The Bentley Continental GT has been with us for 15 years now, and in that time it has become a staple of every country club car park. While it was always a paragon of luxury motoring, it was never a proper driver's car nor was it exactly loaded with cutting edge tech. That's not to say that the first two generations were bad to drive or equipped with all the ammenities of a horse and carriage, just that the artists at Crewe were far more focused on making sure every stitch on every piece of leather was perfect and that there wasn't a blemish to be found on any of the wood veneer. Now, though, things are a little bit different.
The first thing you notice in the new Continental is the updated all digital dash. At first the thought of a digital dash in a Bentley seemed wrong to me, like pineapple on pizza. It shouldn't be done. However, my antiquated beliefs on what a Bentley is meant to be like were completely changed within a few moments of entering the car. The interior alone is worth the price of the entire car. The leather and wood are simply beautiful and all the metal trim pieces are closer to jewelry than car parts. That's one expects from a Bentley. What one doesn't expect is how seamlessly the digital dash and Porsche-sourced media interface are integrated into the interior. Every button and switch is exactly where you'd expect it to be and when you tire of looking at the media screen one touch of a button hides it away behind veneer with inlaid traditional gauges. This theme of tradition and modernity carries throughout every inch of the new Continental, and believe you me, it works. It really, really works.
Obviously the new car is gorgeous - anyone who says it isn't is simply wrong. The body lines are prettier than a the Mediterranean sun setting behind Charlize Theron. The long hood and short rear end are proportioned just so and perfectly capture the shape of a traditional grand tourer. With the updated lights (the only weak point in the entire car, in my opinion) and the muscular rear quarters, though, Bentley infuses traditional styling with subtle touches of modernity.
Traditionally, a Bentley is an imperious car. It may not be as flashy as a Ferrari nor as regal as a Rolls, but a Bentley should have presence. That presence, though, shouldn't just be felt by those around it, but by the person driving it as well. The moment I step into a Bentley I expect Roger Waters to be hiding in the back seat plucking out the opening riff to "Money." Interestingly, in an interview with The Observer for the 20th anniversary of Dark Side of the Moon, Waters actually said he was covetting a Bentley at the time he was writing the song. Returning to the point, though, there is a certain feeling one should get when driving a Bentley. The best way I can describe it is that when you're driving a Bentley you suddenly feel like you have nothing to prove, like you can pull up and take the spot right in front of any restaurant, hotel, or country club and have people thanking you for parking there.
Both the new GTC W12 and the V8 Coupe have that presence in spades. Driving them around Beverly Hills was an incredible experience, in part despite of the traffic and in part because of the traffic. In just about any other car, navigating that nightmare is a stressful undertaking. The Continental, though, takes all the stress out of it. Even with the GTC's top down, I felt isolated from everything outside the car. Certainly I could hear and see everything around me, but none of it mattered to me at all. If it had been my car, I would have been happy to light up a good cigar and simply enjoy the experience of sitting in the GTC in the middle of a traffic jam.
So the new Continental carries itself extremely well as a luxury car, but what about as a driver's car? A grand tourer shouldn't be a true sports car as that would compromise the ride and lead the manufacturer to use light weight materials that compromise the luxury feel, but it should be enjoyable to drive spiritedly through the Great St. Bernard Pass or down the Pacific Coast Highway. The cars built in the W. O. days best encapsulated this idea of a grand tourer being a "gentleman's express" and I'm delighted to say that the new Continental lives up to their standard. Of course, the previous generations weren't exactly slow, but you can definitely feel their weight. Someone once described the first two generations as feeling like muscle cars, and I'd completely agree. The Continental has always been a big, heavy car with a powerful motor up front just like a muscle car, and previously felt enormous in the corners, just like a muscle car. The new generation, though, doesn't feel that way at all. You're certainly aware of the size of the car around you, but you don't feel the mass of the car at all when you're manouvering it.
That, then, is why the Bentley is a great grand tourer. But I didn't say it was a great grand tourer. I said it was the BEST grand tourer. I'm aware that that's a bold claim when Aston Martin, BMW, Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes, Rolls-Royce, and now even McLaren all have offerings in the segment, but I truly believe the new Continental is a better grand touring car than any of them. The BMW M850i and Maserati GranTurismo are both good looking and great sounding cars and they can be more than $100,000 cheaper than the Continental, but when you sit inside either one, it's immediately apparent why they're that much cheaper. That's not to say they aren't well appointed, but the material quality and attention to detail in the interior of the Bentley makes them seem about as luxurious as a Turkish prison. The Mercedes S-Class coupe has a phenomenal interior, but if we're all honest it's not the best looking car, and even the AMG models feel like the muscle car the Continental used to be. I go into depth on the McLaren in the article I published the day before yesterday, but the short version is that the car is really a grand tourer in name only. The Ferrari Portofino and the Rolls-Royce Dawn and Wraith are all compromised, though in opposite ways. The Ferrari is a bit too much a Ferrari and is just a bit too performance oriented. The Rollers are the reverse and are just a little too isolated from the road to really have the sporting feel a grand tourer should have. That's not to say I'd ever turn down taking any of the three from Monte Carlo to Naples and back - just that the Bentley would be more comfortable to spend the hours in than the Ferrari and more fun to enjoy on tighter roads than the Dawn or Wraith.
That leaves us with the Astons - the cars that have graced silver screens for over half a century as the vehicles of choice of James Bond (though Ian Flemming gave Bond a Bentley in the novels). Aston themselves admit that the Vantage is more a sports car than a GT and the Rapide has four doors, so we can immediately omit them. The DBS Superleggera also qualifies more as a front engined supercar in the same vein as the 812 Superfast (though I do think that point is debatable), which removes it from the running as well. That leaves the DB11. A British built coupe or convertible available with either eight or twelve cylinders in the front. In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that I haven't yet driven the DB11 but I have been in it on several ocassions, and that was enough for me to formulate the root of my argument in support of the Bentley. First and foremost, the Aston is all hand me down tech from last generation Mercedes models. Not something I have a problem with, particularly when one considers the tech in the Aston lineup, but certainly a mark against the DB11 when comparing the modern Porsche technology in the Bentley. The other problem with the Aston is that the rest of the interior simply can't compete with the Bentley's. The leather, the interior trim, it all falls short of the Bentley's. Previously the Continental would have been evenly matched against Aston's offering (DB9 for the standard car, DBS for the Supersports models) since the Astons were far better through the corners and sing as they climb through their rev range while the Bentley rode far better and had a better interior. Now though, the Bentley feels so capable that to make up for the difference in interior and tech appointments, the Aston would have to be on the same level as the Huracan Evo or 488, and as a front engine car with a suspension that isn't back breaking, it simply cannot bridge that gap.
The Bentley Continental really has become a masterpiece with this latest iteration. All the rough patches have finally been smoothed over so that it can take its rightful place as the ultimate gentleman's express.