Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
"It's getting crowded in here," was a common thought as we glided up the 101 freeway between Ventura and Santa Barbara in our 2006 Bentley Continental GT test car.
We weren't talking about the Continental GT's interior space, though if you're using the coupe's rear seats and your body weight is over 50 pounds this same sensation will likely come over you. No, our thoughts were directed at the $160,000 ultraluxury coupe segment — a segment that didn't even exist two years ago. Way back in 2004 there was no Aston Martin DB9, Bentley Continental GT or Mercedes-Benz CL65.
Is a 401K really necessary?
That's quite a population explosion in such a short time, especially for a segment that appeals to a relatively narrow band of the buying public. Look at it this way — there are still plenty of places in the U.S. where $160,000 equates to the price of a house. And while all three players are truly exceptional vehicles, when we picture ourselves raiding the retirement fund we consistently see the Bentley Continental GT as the source of our madness.
What is it about the Bentley that has us flirting with future financial disaster for the sake of instant gratification? That's a list we don't have the space to reprint here, but we'll hit a few of the highlights — "highlights" being an appropriate place to start, as the car's tranquil gauge cluster lighting is one of the many aspects we fawned over during our short time with the Continental GT. Everything from the engine start/stop button on the center console to the jewellike Breitling clock atop the center stack made us feel like royalty whenever we scanned the dashboard and soaked up that soothing white aura.
All dressed up with plenty of go
This same impression was imparted by the luscious seat leather, which in our test car was stitched in a diamond pattern on the seat faces as part of the $8,500 "Mulliner Sport Package." This could more accurately be called the "Bling Package," as it also included drilled alloy pedals, dark burr walnut wood dash inserts and a chrome-and-leather gearshift lever topped by an intricately textured metallic ring.
But perhaps the most bling-worthy feature in the Mulliner package are the 20-inch, two-piece alloy wheels that wear Yokohama Advan Sport 275/35-20s at each corner. Because the Continental GT borrows both its platform and its all-wheel-drive system from Audi's A8, it eschews the common GT practice of putting larger rubber under the rear wheelwells, not that we think 275/35-20s are in any way lacking sizewise.
Quite the contrary, this 5,300-pound luxury conveyance offers a startling level of performance — if the driver is so inclined. At our test facility it rocketed from zero to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds and cleared the quarter-mile in just under 13 seconds. It also stopped from 60 mph in a head-bobbing 113 feet and hustled through our 600-foot slalom at 65.3 mph.
Out on our favorite twisty roads it took only a brief moment of familiarization before we were tossing the car into tight sweepers and letting the all-wheel-drive system figure out the pesky details, such as when and where to apply the 6.0-liter W12's 552 horsepower — a task it accomplished with the grace and elegance you'd expect of anything wearing that stylized "B" on the front grille.
Long live the King of Bling
We first experienced the Continental GT two years ago on a one-day trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco. We were instantly smitten with the car's opulent interior, 479 pound-feet of torque (available at 1,600 rpm!) and sleek exterior shape. Despite only minor upgrades over the past 24 months (the Mulliner Sport Package being a big one), and despite an all-new DB9 from Aston Martin, the Bentley still offers a uniquely compelling package.
Beyond the Continental's all-wheel-drive factor is the 100-hp advantage it has over the DB9. The Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG has the Bentley beat by approximately 60 hp (and 225 lb-ft of max torque), and while it's faster in a straight line it can't touch the GT's ultrapremium demeanor or overall "gotta have" factor.
For neither the Mercedes nor the Aston has chrome-plated window switches, textured control dials with chrome rings, chrome push/pull climate controls or brushed aluminum dash vents. Even the exterior mirrors have a chrome bezel around them and the front seatbacks feature large, brushed aluminum release levers. If it wasn't so tastefully executed, the Continental GT's cabin could be the poster child for Pimp My Ride — obviously the effect the car's interior designers were going for.
Luxury still looms large
For luxury coupe buyers not interested in four-wheel drifts and 198-mph top-speed blasts, the Bentley is primed and ready to provide regal ride quality and serene high-speed touring. The self-leveling air suspension can be placed in one of four positions, with the softest setting ideal for relaxed highway travel. The double-pane side glass keeps out all but the slightest hint of wind noise and the climate control system, along with the heated seats, can deal with just about any temperature seen on the planet's surface. We're particularly fond of the GT's easy-to-master control system that comes directly from Audi's own MMI design. iDrive it ain't — thank God.
But while the Continental GT comes close to ultraluxury coupe perfection, it isn't perfect. Many would argue it doesn't look or sound as good as the DB9, and with a strange exhaust moan coming from beneath our test car at low rpm we wouldn't argue the latter. The six-speed automatic can be a bit hesitant when hitting the go pedal, though using the paddle shifters just ahead of the steering wheel solves that problem. We were also disappointed that after spending $167,000 we still couldn't listen to satellite radio. We've already mentioned the semifunctional rear seats, but if you've got a problem with that situation stop shopping luxury coupes right now.
A new trait for the segment — value
If, however, you're looking for the best combination of performance, functionality and palatial luxury available in the sub-$200,000 coupe category you landed on the right Web page. Volkswagen has successfully fused the unabashed spirit of the Bentley Boys with the finely crafted workmanship and engineering prowess seen in every modern Audi.
For 2006, the Bentley Continental GT is the Edmunds.com Most Wanted Exotic Coupe. And if you value your 401K, don't go near one.
