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.
The fascia architecture is faintly reminiscent of the Winged B's upper form, which, together with the full-length center console, divides the cabin into individual quarters for its occupants. The traditional Bentley styling cues such as the bulls-eyes air vents with their organ stops to control the airflow are still there, even if more for show than go. Then there is the Breitling analog clock in the upper fascia.
The chromed controls have knurled edges to them, providing an extra sensory delight to their coldness. With such attention to detail, it's a shame, therefore, that the starter button is such a cheap, black plastic affair that, even on right-hand-drive models, is located for left-hand drive. Oh, and another minor moan: Why doesn't the fuel filler cap have either a retainer on the lid or a rubber flap to protect the paintwork?
Amidst all the wood 'n leather 'n carpeting there's nary a VAG component in sight, although the gearshift surround looks uncannily like those in Audis and Phaetons, while the key fob is pure Audi. If I had just spent $300,000 on a Bentley, I wouldn't want to explain to polo club rivals that though the key fob looks like an Audi A3's, I really own a Bentley. As they say, the devil is in the details.
With its 9x19-in. wheels and steamroller-sized 275/40 tires, the first impression you might expect from the GT is a ride that picks up every crack in the road, every nuance in surfacing and resonates that back into the cabin or through the steering. Not so. As I headed the Bentley out of Malaga towards the Spanish hinterland, it became apparent that the car has massive reserves of comfort. The first and enduring impression of the GT is the weight of the steering; don't be misunderstood, the steering doesn't require California governor-sized muscles, but you are conscious that it's a 5,258-lb car.
Suspension is a self-levelling air system inherited from the Audi A8 but tuned specifically for and by Bentley. Whichever setting you opt for the ride is on the firm side; it gets more so when you opt for "sport," and although it enables swifter motoring through twisty sections, this is at the expense of ride comfort and the occasional "kerrump" as surface joints are encountered. For most of the highway dash to Monte, I left the car in "comfort" mode, but through the high-speed swoops of Spain's E15, I switched back to "sport" to minimize body movement-which is always well damped and controlled-and sharpen turn-in on sweeping bends that were regularly attacked at 150 mph or more.
Like all Bentleys, the GT felt out of place on tight, winding country lanes. It fills them almost to bursting at the seams, so it wasn't until more open roads, where you can see through the sweeps and apexes, that I gathered the confidence to put the hammer down. Be prepared for that first time and savor it, because it comes as something of a surprise.
The enduring appeal of previous Bentleys has been their prodigious torque, which appears virtually from tick-over and carries on like a locomotive until a 4500-rpm redline.
Now there's a modern 6.0-liter, double-vee 12-cylinder engine (it's not a true W12 as in old aero engines) with twin turbos crammed under the bonnet. It produces 551 bhp at 6100 rpm and 480 lb-ft of torque at 1600 rpm, and it's connected to a six-speed auto 'box with lock-up on each ratio so each change is as satisfyingly crisp as a manual's. There's none of the usual "slush" effect. There are three options for gear changing: fully automatic or Tiptronic style via either the steering-wheel-mounted paddles or the stick shift. I preferred the latter, finding that the left-hand paddle could at times be confused with the headlight flasher on the indicator stalk.
With maximum torque available at a diesel-like 1600 rpm, you're never found wanting, irrespective of the car's speed/revs combination. Until now I had been bedding myself into the car, making tiny changes to the seating position to perfect its grip on my torso. And the road was just a bit too "switchback" for any heroics. Eventually it opened out into a mirror-smooth, three-lane blacktop disappearing across the countryside.
As I heaved down on the throttle, the engine's note deepened into a more urgent rumble, billowing and echoing round the hills like thunder. At the same time its edge hardened, something I didn't appreciate until doing nighttime shots through Monte Carlo's famous F1 tunnel with the windows open.
