The Bentley Continental lineup grows to four models for 2008 with the addition of the Continental GT Speed coupe, a luxurious 600-hp brute named after the classic Speed series that debuted 85 years ago. With a maximum velocity of 202 mph, it is the fastest production Bentley ever constructed.
The remainder of the armada includes the Bentley Continental GTC convertible and GT coupe, both two-door versions, and the Bentley Continental Flying Spur four-door sedan. Each offers unique styling. All are effortlessly propelled by a twin-turbo 12-cylinder engine. All have all-wheel drive and air suspension. All 2008 models feature minor enhancements and detailing to further refine the experience.
Despite tabs hovering around $200,000, price is a factor in Continental purchases. While a Continental is perhaps twice the tariff of a flagship from Audi, BMW, Lexus, or Mercedes-Benz, similarly executed prestige brands such as Maybach and Rolls-Royce are a six-digit increase above the Bentleys. Exclusivity and cost tend to go hand in hand.
Arguably three factors separate the Bentley Continentals from Rolls and Maybach: First, its styling is more more distinctive than that of those other more imposing, less elegant carriages that probe the limits of how large a car should be. Second and no less important, the Continental is much more a driver's car, as rewarding piloting as being chauffeured, a dynamic the others can't match. The final feather in Bentley's motoring cap is the breadth of range, with two-doors and convertibles the others may not offer. Perhaps it's no surprise that the Bentley Continentals outsell Rolls-Royce by roughly 10-to-one and Maybach by 20-to-one.
The 2008 Bentley Continental models have a more upright grille and front end with added chrome around the headlamps; they look a hint more aristocratic without being snooty; the only reason to bow to a Bentley is to say a prayer of thanks to the gods of speed. And they have blessed us with a new, 2008 Bentley Continental GT Speed coupe, its W12 engine sporting lighter internal parts and more manifold pressure to deliver fully 600 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque, along with naught to 60 mph in just more than four seconds, countered by firmer, lower suspension, and 20-inch wheels housing massive carbon-ceramic brakes.
Other noteworthy changes to the line include additional paint and leather selections, Sirius satellite radio, and a restyled Breitling timepiece. Newly available are a rearview camera for the navigation display, voice-dialing through updated Bluetooth, three-spoke sports steering wheel, more advanced stability and traction controls, and carbon-ceramic brakes on GT coupes with 20-inch wheels.
While the majority of mechanical parts and the body shell are assembled in Germany, final finishing is done in Crewe, England, as it has been for decades.
The 2008 Bentley Continental line includes the GT and GT Speed two-door coupes, the GTC two-door convertible, and the Flying Spur four-door sedan. The two-door models are strictly four seats, while the Flying Spur offers the choice of four or five seats.
All are powered by a 6.0-liter W12 engine, console or paddle-shifted six-speed automatic transmission, and all-wheel drive, and all use fully independent automatic air suspension with four driver-selected modes.
As the ultra-performance flag-bearer, the GT Speed is slightly lower and adds 20-inch wheels, wider rifled tailpipes, dark-tinted chrome matrix grilles, and the Mulliner specification (drilled alloy pedals, knurled chrome and leather shifter, and Diamond-quilt patterned seat facings, door panels, and rear seat side panels). It shares the concealed, pop-up spoiler behind the rear window with the GT coupe.
Luxury and labor-saving devices are abundant, with trunk, folding roof and door-sealing all performed at the touch of a button. Standards include heated and cooled 16-way front seats, driver memory, keyless operation, navigation, mirror-finished unbleached wood (generally walnut unless otherwise specified) that includes roll-top console lids on some models, and leather for the seats, door panels, coupe and sedan headliners, assist handles and steering wheel.
The Flying Spur has a rear bench seat that accommodates three and includes a pull-down center armrest concealing a lockable pass-through access to the trunk. The four-passenger version features two, electrically adjustable, bucket-style seats separated by a walnut and leather-trimmed console. Audio, climate and telephone controls are on the consoles, and the sedan includes overhead vanity mirrors and head, face, and foot-level ventilation outlets.
As prices rise, so too do expectations in customization. Conventional options include pneumatic lumbar massage ($540), wheel choices, moonroof ($995), refrigerated cooler ($2,140), thick floor mats with leather serge ($440), and a valet key ($290). Then you move in to less-common offerings such as wood veneered picnic tables (Flying Spur) and door panel inserts, two-tone leather steering wheel, contrast stitching and Bentley emboss to highlight the upholstery, alloy fuel cap, and a rear-armrest telephone (Flying Spur) for those private calls. The final steps are custom-house Mulliner touches that could be anything from the shift lever to sewn patterns on interior surfaces, woodwork choices, and paint or leather color matched to your sample.
Virtually every safety system is standard, with two-stage frontal airbags, side airbags for all doors, side curtain airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners, tire air pressure monitors, and on the GTC Convertible, reinforced windshield frame and pop-up rear seat rollover bars. Active safety software includes eight-generation electronic stability control, all-wheel drive, rain-sensing wipers, HID headlamps with washers, fog lamps front and rear, and antilock brakes with brake assist.
