There's plenty of excitement at Bentley Motors these days, and not all of it comes from the marque's recent victory at Le Mans a victory that ended a 73-year drought since the Bentley Boys last stood atop that podium.
But the new Continental GT, much like that win at Le Mans, is largely the result of Bentley's parent company, Volkswagen. For longtime fans of the brand, such an arrangement could be viewed as blasphemous. Having the storied British marque owned and controlled by Germany's largest automaker may not represent what W.O. Bentley originally planned when he started his company over 80 years ago. However, the 2004 Continental GT coupe is the most exciting vehicle to wear that famous "B" emblem in 70 years. Not only is it the best Bentley ever made; it's arguably the best ultraluxury coupe currently available.
The $150,000 Continental GT won't go on sale in the U.S. until March, yet demand is already outstripping supply for the next two years (Bentley plans on selling 1,500 a year to U.S. customers). Even the press vehicles are difficult to come by, but we were recently given the unique opportunity to drive a Moonbeam Silver model from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Over the course of one day, we experienced the vehicle in a variety of conditions and came away with one clear impression at $150,000, this car might be considered a bargain!
We didn't arrive at such a conclusion lightly. When you consider the tremendous vehicles available for anywhere from one-half to one-fifth that price, it's hard to justify a $150,000 car in today's world. But consider the competition from Aston Martin, Ferrari and Mercedes. The Aston Martin Vanquish costs $225,000, yet it makes "only" 460 horsepower, offers only rear-wheel drive and has various interior materials that don't live up to its nameplate or price. The same description holds true for the Ferrari 575M, except it makes 515 horsepower (and carries only two people). The Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG ups the horsepower figure to 612 while costing a mere $200,000, but it's still only a rear-wheel-drive car, and many might argue that a Mercedes nameplate simply doesn't compete in the same realm as Bentley, Aston Martin and Ferrari.
Now consider the Continental GT with its 552-horsepower W12 engine, four-passenger seating, all-wheel drive and nearly faultless interior. As one Bentley representative told us, "When I was first told the selling price, I reexamined the car to see what they left out to sell it so cheap. Damned if I can't find anything missing."
After spending some 400 miles in the Continental GT, we found one or two minor sticking points, but, overall, we feel the same way.
The first item we should point out is that this vehicle is being badged as "the fastest four-passenger coupe" in the world. With an official rear seat and a top speed of 198 mph, that claim at first seems accurate. But like so many past and present coupes, the rear seat's functionality is open for debate. We stuffed a six-foot staffer back there for a 20-minute drive and confirmed that the seat is comfortable and headroom isn't an issue, but unless the front passengers are relatively short, rear-seat legroom is radically reduced. When the front seats are adjusted all the way back (which is close to where our six-foot driver placed the seat for maximum comfort/control) rear-seat legroom is suitable only for a baby seat-mounted infant.
The next item that some might consider "left out" on such a car is the availability of a true Formula One-style manual transmission. The Continental GT offers only a six-speed automatic transmission, though it includes paddle shifters just ahead of the steering wheel that are as easy to utilize as those in the Vanquish and 575M. The transmission can be set in a sport mode for more aggressive automatic shifting, or a Tiptronic mode for manual shifting via the paddles. The latter mode proved highly entertaining, with responsive upshifts and downshifts that felt almost as pleasing as what we have experienced in the SMG-equipped BMW M3. We've always felt the AMG-badged Mercedes products offered the world's best automatics, but this one is at least as good, and the user-friendly paddles give it an edge over Mercedes' steering wheel-mounted buttons.
Finally, there's the question of styling, which has been getting mixed reviews from both the public and the automotive press. Because of its subjective nature, we don't really focus on this area. However, we can report that more than one person commented on how they thought the Continental GT was an Aston Martin when they first spotted it. It caused quite a stir at every stop during our trip, with our favorite response coming from a guy in his late teens during a fill-up in Templeton, Calif., "Dude, that car is like wow." (We thought about making that phrase the sum total of our report on the Continental GT, but figured you deserve more.)
