Mid morning, and Malaga airport is thronging with tourists arriving for last-minute holidays on the Spanish Mediterranean coast before northern Europe is gripped in winter's cold, gray clammy clasp.
Taxi drivers jockey their diesel SEATs for position, horns blaring, though no one takes any notice. It's like watching the aimless darting of a flock of noisy chicks. Then, suddenly, out of the shadows, the sleek silver coachwork of a Bentley Continental GT hoves into sight, silencing the horns with its presence. Paint flashing in bursts of sunlight, it draws up in front of me, engine ticking over with a burbling menace.
This first drive of the Bentley Continental GT has been a long time coming. Nearly 2 years of teases in what must be the most protracted launch campaign for a new car, the hype culminated with Bentley's one-two victory at Le Mans earlier this year. By Sunday night, when I've reached Monte Carlo with 1,100 miles under my belt, I will know if the Bentley-badged automobile before me is worthy of Bentley's heritage. I've seen the GT countless times at motor shows around the world but am still surprised at how relatively low it is (just 55 in. tall). The impression is accentuated as I slip behind the steering wheel for the first time and realize just how close you sit to the pavement in the car. Of course, that is relative; the Continental isn't as low slung as some high-performance cars, but it seems so because the traditional Bentley driving stance is more imperious, in the same manner as a Range Rover, where the driver and passengers survey other road users from loftier chairs.
If I've waited this long to drive the car, it seems a tad unfair to keep you in suspense of my verdict on Bentley's first all-new product in a nearly a generation.It's not good.
In fact, the new Continental GT verges on the brilliant. In some quarters it is stupendous, but, thankfully, like a beautiful woman (I can't comment on the male of the species) who is made even more desirable because she is slightly flawed, so is the Continental GT. Malaga to Monte Carlo, 1,100 miles in 2 days. Plus photography. There's not many cars I would relish trying to do that in, but it is a worthy test to see if this latest Bentley lives up to its Gran Turismo moniker, and it's a test that it failed in one vital aspect-packaging. With my 6-ft 2-in. frame behind the steering wheel, there is scant room for a medium-sized adult behind me, unless they practice yoga and can put their feet somewhere other than beneath my seat, where there's no space. Essentially the Continental GT is a three-seater for long hauls; about-town commuting with friends would be achievable but not without some discomfort and compromise by all four occupants.
With a fully adjustable seat and steering column, you'd have to be Quasimodo not to find a suitable seating position. From where the driver is situated, gripping the thick-rimmed steering wheel (it takes six trimmers 18 hours to stitch by hand), the interior is swathed in leathers, veneers and carpeting. Sadly, the bare-foot-tingling luxury of sheepskin floor mats wasn't included in the test car, but I recommend that anyone lucky enough to have a wallet fat enough to buy a Continental GT get a set made.