From the days of the Speed Six and 4.5-liter blower Bentleys a long hood and mesh grille have been hallmarks, and the Continentalscarry them to this day. The slightly reclined grille and smoothly faired expanse of hood marry graceful substantial proportions with aerodynamic function and slickness required for stability at the three-mile-a-minute speeds every Continental easily exceeds.
A shapely character line sweeps up, over and rearward from the front wheels, fading into the door panels, and another similar sweep picks up ahead of the rear wheels and leads to a tapered rear-end evoking the boat-tail silhouette of years gone by. Mercurial exterior chrome is limited to trim items and sleek lips at each corner, yet one easily senses the hands of practiced polishing.
The Flying Spur is formal and most upright, the large rear doors suggesting a cramped driver's compartment of a limousine and spacious accommodation for the master; fortunately the latter is true while the former condition is not. Tapered body or otherwise, the trunk is capacious and ordering the refrigerator compromises volume only slightly.
The GT coupes are the most sporting of the Bentley Continentals, and are among the best Grand Touring cars available today. The long, low, sleek proportions provide visual stimulation without the low seating position that makes traffic terrifying; every detail is subtle, best illustrated by the spoiler that appears merely as an added seam in bodywork between trunk and rear glass.
While it looks good with the top up (and matches the coupe's aerodynamic drag), the GTC convertible takes on an elegance all its own with the top down, the classic profile as elegantly flowing and simple as a Herreshoff sailing yacht. A mechanical symphony stows the top neatly under a leather-trimmed tonneau, faired in to the rear seats, leaving a single strip of chrome surrounding the opening from windshield to trunk.
Attention to detail is reflected in the four round light housings that incorporate headlights, sidelights, and turn signals, LED rear lamps, chrome strips in the door handle recesses so the paintwork won't be scratched by fingernails or rings, the center brake light seamlessly integrated within the chrome roof strip on the GTC, and painted mirror housings surrounding chrome-ringed mirror glass.
The Continentals are big cars, larger than the average luxury ride but not so much so they require a garage extension or special parking space, though some say they deserve it. They also gravitate to the heavy end of the scale, this year's reengineering of some suspension parts taking only a small fraction off the 2.5-ton-plus weight.
Bentley is owned by Volkswagen, which also owns Audi. Consequently, much of the Bentley's structure and design can be traced to Audi's A8 flagship, a much lighter car because it is constructed primarily of aluminum alloys. Despite any negative feelings you have about badge engineering they should not be applied here, as there are no negatives to this fusion of German precision and British stateliness.
Bentley's cabins exude warmth and comfort like a signature castle or upscale pub, the only influences from Teutonic owners being better organization, more sophisticated systems, and ergonomics that don't cry out "Darwin was right." The substantial luxury encourages everyone to ride along, while the human-machine interface encourages the driver to press onward.
One doesn't speak of materials in a Continental as plastic is employed rarely, and only at a touch point for some switches where it is the best substance for the job. The predominant elements are leather and wood, with complementary pieces of alloys and chrome; one need only look upward to the headliner to find stitched hides like a fine briefcase, or in the convertible, a fully insulated and lined fabric top that even has an interior light in the middle of it. Bentley has always mandated that convertibles give up nothing to their coupe cousins, and the GTC meets that standard.
Yet even the leather can be upgraded, our GTC featuring a two-tone leather steering wheel (blue and dark red) to match the interior, and contrast stitching that uses counterpoint thread colors to great effect. The hides generally come from Northern Europe because electric fencing doesn't scar like a barbed wire fence might and it minimizes insect bite imperfections.
Wood work is superb, and flows along consoles and through roll-top drawer openings as well as it circles over the top of the doors right to the window line on Flying Spurs; wood inserts may be fitted to interior door and side panels for further gloss. Even simple touches like the aluminum guards on the seat tracks, the leather pull-tab on the trunk carpet and spring-loaded covers around the trunk latch exude luxury.
The helm-size steering wheel tilts and telescopes for comfort and good view of the instrument panel; the shift paddles behind the wheel are sized more like oars relatively speaking, and mounted to the steering column so they do not move with the wheel, reducing miscues when turning the wheel. Deeply recessed analog instruments with non-glare covers and a new TFT information panel transfer the variety of data and directions available via the steering wheel and infotainment controls. Four large round vents punctuate the dash, with vintage organ stop pull levers to close airflow, but the slat adjustment is a bit awkward. Above it all, the Breitling clock each occupant can admire.
Between the hooded dash ahead of driver and passenger is a conventional layout of ancillary controls, dominated by the navigation/audio screen at the top. The Bentley system uses a series of fixed label hard keys and primary knob laid out like the Bentley wings, and keys next to screen displays for input, a design neither as difficult as some German operations nor as intuitive as leader Lexus; some familiarization is in order, and more voice-activated functions have been added for 2008.
Sunlight tends to wash out the screen image, an unfortunate situation in a convertible, and if you use polarized glasses it's advisable to carry a map or qualified navigator.
