When Bentley launched its Continental GT in 2003, it was hailed as the first model in a new era for the company. This was the same year the firm definitively split from Rolls-Royce, with whom it had been in partnership since 1931. Now, with these two makers of famous luxury British cars out on their own, in early 2003 there was much speculation about how they could differentiate from one another. Especially as both were under German ownership – Rolls as part of BMW and Bentley as part of Volkswagen.
Fifteen years later, we know the answers. Rolls-Royce has focussed on unapologetically playing up its uber-luxury status. Bentley, on the other hand, has revisited its roots as a maker of racing cars, and luxury tourers – motors built for fast, comfortable, long-distance journeys. It looked back to the glory days of the ‘Bentley Boys’, wealthy enthusiasts who raced their cars in the 1920s and, in their supercharged Bentley Blowers, won Le Mans four times in a row from 1927 to 1930. That swashbuckling mythology was harnessed by the newly formed 21st-century company and, after debuting its Bentley Speed 8 prototype at the 24-hour Le Mans race in 2001, Bentley went on to win it in 2003.
The new Continental was a game-changer. It harked back not only to the racing days of the Bentley Boys by delivering a sporty driving experience, but also to the marque’s first ever Grand Tourer, 1952’s R-Type Continental, which at the time was the fastest four-seater in the world, with a reputation for a high-speed, luxurious ride. The idea back in 2003, as today’s line director for the Continental GT Benno Brandlhuber explains, was that this would be a car ‘combining luxury and performance in ways never seen before’. With its W12 engine and sleek good looks, that first Continental GT pretty much created a new market segment – the modern luxury tourer. It has gone on to be the most successful Bentley of all time, selling almost 70,000 cars in 14 years.
This year, Bentley unveiled a completely reimagined version, with a new 6.0 litre twin-turbocharged W12 engine. As Brandlhuber explains, ‘We’ve created the all-new third generation Continental GT; we’ve built a car that is sharper, lighter, brighter, faster and even more refined. It springs from 0 to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds and has a top speed of 207 mph. It also has a range of 500 miles and a 16 per cent improvement on fuel consumption.’
To put his words to the test, Brummell took the car for a mini Grand Tour from Austria to Italy and back again, via the astonishingly beautiful Grossglockner alpine pass, a 48km road with 36 turns. The climb and descent were certainly dynamic, with a number of hairpins, but the experience was scenic rather than racetrack. Breakfast in Austria, lunch in Italy – isn’t that what Grand Touring is all about?
The car is lighter and faster than its predecessor and handles much better. Made from aluminium – a metal that is hard to work into the sharp lines that define this chassis – the car feels pleasantly easy through tight corners, and in ‘Sport’ mode has real bite. But the main sensation is one of comfort. Grand Tourers deliver you to your destination feeling relaxed, and the new Continental GT is made with the driver’s experience in mind.
To this end, it has all the tropes of a modern luxury car – fine leatherwork, in 15 colours, with Bentley’s quilting in evidence; lustrous wooden veneer; and the marque’s signature sporty metal ‘diamond’ knurling. All can be dialled up or down by the purchaser to give a more or less opulent feel. The spirit here is one of analogue craftsmanship, even though the tech on board is what you’d expect, and stretches to a Naim 650-watt, 11-channel, 10-speaker audio system. One feature speaks volumes about what Bentley is trying to bring to the modern motoring experience. The familiar 12.3-inch-high resolution touch-screen digital display is present. But at the push of a button you can rotate this to replace it with either three classic analogue clocks in a wooden veneer panel, or simply plain wood.
By offering the driver two alternative dashboards without the screen, Bentley has created the possibility of what its design director, Stefan Sielaff, calls a “digital detox”. ‘For me, less is more,’ he says while explaining that technology should allow us to make things more simple – like removing switches from a car that automatically knows when to turn the headlights on. Sielaff created the rotating display because, he says, the design team had many discussions about what a true luxury experience is, and realised that one aspect was the ability to relax and go off-grid.
In the context of the Grand Tour, there is also a clever subtext here that Sielaff explores. ‘Sure, when you finally pull into Milan to find a hotel, I have to admit that having a satnav and GPS is less stressful than 30 years ago when you were fiddling around with a city map,’ he says. But in the approach to Milan, why not try to make it without the digital hand-holding? ‘The journey is the thing,’ states Sielaff emphatically. ‘It’s not to hit the target, but to get the story and the experience. And in the old days, we’d run into all kinds of interesting places, just by coincidence.’
The adventure of the road is somehow diminished by the certainty afforded by technology, suggests this car designer. Now, you can recapture some of that in the new Continental GT, which paradoxically has more in common with its 1952 ancestor than its 2003 predecessor And in our opinion, is much better for it.
The Bentley Continental GT from £156,700; bentleymotors.com