Announcements of significant anniversaries often seem to mug us, sneaking up to make us feel suddenly old. Yet Bentley’s decision to celebrate the modern Continental’s 20th anniversary with the chance to drive each generation produced the opposite sensation - for me at least - has it really only been two decades? I lived through the tail end of Bentley’s pre-VW era but somehow it all seems much longer ago; it’s a mild shock to realise the first W12 Conti was launched in the same year as the Mk5 Golf and the Lamborghini Gallardo, two cars that still seem much younger to me than the Conti does.
While your own experience may vary, I think much of the reason for this temporal shift is because of the Continental’s success. From the moment it arrived it was Bentley, and for many years Bentley was – in sales terms – pretty much the Continental. It overlapped with other models, but until the Bentayga arrived it outsold all of them by substantial margins. In terms of volumes and profits, this is the car that transformed the company.
The other thing proved by a hands-on history lesson, with the chance to drive all three generations back-to-back on a route near the Crewe factory, is that although much has changed over the years, the fundamentals have remained remarkably consistent.
When Volkswagen acquired control of Bentley in 1998 the British company was closer to cottage than industry. That year it delivered just 414 cars, not in the UK, but globally - with much of the factory at Crewe so dilapidated that veterans from the time remember buckets to catch rainwater leaking from the roof. The Arnage, which previously owner Vickers had paid to develop, was freshly launched - but Volkswagen and uber-boss Ferdinand Piech saw Bentley as being pretty much a blank canvas.
The company had already planned for a more accessible model. Well before the VW takeover, Bentley had shown the Java concept in 1994 - a smaller, lighter and supposedly cheaper coupe. A very small run was subsequently produced for the Sultan of Brunei using BMW underpinnings and V8 engines. But Volkswagen’s millions, and engineering muscle, were soon pushing what would become a much more ambitious project – an all-new car in the shape of the Continental GT.
Much of the impetus came direct from Piech himself, a man who tended to think in terms of engines first and then cars to wrap around them. He infamously came up with the idea of a W16 powerplant before deciding to order the acquisition of Bugatti as a place to use it, and the logic with Bentley was similar – to base the range on a new W12 engine that would offer huge performance and (relatively) compact dimensions compared to a V12. This would be co-developed for Volkswagen, which would use it in the Phaeton, another Piech passion project, and also in the Audi A8. But the Bentley needed more power and so therefore got turbocharging. Even as launched, in what would be its least powerful guise, the 6.0-litre twin-turbo W12 in the original Continental GT had 552hp – plus the dynamic stability of all-wheel drive in what had previously been a rear-driven segment.
It quickly proved to be a winning formula. The Conti was one of the fastest cars in the world when it was launched, the official 197mph actually downplaying its ability to get past 200mph ‘out of the box’ on a long enough straight - something I discovered on a quiet German Autobahn with a GPS speedometer. But it was also amazingly easy to drive for something so potent, and as happy pootling at low speeds as it was when fully unleashed.
It’s a point quickly remade by the chance to start the day in an early 2004 Continental GT, the local roads around Crewe lacking the opportunity to get close to a single ton, let alone a double. This is a car that Bentley acquired relatively recently for media events, one that had covered just 31,000 miles in 19 years. But beyond a small amount of age-related patina in the cabin, some delamination at the edges of the walnut trim panels, it feels entirely as I remember the original press cars being.
There is something of a slumbering giant about the original Conti, it needs to be prodded awake to start pulling. But once the turbos are boosting there is huge and almost linear thrust, although with an engine note that never gains any particularly compelling harmonics as it gets towards its 6,500rpm limiter. Control weightings are soft, as are the chassis settings, the standard air springs pillowing away smaller bumps but being caught out by some larger ones. Even with the adaptive dampers in their stiffest setting the suspension struggles to keep two and a half tonnes of mass under rigid control. The weight is more obvious when lifting off, the Conti barely slowing as momentum carries it forward; even choosing lower gears brings only minimal engine braking. Nor is it especially keen to change direction, the engine’s size and position obvious as it tugs wide on corners. The GT is happiest when shown a long, empty straight - and refinement remains genuinely impressive even by 2023 standards. Continental by name, Continental by nature.
While the original GT sold like hotcakes on a cold morning – driving Bentley’s global deliveries past 8000 in 2005 - the company was not unaware of its faults. The driving experience was progressively sharpened with a series of revisions throughout the first-gen’s long life, with the bigger changes reserved for the 2009 Supersports - which is the next model in today’s chronological experience. The Supersports arrived late enough to have the facelifted interior plus a carbon fibre workout to indicate the seriousness of its dynamic purpose. It’s also sporting what, from memory, was a Volkswagen Touareg sat nav system.