System Score: 9.0
Components: The standard audio system includes a six-CD changer mounted in the glovebox. It's a 300-watt stereo with 12 speakers. The dash-mounted head unit is very similar to Audi's MMI (Multi Media Interface) and the screen incorporates other vehicle functions as well. The system includes such features as DSP, RDS, and has steering-wheel-mounted controls.
Performance: Yes, the Bentley's stereo sounds phenomenal but it's not just the sound quality that has us singing Bentley's praises. The system is also flexible, easy to use and packed with thoughtful features.
Even if you never adjust a single audio setting, you'll be treated to stellar sound quality that includes sharp bass, crystal-clear highs and distinguished midrange. The bass is perfect in tone — a timpani drum resonates throughout the interior as if you were seated in the balcony at the Kennedy Center. Every type of music sounds great — from rock to country to blues to Brahms, it all sounds very impressive.
Now, should you choose to play with the controls and various settings, you can enhance an already terrific stereo with little hassle. There are preset sound profiles that can be accessed by pressing the DSP (Digital Signal Processing) button. The profiles include settings like Studio, Surround, Hall, Open Air, Jazz Club, Neutral and Talk. From there you can customize each effect by dialing in how much of the effect you want. For really big, expansive sound put it on full Surround. However, many vocals tend to get lost in the Surround mode.
We found most rock and pop music sounded best on Neutral or Studio with the effect set to one click above low. Plus, each sound profile can be set with its own intensity level. Bass and treble are adjusted via a separate hard button marked with a musical note. No submenus or clunky icons to figure out, just easy access to some pretty sophisticated technology.
In the middle of the center stack is a large round knob — it's used to adjust whatever's on the screen, similar to BMW's iDrive. Only the Bentley's setup is super-easy to master. Radio stations and CD tracks are presented in list form and can be displayed on either the main screen or the smaller screen directly in front of the driver or both. This type of flexibility is great when you need to look at the navigation map but also want to handpick CD tracks or radio stations.
Plus, as you drive the radio is searching for stations and will automatically add or delete stations from the list based on signal strength. If you can't wait to listen to Live 105 on that road trip to San Francisco or The Loop on your way into Chicago — this stereo will add the station to your list as soon as it comes into range.
The only real complaint here is that for $180,000 we would hope for a CD changer that's in the dash not in the glovebox. If not for this the system gets a perfect "10."
Best Feature: Ease of use plus excellent sound quality.
Worst Feature: CD changer location.
Conclusion: One of the best sound systems on four wheels. Audiophiles will love the amazingly rich sound quality while everyone else will love that you don't have to be an audiophile to master all of the system's features. — Brian Moody
Executive Editor Richard Homan says:
I admit that the choice between a Bentley Continental GT, an Aston Martin DB9 and a Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG will never be an issue that I lose sleep over. Not only will I never be rich enough to be different, I don't think that I even know people who know people who have to wrestle with this kind of decision. Nevertheless, this elite tribe of automobiles occupies more of my brain's time than is healthy for such a devout underachiever. I can make an argument for any of the three, and here is the case for the Bentley:
The Continental GT is the least reserved Bentley offering — sculpted like a rugby fullback with Beckham's panache, powered by a 552-hp W12, and still endowed with an interior that belongs on the cover of Architectural Digest. The 2+2 coupe is deceptively quick on the straights and wickedly clean in its executions of corners. The six-speed automatic transmission thinks too much when you know you want to pass, but the solution is literally at your fingertips: Snap the steering-wheel-mounted paddles down from 6th to 3rd (or even 4th), and time and traffic stand still as you pass with a roar.
Again I insist: Choosing among the Bentley, the Aston and the Mercedes is something I won't lose sleep over. God knows, I lose enough sleep over them individually.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I was expecting the GT and the Flying Spur to be essentially identical cars but each has its own distinct personality. And I prefer the Flying Spur over the Continental GT. The GT is more athletic than I was expecting for a Bentley but the sedan was more to my liking — softer and more substantial. Although the Coupe's more striking look may successfully fit the bill for a person who's buying this type of car. It looks more well, expensive. There, I said it.
You can't really fault either car — there are probably many buyers for both the coupe and sedan versions. But the GT feels firmer, with sportier seats. I really like the W12 exhaust note, especially under half throttle as the tach sweeps between 3,000 and 4,000 rpm. The engine's controlled growl is exotic without being brutish.
I also like that you don't see a Bentley on every street corner. Here in Southern California, it seems that every road, freeway and alley is lined with premium offerings from Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Porsche, and BMW. Even Ferraris are a fairly common sight. But you don't see too many Bentleys — I like that sort of exclusivity, especially for nearly $200,000 (with options).
"What I don't like about design nowadays is the trend toward taller cars with slab sides. Why someone wants a SUV-like view out of a car is beyond me. A car like the Ford 500 is simply too tall. I actually like the little Scion TC, but it's way too tall and slab-sided for a coupe. The new IS 350 suffers from the same thing as does the Bentley Continental GT. Cars like the Aston Martin DB9 stand in direct contrast to this unattractive trend. The new S-Class is really tall looking also. These new European pedestrian safety regs are slowly going to kill all the low and sleek-looking cars." — merc1, October 17, 2005
"In any case I just don't think RR has the cachet it used to but, thanks to the Arnage and the Continental GT Bentley seems to be gaining converts. Even a fleeting glance of the rear of a Continental GT made an impression on me." — andys120, September 7, 2005
"I saw a Bentley Continental GT going down the street earlier yesterday. What a car." — chris65amg, July 12, 2005
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