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
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 38 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 open 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 plunging 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.
Bentley Continental GT
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 time 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?