Below the screen are climate controls for all four seating positions, fully automatic or fully manual by your request, switching for vehicle systems such as air suspension, and seat temperature. The shifter is surrounded with the mirror adjuster (left/right synchronized if you wish), start button, and parking brake switch.
Even with the top down the sound system is stout and clear enough to hear the pedal tones and real organ stops on pipe organ recordings; the extensive systems require the 6CD changer be mounted in the glovebox where it's not the easiest to load but is quite safe. All Continentals use laminated side glass, which combines with the good aerodynamics to quell any wind noise.
The two-door models sport very comfortable bucket seats that you'd label a tailored fit in apparel, with integral headrests, and available massage; hefty releases and fore/aft switches ease entry to the rear seat. On the coupes the rear seats are separated by a walnut-topped console and are generally cozy; four adults can fit as long as none are especially tall.
Because of the folding soft top, the convertible's rear seats lose the center console (yet keeps a ski sack pass-through) but gain enough headroom for 6-footers, again however, this requires the front seat not be very far aft. We found rear and quarter vision in the convertible superior to that in the coupe, thanks to the higher roof line, larger side windows, and distortion-free rear glass window that is wider than the view available through the inside mirror.
In the Flying Spur, front seats are wider, more generous, more armchair like, and have adjustable headrests; they don't provide that ensconced feeling of the coupe yet they provide support for hours on end and sufficient lateral retention to explore the car's abilities. Despite the thickness of the backrests, rear-seat room is considerable.
Flying Spur passengers will have no concerns about front riders intruding on their space, only about potential caviar and champagne spills if the picnic tables get reclined. Whether three-person bench or two individual rear seats, adjustments are electric and the full array of luxury amenities awaits your specification.
There's a quality of timeless beauty inside every Continental, and variety enough in color, texture and trim to ensure that uniqueness buyers aspire to.
Engaging the starter button in a Bentley Continental brings a turbine-like whirring sound as the W12 engine brings itself to life and settles into a deep, sonorous tailpipe idle the envy of sports and GT cars alike. Since the 12 cylinders are laid out rather like two V6s superimposed on each other, it's a very compact 6-liter and generates a distinct melody. You'll seldom hear the twin turbochargers but will note almost a split personality in tone from up front; under strong acceleration it takes on an edge just shy of a growl, like it's exercising its authority, while under more relaxed conditions it resembles a distant locomotive.
Even with 5500 pounds to haul around and all-wheel drive, the Continental's thrust is capable of chirping tires as it hurtles you effortlessly to the horizon or merge lane. Always smooth, it builds power progressively and without harshness, characteristics displayed also by the transmission as the car lunges forward to a terminal velocity of more than 190 mph. This will be useful if your Bentley accompanies you on European relocation, and is comforting to know such reserves are available at the first dotted line. With the exception of the like-priced, 600-plus hp Mercedes S65 and the more expensive Maybach, the Bentley is the only turbocharged prestige car, meaning it retains superior power at Park City and Aspen altitudes.
Launching this mass to 60 mph in less than five seconds requires plenty of fuel too, seen in sub-teen EPA ratings and the gas-guzzler tax. Discussions on CO2 emissions should be avoided, even if they are slightly improved for 2008.
With transmission software this well sorted, shifting for yourself is amusement rather than necessity. In the unlikely event you find the silky operation sluggish, simply select Sport mode and all will be ideal; since the gearbox and calibration are from Germany, maximum effort comes easily.
Slowing from high speeds requires strong brakes, and the Continental delivers as smoothly and progressively as it builds momentum. Simply press on the pedal, and the harder you press the sooner you'll stop. Carbon-ceramic brakes come standard on GT Speeds and are available on GT coupes with 20-inch wheels in the event the standard 16-inch front discs aren't enough.
Heft, wheelbase, and air suspension all contribute to a smooth ride. Even sharp little impacts are not felt like they usually are on 19-inch low-profile rubber. The suspension calibration may be manually set to four modes between Comfort and Sport, ideal for lower-speed rough roads and very high speed smooth roads respectively, reserving the middle two modes for matching your attitude if you get one. Left alone, the system does an admirable job considering a host of input data and delivering the ideal blend of comfort, poise, and grip.
Although it's missing a fixed roof, the GTC convertible shows only minimal cowl shake on poor surfaces. The image in the rear-view mirror always stays clear and vibration free, courtesy the added structure that makes it heavier than the sedan. The coupe is the tightest and lightest, and the most at home devouring a winding road, while the sedan's added wheelbase makes it the easiest to drive over the long high-speed haul. Naturally, we're splitting hairs here since all Continentals drive lighter than they are, effortlessly answering almost any command. And don't fear tight urban environs or country lanes either, as even the long sedan has good steering lock and maneuverability.
The Bentley Continentals combine the best attributes of European engineering and performance, global contemporary style, and British charm, craftsmanship and sublime road manners in the world's fastest sedan and elegant two-door coupe and convertible models. And they do so at a price point nicely slotted between very expensive and more mundane. To paraphrase one who owns all of them, the Continental is here because there are places you simply do not arrive in a Mercedes, Porsche, or Lexus.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale filed this report from Los Angeles.
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