The wow factor continues inside the Bentley coupe where the interior materials and control layout conspire to create one of the best cabins we've ever sat in. This is not surprising when you consider the parent company's penchant for great interiors. If $34,000 buys an Audi TT's interior, and $65,000 gets you an A8's interior, you can imagine what Volkswagen-Audi is capable of producing for $150,000. Real metal accents and supple leather throughout the cabin highlight the old-world design elements, such as the push-pull vent controls and deep-set gauges. Even the door-mounted window switches and the levers for pushing the front seats forward are made of real metal.
As impressive as the interior materials are, it's the successful melding of technology and functionality that makes driving the Continental such a pleasure. Without ever cracking the owner's manual, we quickly mastered the climate control system, audio system, suspension settings and even the TV functions (the TV feature won't be available on U.S.-market models). Bentley uses an iDrive-like wheel to scroll through the car's many functions, but it combines the wheel with multiple buttons that allow fast access to each of the car's major systems. Each control function also features a graphical element that clearly displays what you are doing in the center stack area. The "instant access" buttons mean that, unlike iDrive, it takes only a few seconds to adjust any of the hundreds of climate, audio and performance settings (are you listening, BMW?).
The audio system was particularly impressive, with multiple surround sound modes that feature digital signal processing and sound quality as clean and sharp as the best Mark Levinson systems from Lexus. Like all German products, the Continental GT doesn't have an in-dash CD changer, but at least the changer is in the glovebox and not the cargo area. And, as we mentioned, our test model had a TV function that worked surprisingly well for a non-satellite system (but only when we were in large cities). The video portion of the TV system wouldn't display when the car was in motion but like the car's other systems it was extremely easy to figure out and use.
There remains the most important aspect of a high-end luxury coupe: how does it drive? To put it simply (and to drive our high-school English teachers crazy), we can confidently say, "It drives good!" Once again, think Audi in terms of sublime steering feel and effective suspension tuning. The Continental GT weighs in at a hefty 5,300 pounds, but you'd never guess it after flinging the car through the twisties or hammering it to quickly merge with freeway traffic. The car's air suspension has multiple settings for comfort or performance. The coupe's ride height is also adjustable to aid high-speed stability, and a rear spoiler deploys from just below the rear window to create down force. Wind noise is minimal at 80 mph, and the Bentley feels buttoned down at nearly twice that speed.
Maximum torque from the W12 engine is 479 pound-feet, and it's available at what many cars use for a warm-up idle setting 1,600 rpm. The coupe feels as quick as that output would suggest, and Bentley claims it will hit 60 mph in just 4.7 seconds. Yet the car's all-wheel-drive system means traction is never an issue. Goose the throttle from a standstill and you'll forget about the twin turbos squeezed under the car's short hood as it leaps forward with minimal effort.
Braking is similarly effortless as the floating calipers squeeze 15.9-inch front rotors and 13.2-inch rear rotors. A short acclimation period is necessary to appreciate how powerful the system is, but feedback through the pedal is superb and confidence in the car's stopping ability builds quickly.
In many areas, the Continental GT has set new benchmarks. Its interior quality and control layout are as well executed as anything we've driven. Its combination of comfort, performance and luxury is unprecedented. And then there's the price, which as we said before could rightly be called a bargain at $150,000.
Maybe that teenager in Templeton had it right all along: "Wow."
"I have never been interested in Bentleys before. The image is too much old-world stuffiness without any modern mechanicals. The new GT certainly has the right blend of technology and old-world quality and I have grown into the demographic. I wouldn't call the price reasonable, but it is more affordable. My issues are these: (1) Is this really a car for the hip-hop set? This would leave me out. (2) Why 5,300 pounds? I hate weight. (2) Is this more VW than Bentley? If so, maybe the price should be $50K less." shoes, Oct. 6, 2003
"I've tried to like this car, but can't. It looks like a giant VW Bug or a shoe. I do remain impressed by its engine, suspension, interior, etc., but its styling is nothing to look at." merc1, Sept. 9, 2003
"The problem I have with the car, and I hate to say it, is that from the front it looks like that cheap and nasty Jaguar, is it the S-Class? They can't give those things away even at $199-a-month lease rates! The front is almost identical. In the flesh the car looks better, but I am still unconvinced. The other problem I have with Bentley, particularly in North America, is that it has become a status symbol for the illiterate rappers, athletes and other (wealthy) idiots you see on MTV 'Cribs.'" forzaroma, Jan. 30, 2003