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Bentley Continental GT: Driven

It may look familiar, but there's far more to the new Continental GT than meets the eye...

By Nic Cackett / Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Ding, ding, round two. Or one. Bentley would prefer we call this round one, certainly. Our earlier (first) go in the GT was in a pre-production car that Crewe said wasn't quite ready. And they weren't lying: that was November and this is May. The delay was necessary, explained Adrian Hallmark, Chairman and CEO, for the GT's new dual-clutch gearbox to be brought up to snuff - snuff being a level of smoothness that the PDK 'box had not hitherto been required to reach. Six months down the line, Bentley says the job is done. Which means that this GT is now, finally, the finished article.

In the grand scheme of things, the postponement feels modest. The last GT, after all, was launched practically at the beginning of time. It made do with its conventional steel D1 platform - famously shared with the Volkswagen Phaeton - for 15 years, which, in modern automotive terms, is roughly equivalent to the Mesozoic era. The new one has nothing to do with the old; instead it is most closely related to the Porsche Panamera, although Bentley will tell you that much about the car is bespoke to the GT and nothing at all to do with Stuttgart's saloon.

That's fine; the important thing is what the latest architecture brings to the party. Not only is the new model modestly lighter than before - thank the extensive use of aluminium for that - it is also more pleasing in its proportions. That's because a) the wheelbase is longer, but the overhangs (most notably the front) are shorter, and b) because it has allowed the designers to stretch the distance between the base of the A pillar and the front axle (referred to, pleasingly, as the 'prestige mass'). The result is a much sleeker sort of GT. Almost to the point of genuine beauty.

No less gratifying is the knowledge that the engine has been raked back, too. Where the last model wore its powerplant like reading glasses, its replacement has it mounted fully 135mm rearward, meaning that the bulk of it is now carried behind the front axle. Better weight distribution is a useful virtue, even when it's still fully 2.2 tonnes that require distributing. Handy then that the petrol motor in question is the venerable W12 unit, still twin-turbocharged and displacing 6.0-litres, but now with both port and direct injection, and a dual-mass flywheel for better refinement.

It puts out 635hp, which sounds like a lot until you remember that Bentley has previously coaxed over 700hp from the same engine. That was in Supersport format though; a runout model specifically aimed at straight-line silliness. The new GT is not, although its primary objective is no less straightforward: nothing less than the title of 'best Grand Tourer in the World' will be good enough for Crewe. According to Hallmark, earning that accolade is all about making good on the promise of both exhilaration and relaxation - and in previously unthinkable quantities.

The new cabin registers high on both Richter scales. Granted, its geriatric predecessor made the baseline easy to overcome, but nowhere has the merger of current-day technology and century-old artisanship been better executed; had Bentley compromised on either, the GT would be a lesser car for it. Instead it feels unashamedly special - and not just for the 12.3-inch Rotating Display, which, as the name suggests, can be swivelled out of sight when you're tired of the digital side (revealing three analogue gauges on the turn) - but for the look and feel painstakingly inscribed into everything around it. Crewe arguably has no peer at working with veneers or leather, and the evidence is on display everywhere.

As you might expect, the W12 barely seeks to intrude on the drawing room hush. At idle, it is hardly a presence at all; whirring into existence as a breathy whisper only when you move off. Any lingering concerns about the transmissions smoothness are allayed at this point; the GT spirits you forward in that effortless way that scarcely seems related to mechanical locomotion at all. In its 'Bentley' drive mode - the one judged by the engineers to provide the best GT-style compromise of comfort and performance - cogs come and go mostly unheralded, as does the car's gathering pace.

Backed by 664lb ft of peak twist from 1350rpm, an exponential rate of acceleration is often achieved virtually by default. At anything approaching conventional speeds, the W12 is apparently no more heedful of the GT's kerbweight than a hippo of its hide. That's as it should be: why else fit or buy a 12-cylinder, turbocharged engine unless you're minded to waft fiercely and relentlessly toward some distant location? The only quibble one might cite - and this is to do with the 'exhilaration' end of Crewe's proposition - is that the car seldom feels ballistically quick. Prodigious, yes, and doubtless capable of its claimed 3.6 second 0-60mph time - but not necessarily in the maddening, moreish way that compels you to repeat the feat purely for its own sake.

Obviously this is a function of the car's size, the calibre of its isolation and even the fractional tapering of the W12's performance beyond its fulsome mid-range (not to mention its subdued soundtrack), and it'll hardly be of concern to anyone in the traditional GT-buying mould. But, hey, speed matters, and the fact is there are petrol engines better suited to the job of really blowing your hair back when the opportunity presents itself. The concession though, both to physics and personality, is understandable - and ultimately mirrored by one found in the handling department.

For the most part, and on most roads, the GT's chassis verges on tremendous: absorbent, indulgent, willing and assertive. Unlike its immediate forbear, there is the directional authority of big-car heft without so great a sacrifice. Plainly the car is less put upon by its front end, less compromised by body roll - thanks to the same 48v active anti-roll bars that featured in the Bentayga - and certainly less two-dimensional in character. The electric steering is confidently weighted and likeably direct, and the new clutch-based all-wheel-drive system determinedly rear-biased. Thus it turns in better, grips more keenly and - when the road is fast and flowing - corners more neutrally.

Who could ask for more? Well, again, it comes down to exhilaration, and your expectations of it. Fact is, there's a limit to how long any car - especially one as comfortable as the GT - can conceal 2244kg, and inevitably there are times when all that mass starts to muddy the driving experience. The result is rarely catastrophic; at worst, we're talking about understeer and some inelegant stability control moments in very tight corners. But the handling poise is less prominent at the limit than it is something like the Aston Martin DB11, and less approachable, too. For all its newfound nimbleness, the twistier and tighter the road gets, the more likely you are to quietly return your enthusiasm to the box and wait for a more suitable backdrop to show up.

How much does this matter? Quite possibly not a jot. Not least because the GT overcompensates at the opposite end of the scales. In 'relaxation' terms - frankly a better barometer for the car's established customers - the latitude of the new three-chamber air springs put the car light years ahead of its predecessor and at least a yard or two clear of its Gaydon-based rival. On its stomping ground (not just the motorway, but fast A and B roads, too) long distances are sponged away by the suspension and then blasted into memory by the indefatigable W12, leaving you to wallow in bullhide leather and finger-smudge the Fiddleback Eucalyptus. The Best Grand Tourer in the World? Not yet. Not quite; not by Bentley's own yardstick. But the lighter, leaner, cheaper V8 version might just be. Round three, then. Let's call it the decider.

5,950cc, twin-turbocharged W12
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 635@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 664@1,350-4,500rpm
0-62mph: 3.7sec
Top speed: 207mph
Weight: 2,244kg (kerb weight)
MPG: 23.2
CO2: 278g/km
Price: £159,100

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