The roads unfurled beneath the front wheels, plunging, sweeping, darting, dancing across the hills ,and all the time the speed just piled on. When the redline is eventually reached in second or third, there's a momentary drop in revs, a hesitation in the engine note like an athlete taking another breath, but no let-up in the acceleration, which is swift and merciless. Bentley quotes a 198-mph top speed and 4.7 sec. to 60 mph, but it is the mid-range performance that is so inspiring: 30 to 50 mph in 1.8 sec. and 50 to 70 mph in 3.2 sec. are impressive.
As speed and confidence grew on that first afternoon, so did appreciation of the car's dynamics. It would be easy to get lulled into a false sense of speed with this car, so swift is the way it catapults you between apexes, but if you lift off or feather the throttle lightly as you turn in, the line tightens accordingly, just a nudge of understeer reminding you that you're the pilot and this is a awd car you're in.
Keep the throttle balanced through the corners, accelerating as the exit is sighted, and the big Continental stays remarkably neutral. Soon you find yourself in a rhythm, bends flowing seamlessly into an automotive waltz across the landscape.
Change of plans. Granada is off the shopping list, replaced by a photo shoot at the Dali museum in Figueras, organized by Bentley for Sunday morning. That's not far off 600 miles in one day.
A tough drive at the best of times, but as I looked out the bedroom window the next morning, autumn's thunderous clouds were billowing on the horizon; 1,000km and rain is not what I wanted....
Some 10 hours after leaving Malaga, the fly-spattered GT pulled up outside the hotel close to Figueras. The speed computer told the day's story: average speed 104 mph; average fuel consumption 12.7 mpg.
For most of the day I was cruising at 140 to 155 mph. It's not that I intended to maintain such law-breaking averages, it is just that the Bentley seemed to set its own gait. In many big saloons and sports cars, anywhere between 100 and 125 mph seems a natural pace. At those sorts of speeds the Bentley feels as if it's only just getting into its stride; adding those extra mph just made it feel right.
At those speeds, mental concentration is high. Other road users can't always compute your closing rate as you bear down on them at 155 mph, even with the xenon headlamps on full beam. Thankfully, the GT is equipped with some of the biggest brakes yet fitted to a production car: 405mm at the front and 335mm for the rear, all ventilated, of course, and equipped with both ABS and ESP. Maybe it was because the car had been used for track demos by Derek Bell, but the brakes were a bit sudden in their grip at times and rumbled under heavy application, but since they are capable of producing over 3,480 bhp of retardation (needed on more than one occasion), I don't suppose I ought to grumble too much about them.
High-speed stability is one of the Continental GT's strongest virtues. Drafts caused by trucks and bridges went unheeded by and large, and only the occasional mountain pass gust caused the car to shimmy slightly. Likewise, the only time the car felt nervous was in a long right-hand bend, when an expansion joint in the road surface caused the back end to slightly corkscrew on its suspension as I turned in. At these velocities, only the understeer starts to increase, and the mass within the steering also makes its presence more apparent. Still, it is a mighty impressive performer, although the need to re-fuel every 2 to 3 hours is frustrating.
Inevitably, wet weather hit the drive, swamping the road surface in driving rain. I am not happy driving at high speed in such conditions; road spray can hide too many slower cars, their drivers concentrating on what's ahead rather than what's coming up behind. Even so, the GT felt confident at 100 to 125 mph, its all-wheel-drive system providing terrific assurance and stability.
The photo shoot at the Dali Museum, amidst bewildered locals, excited school parties and just curious onlookers (see europeancarweb.com), was over, and it was onward to Monte Carlo, though at a less frenetic pace. The French police have recently started becoming more conscientious about speeding, and the thought of fines running into thousands of Euros tempered my haste.
Sunday night in Monte Carlo: Evening pictures by the harbor and in the tunnel taken; time for reflection and answers.
Does the new Continental GT live up to its heritage?It is, for sure, a finely engineered car, and the engine has all the power and torque a driver can ask for, but it lacks that mellifluous, relaxed, almost arrogant delivery of Bentley's own turboed V8. I still have problems with the styling and the car's visual proportions, which were dictated by its underpinnings, especially the long front overhang and the horizontal radiator.
So, is it a Bentley? Yes, it is-but not as we've known them.