mix­ing desk with Keef, Mes­sage in a Bot­tle sounds like you’re be­hind Copeland’s drumkit and Roni Size’s drum ’n’ bass clas­sic Brown Pa­per Bag vi­brates through the speak­ers like a stam­pede. If any deep-pock­eted, Bent­ley-fan­cy­ing au­dio­philes are read­ing, it’s a box worth tick­ing.

There are a few red socks in the white wash­ing, how­ever. As lovely as those or­gan-stop vent con­trols are to push, like plung­ing4 That crease? That’s most of the ask­ing price right there

THERE’S A SUIT­ABLY NAUTICAL FEEL TO THE BENT­LEY’S IN­TE­RIOR; WOODEN PAN­ELS LIKE THE DECK OF A LUX­URY CRUISER

a fresh cafetiere, they un­leash air-con that’s noisy enough to make con­ver­sa­tion dif­fi­cult yet strug­gles to make much of a dent against the Euro­pean heat­wave. The ven­ti­lated seats, part of a £2650 Com­fort pack op­tion, also strug­gle. And you need to stuff your fin­gers in the vents them­selves to ad­just their an­gle, which seems un­be­com­ing of a Bent­ley, as do the cheap-feel­ing gearchange pad­dles. Sun­light re­flects di­rectly off the shiny trans­mis­sion con­sole into your eyes, and the nav has an an­noy­ing habit of ty­ing the route in an elab­o­rate bow to­wards the end of a jour­ney.

But there are worse places to be lost than the French Riviera. We drift along the coast, through Cannes, crowded and glam­orous, and Théoule-sur-Mer, preter­nat­u­rally pretty. The view around each cor­ner bet­ters the last and, as the W12 echoes off the red rock faces and a lilt­ing breeze swirls through the win­dows, the air-con long given up on, the haze on the hori­zon lends the view a dream­like qual­ity. This all seems far too lit­tle like hard work, so we strike in­land to an equally tran­quil but much more ru­ral, wilder France, to­wards La­grasse and the pre-Pyre­nees. The Conti hasn’t skipped a beat: so it’s about time we took it out of its com­fort zone. We stay at the Mai­son des Sabots Rouges, a stone mai­son de maître in a quiet ham­let in the midst of be­ing ren­o­vated into a guest house and cy­cling re­treat. Next morn­ing we tackle a nearby gravel rid­ing stage. The Bent­ley sits up im­pe­ri­ously on its air sus­pen­sion, wakes up its front drive­shafts and takes the rough stuff in its stride. Candy Red paint is soon cam­ou­flaged by dust, the Conti’s wind­screen al­ready a grisly bi­o­log­i­cal stained-glass win­dow of hun­dreds of miles of bug splat­ter, but the car’s un­bowed, its tem­per­a­ture gauge stay­ing put in the mid­dle of its range de­spite the bak­ing heat and the baked-on grime. We point the nav to Barcelona and set off – ap­par­ently noth­ing can stop this car.

Noth­ing ex­cept, pos­si­bly, a lack of petrol sta­tions. By the time4

we make it back to the au­toroute the Conti’s dipped be­low a quar­ter of a tank. No wor­ries, there’s a ser­vice area com­ing up be­fore too long… which is closed. But it’s fine – there’s an­other one in 26 miles’ time and the trip com­puter says we’re good for 45 miles. Turns out it’s a tank-half-full kind of trip com­puter – seven miles from the next sta­tion (and with 18 miles left on the es­ti­mated range), the W12 shud­ders and the Conti goes into limp mode. We have a go at fir­ing it up again, and it starts on what sounds like one of its four banks, be­fore dy­ing again. Half an hour after a call to the French emer­gency ser­vices, a truck rolls in from a nearby garage. Thank­fully, he has a can of essence sans plomb – the W12 fires up at the first push of the starter but­ton.

There are still more than 800 miles be­tween us and the Conti’s fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, Lis­bon, but if any car can shrink the dis­tance it’s this one. The seats re­ally are spe­cial, some­how mak­ing your back feel like you’ve been sat in them for min­utes rather than hours. Se­lect the un­can­nily adept lane-keep­ing as­sist and radar-guided cruise con­trol and the Bent­ley can stop and pull away on its tod in traf­fic jams and slow it­self in ad­vance of round­abouts. So so­porific is the ef­fect I have to turn them off to en­gage with the process of driv­ing again. A friend (a dif­fer­ent one) once glee­fully told me the story of wit­ness­ing some­one sneeze while car­ry­ing two pa­per cups of cof­fee, squeez­ing them both si­mul­ta­ne­ously with pre­dictably painful/funny re­sults. I’m re­minded of that story by the cuphold­ers in the Conti. The kind of pa­per cup a Bent­ley owner prob­a­bly wouldn’t use gets buried in them, and crushed by their plas­tic pin­cers, mak­ing cup ex­trac­tion tricky. But drink­ing cof­fee in here is a brave man’s game any­way, the camel-coloured hide ap­pear­ing ter­ri­fy­ingly vul­ner­a­ble. But when you’re av­er­ag­ing more than 10 hours at the wheel per day, needs must.

That’s the down­side of grand tour­ing on a mag­a­zine timetable – you just don’t have much time to do it in. The con­cept of the grand tour still just about holds up, but it’s clearly a pas­time for peo­ple with time on their hands, an ab­sence of dead­lines in their diaries and a re­laxed con­science about their car­bon foot­print. If you’re one of them, it’s hard to think of a bet­ter car to do it in; the Con­ti­nen­tal GT doesn’t thrill its driver like other su­per-GTs, but cossets them in a way they sim­ply can­not. As a con­ti­nent-crunch­ing, mile-short­en­ing ma­chine, there’s lit­tle bet­ter short of a pri­vate jet.

As the miles tick away, though, it feels like the Conti’s trav­el­ling fur­ther and fur­ther from its spir­i­tual home. Through­out France it prompted thumbs-up from pass­ing cars and im­promptu con­ver­sa­tions with strangers – ‘I can­not speak much English, but I can say, it is a very ’and­some car,’ one La Mure res­i­dent went out of his way to tell me. In Spain and Por­tu­gal it’s all but ig­nored, buzzed by un­in­ter­ested scoot­ers in towns and haugh­tily dis­missed by nose-chop­ping lane-chang­ers on au­topis­tas. The Bent­ley feels like it’s look­ing back over its shoul­der, back to­wards the Riviera’s cobalt sky. And who can blame it?

THE BENT­LEY DOESN’T THRILL ITS DRIVER LIKE OTHER SU­PER GTS BUT COSSETS THEM IN A WAY THEY SIM­PLY CAN­NOT

82

The sportier the Bent­ley, the higher the side lights rel­a­tive to the head­lights

Big­ger roadsmake for a hap­pier Bent­ley

If it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for us

Acous­ti­cally terri ic rock faces work well with the W12Will wood ’n’ An­dalu­sia’s Pikl eas­t­her’s time Peak: sim­i­larl­nyever pass? scenic, feAw­peprar­ently notAmer­i­cans

W12 doesn’t sound as good as a V12 or a V8 but it pulls hard

De­tail­ing is ex­quis­ite, in­side and out

Dou­ble glaz­ing keeps the world (and its dust) irmly out­side

Our kind of o -roader! In our de­fence, it is all-wheel drive…

Anti-roll con­trol im­pres­sive but takes some get­ting used to

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