After 100 years in business, Bentley’s cars are as cool as ever, writes James Fossdyke, but is the Continental GT the coolest of them all?
If a company can stay in business for a century, it must be doing something right. Big brands such as Clarks or M&S have earned the respect of a nation, becoming the go-to shops for the country’s shoes and pants. But while these firms have a deserved reputation for quality, they aren’t always at the cutting edge of desirability. Few will boast of their M&S boxer shorts, and you’re unlikely to find Clarks mixing it with Christian Louboutin or Jimmy Choo.
For car manufacturers, though, it’s a different story. BMW and Rolls-Royce - both more than 100 years old - are riding a wave of popularity, with honourable mentions in feature films and rap videos propelling them to the top of drivers’ wish lists. These companies have moved with the times to survive.
The same could be said for the latest entrant to the 100 club - Cheshire’s very own Bentley. Like Rolls-Royce, which was effectively saved from ruin by BMW, the company from Crewe has undergone something of a renaissance under German control. No longer dismissed as a purveyor of leather-lined limos for aristocrats, Volkswagen-owned Bentley is now one of the hottest properties on the luxury scene, enticing the great and the good with its compelling blend of sportiness, style and heritage.
No car epitomises the new-look Bentley better than the Continental GT. This big, brutish grand tourer somehow manages to be contemporary yet old-school, carrying the weight of the British brand’s remarkable history like a supermodel clutches a Ted Baker handbag. For the Continental, the Bentley folklore has never been a burden, but an essential piece of a thoroughly modern image.
This latest version, though, melds that look with more beauty than ever before. Every iteration of the Continental GT has been attractive in a muscular, blue-blooded sort of way, but the new model is absolutely gorgeous. And that was before Bentley chopped the roof off, creating the even more jaw-dropping Continental GT Convertible.
From any angle, it looks sensational. The way the nose droops down into the bumper is sublime, the striking rear haunches are as perfect as Sienna Miller’s cheekbones, and the smooth rear deck that’s created when you fold away the roof is worthy of a place on any luxury speedboat. It’s by far the prettiest bodywork yet applied to the Continental GT, but it still pales into mediocrity next to the utterly divine interior.
You sit in seats of plush leather with seemingly infinite adjustment and support, surrounded by beautiful wood veneers and flawless stitching. And it’s full of well-considered features, too, such as the rotating touchscreen in the middle of the dashboard. When the car is switched off, it’s just another section of the wood panelling, but when you press the starter button, it flips to reveal the 12.3-inch satellite navigation and infotainment screen. Yet if you know where you’re going - or you just prefer the classic look - you can rotate the screen again to reveal three gorgeous analogue dials. One is a thermometer, one is a compass, and the other is a lap timer.
There’s a big digital screen in front of the driver, too, offering customisable displays. If you want, you can have usual dials, but at the push of a button, you can swap these for other useful displays, such as the sat-nav map or a readout of your chosen radio station. As you might expect from a company under German ownership, though, it isn’t just the styling or the technology that sets the Bentley apart - it’s the way they’re all stitched together. The Continental GT really feels as though it was simply hewn from one solid lump of luxury.
But then perhaps that’s to be expected, considering the sheer size of the beast. It’s almost five metres long, it’s more than two metres wide, and it weighs 2.4 tonnes. And that’s before you fill it with luggage and passengers - not that it can take all that much of either. You can just about fit adults in the back, as long as nobody minds sitting with their knees around their ears, but realistically they’re only for kids. And the boot is even smaller than that of the tiny little VW Up! city car, so massive suitcases are out. If you’ve decided not to take the kids along for the ride, though, you can use the back seats as a sort of glorified parcel shelf to supplement the boot.
The other thing you can do when the rear seats are empty is erect the optional wind deflector. Without it, and with the roof retracted, the cabin gets a bit blustery at speed, and those of a longer-haired disposition might find their locks whipping them in the eyes at anything more than 50mph. Aside from that, though, the Bentley is an absolutely incredible motorway car. The most striking thing is the uncanny quiet that descends on proceedings - particularly when the roof is up. Even the massive tyres don’t make too much noise as they rumble over the asphalt.
Mostly, that silence is down to Bentley’s hard work on the soundproofing front, but the glorious 6.0-litre W12 engine up front has to take some of the credit. As the name suggests, it’s a huge 12-cylinder unit, and it produces a mammoth 626bhp. In most cars, an engine like that would sound like the sky falling in, but Bentley’s motor is unbelievably smooth. Even at speeds most people would call outrageous, it barely makes a whisper.
Not that it can’t shout when it wants to. Playing with the settings and stamping on the accelerator leads to an enormously satisfying burble, punctuated with enthusiastic whumps during gear changes as unburned fuel ignites in the hot exhaust. And despite its enormous weight and civilised nature, the noise is accompanied by speed. Lots of speed. Setting off from the lights in a hurry will see you hit 60mph in 3.7 seconds, while flooring it on the German motorway will take you all the way to 207mph.
Going that fast in any car, let alone one weighing 2.4 tonnes, is frankly ridiculous. There’s absolutely no need to travel that quickly on a public road. But having that power in reserve makes driving at normal speeds feel so effortless - as though it isn’t really trying. And it handles that way, too. The steering has a perfect weight to it, giving you confidence that the car will obey your commands every time you turn the wheel, and the grip from those enormous tyres makes it feel like some sort of road-going limpet, hanging on to the tarmac for dear life. The only problem, really, is slowing it down again. There’s nothing wrong with the brakes, but the laws of physics mean stopping a near-2.5-tonne lump is always going to be hard work.
So, although it comes with supercar speed and a supercar price tag, the Continental GT Convertible is not here to set lap records. Instead, Bentley has created the ultimate summer road trip machine, perfect for winding down the Riviera or swishing through the Spanish countryside. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to travel.
Bentley Continental GT Convertible
Price as tested: £229,630
Top speed: 207mph
Engine: 6.0-litre W12
Mobberley Road, Knutsford, WA16 8GT
t: 01565 220302 w: manchester.bentleymotors.com
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