The Continental GT has been the saviour of the Bentley brand, responsible for bringing the company from the abyss to become the world’s most successful manufacturer of luxury cars. Today Bentley sells over 11,000 cars every year, half of them Continental GT coupes and convertibles.
This car has started life in 2003 and has undergone several major changes since then, some major, others minor. From the original GT coupe with its astonishing 6.0-litre twin-turbo W12 configuration engine, the range has grown to include a second body style, the convertible, a more environmentally-conscious 4.0-litre V8 (OK, that has twin turbos and a ridiculous amount of power too), plus race cars from which the extreme GT3 road car has been developed.
What was so clever about the original Continental GT, its trump card, was that it pitched in at £120,000, an area of the new car market where there really wasn’t much competition. Suddenly there was a true luxury car available for the price of a top Mercedes. Buyers the world over were entranced.
Naturally it’s a bit more expensive today. The V8 Coupe starts at £140,300, the Convertible £14,000 more. The step up to the GT W12 starts at £150,500, with the more powerful GT W12 Speed from £168,300. It’s still hard to pin down much in the way of direct competition – high performance coupes that offer the possibility of seating four – but the new Mercedes AMG S65 Coupe comes closest, at £183,075.
There’s a minimum of 500hp available in every Continental GT, but the pinnacle is the 635hp GT Speed. The W12 engine is smooth and refined when you want to cruise around, but slip it into Sport mode, or simply pull on the (now larger) paddle shifters, and this Bentley surges forward with a seemingly never-ending explosion of acceleration. It can, Bentley says, reach 206mph and cover 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds.
Yet the regular GT W12 is a very fine car, too. And if you hadn’t driven a Speed, you’d surely be more than happy with this model. With its greater emphasis on comfort and refinement, it’s quieter and rides a little more smoothly.
The V8 and V8 S Continentals have a similar relationship to the W12, the 507hp V8 is more comfy, the 528hp S more dynamic. Either gives solid thrills, and you shouldn’t overlook that fact that they are still magnificently powerful even though they slot in below the W12. Slip the V8 S into Sport mode and there’s a delicious crackle from the exhaust, a really sharp throttle response and a Continental GT that many will find the most enticing version of all.
Although the V8 engine is barely lighter than the W12, it somehow seems to have greater agility. Four-wheel drive is standard, which results in tenacious levels of grip, even on the streaming wet roads of the Norway. Transmitting the power through all four wheels also means that the traction when accelerating is astoundingly good. Less satisfactory is the tendency of the tyres to aquaplane in the wet, and to follow “tramlines” in the road surface. It’s worse on the optional 21-inch wheels.
It would be churlish not to mention that the engines all have a touch more power. You’re not likely to notice the difference, though, unless you take your Bentley to a race track.
Where the Bentley Continental is still able to frighten competitors is the way it blends that performance with fabulous levels of interior appointment. It feels like a proper, hand-built luxury car, which Mercedes might equal, even better, in terms of functionality, but remains way off for that sublime feeling of decadence.
Quilted leather seats, architectural dashboard structure, beautifully hewn metalwork. There’s now a softer, semi-aniline hide for the seats on the W12, a sportier steering wheel and on-board wi-fi for the first time. It’s only 3G, but it’s still welcome.
The Continental GT is comfortable, naturally, but you can tailor the ride to suit your mood through four grades from Comfort to Sport. If you don’t want to be bothered, well, the computer second-guesses your requirements according to your driving style. Luggage space is enormous. Rear-seat space, as ever, is tight on legroom.
Running costs? If you need to ask, etc, etc. Tweaks to the W12 engine include ‘variable displacement’, which actually means that six of the 12 cylinders can be shut down to save fuel when deemed appropriate.
That results in 5% better fuel economy, although that still means 20mpg will be an achievement to be proud of. We saw 9mpg on the trip computer on a short stretch of closed road driving! The V8 is better, with a combined figure of 26.7mpg and CO2 emissions of 246g/km.
Depreciation is a bit of an issue with the Continental GT. The fact that a lot have been sold means they lack rarity value second-hand. Then there is the fuel economy, a concern more for used car buyers than those that can afford £150,000 to £200,000 for a new Bentley. That much? Well, yes. You need to take the list price with a pinch of salt because a nice palette of options can easily add £30-£40k.
When it comes to weighing up the Bentley Continental GT, there’s always an elephant in the room. This car has been around for a dozen years already. Has it really established itself as an icon, something akin to a Porsche 911, a design that simply needs refreshing from time to time, rather than a radical rethink?
Bentley’s sales volumes speak for themselves. With well over 5,000 examples of the Continental finding customers each year, it’s clear that the formula has generated a genuine desire amongst buyers.
The 2016 changes of new bumpers, a smaller grille, side vents with metallic ‘B’ design, plus the engine and interior tweaks, are minor and might even be considered trivial. Yet today the Bentley Continental GT still makes a strong impact on three key levels: it looks menacing, the interior is gorgeous and the performance is breathtaking. That still makes it a very special car.
Specification: Bentley Continental GT Speed
Engine: 6.0-litre petrol
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
Torque: 607lb ft
0-62mph: 4.2 seconds
Top speed: 206mph
Fuel economy: 19.4mpg
CO2 emissions: 338g/km