To no surprise the Supersports feels much more serious than the original GT. Both power and torque had increased substantially, to 621hp and 590 lb ft respectively, with Bentley now claiming a 3.7-second 0-62mph time. But the more obvious differences on real roads are the zingier soundtrack and what, even at low speeds, is obviously a much better lashed-down chassis. It isn’t harsh, but it has also lost much of the floatiness of the basic car. The sense of unstoppability when lifting off remains, although the SS’s carbon fibre brakes are hugely powerful. But it is also more willing to turn and with less tendency to understeer under power, the all-wheel drive system having been given a rearward torque bias. The gearbox is still a six-speed auto, but with punchier software reducing shift times and making it feel far quicker. Even on brief reacquaintance, it feels impressively fresh for a performance car halfway through its second decade.
Moving to the second-gen Conti brings things earthwards with a swap to (almost) the least powerful member of the clan. Beneath the surface much of the new car was shared with the original - it is more of a heavy facelift than a new car - but one big innovation was the arrival of a new V8 engine option using what was basically the Audi RS6/ RS7 4.0-litre powerplant, albeit in a Bentley specific state of tune. As launched this had to do with a mere 500hp, but - like its W12 sister - it did get a new quicker-witted eight-speed autobox.
The car at Crewe is the later and slightly more powerful V8S, with 521hp. I was a big fan of the V8 when it first came out, and my positive memories are reconfirmed by this one. Beyond the animal brain ‘big is better’, this is objectively a much better engine than the W12. The V8’s responses are sharper, its top end is both revvier and better sounding and it has an enthusiasm the W12 lacks. The V8 S turns rorty when pushed, not just getting louder and busier like the 12-pot. The V8 was lighter, too – by about 50kg – with that reduction making it keener to turn, something obvious even at low speeds and loadings.
There isn’t a regular Series II W12 for direct comparison, but rather another Supersports from 2017. Which means going to the top of the tree in terms of factory power outputs. The Gen II SS put out a monstrous 700hp - accompanied by 750lb ft of torque - with the quicker-shifting eight-speed gearbox making it feel considerably keener than even the first gen Supersports. The steering feels more dialled in as well, with the torque vectoring trying to help get the mass turned. But after the V8 it feels a bit much for congested Cheshire - the Supersports really needs a quiet Autobahn or Alpine pass to play on.
Which brings us to the other bookend. Bentley had supplied several current Contis to help demonstrate the modern range’s collective talents. But I only needed to drive one for proof of both how far things have come, but also how much of the core proposition has remained unchanged. The GT Speed isn’t as muscular as the Series II Supersports - the 6.0-litre W12 making 650hp and 664lb ft - but it has even more dynamic-sharpening tech including a 48-volt anti-roll system and a permissive stability control system that I know from on-track experience is close to offering a drift mode. Definitely not something to test on the Nantwich bypass.
But it can also do the laid-back character that has always been a big part of the Conti’s charm. The third-gen car is pretty much entirely new underneath, and it does feel much more modern. The expensive decision to switch from a torque converter auto to a twin-clutch transmission gives much snapper responses and helps to minimize the pauses as the W12’s turbos build boost pressure: it feels much keener than its predecessors under smaller throttle inputs. Differences between the softer and firmer chassis settings are also much more obvious with the new dynamic modes; in Comfort it is both more pliant and better damped than the original GT, in Sport it feels nearly as serious as the Gen II Supersports.
But not everything has improved. The modern Conti’s steering has grown both weightier and more direct, and it is easier to place the Speed onto a line than any of its predecessors. But there is also much less feedback than there was in the Supersports; back-to-back it feels numb. I also realise that the new car’s glossy black centre console doesn’t look or feel as nice as the much more minimalist arrangement in the Series II, and even the most crisply-rendered digital instruments will never look as classy as beautiful analogue units. A familiar theme, but a telling one.
As it happens, this is also an early chance to start saying goodbye. The W12 engine is close to getting its retirement clock – Bentley says there are just 14 unassigned build slots for the 12-cylinder engine for UK cars before production of the engine stops in April next year, although with buyers able to decide whether they want to wrap the motor in a Conti coupe, a GTC or a Flying Spur. Nor will the V8 be around for much longer as Bentley moves towards full electrification. The Continental name seems likely to survive that transition, it being one of the company’s most famous assets. But the brand’s future is certain to be radically different from even its recent past.
1 / 13