I recently had the chance to drive a 2005 Bentley Continental GT, which is the "entry-level" Bentley coupe that’s about to be redesigned, finally, after about 14 years on the market without a major update. Back in the mid-2000s, when this car first came out, it was a big deal: an affordable Bentley with a massively powerful 550-horsepower 12-cylinder engine and a gorgeous interior. These were very popular.
In the years since then, the Continental GT has lost value pretty significantly, to the point where ultra-cheap ones are currently listed in the high-$20,000 to low-$30,000 range with prior accident history or unusually high miles. I drove a very nice example with an unusual blue interior and blue exterior and an asking price of about $55,000. I borrowed it from Rancho Santa Fe Autos in the San Diego area — and even though Rancho Santa Fe Autos’ inventory is full of excellent vehicles, I chose this one because I just wanted to see what kind of car a used Continental GT is, 13 years later.
The answer is: it’s a special one.
The main reason I say this is the driving experience. You turn the key to the left of the steering wheel and the engine fires up and sounds almost like a jet; it’s a massive powertrain and it has a big, but not loud, sound to it. It’s almost like Bentley tried, but failed, to silence the powerplant, and the resulting sound is what’s left: A muffled — but very noticeable — growl each time you start it up. You know you’re in for a treat.
And, indeed, when you step on the accelerator in this car, that’s exactly what you get: Even 15 years after this thing went on sale, it still feels tremendously fast, with the 550-horsepower W12 pulling hard at every speed, smashing you back into your seat with every stab of the throttle, even when you’re already going 60 or 70 miles per hour. When you step on the throttle, it feels fast — and then the turbochargers spool and start delivering even more power, and the acceleration is breakthtaking.
I’ve said before that Bentley models don’t accelerate like regular cars, and there’s no vehicle where that’s clearer than the Continental GT: There’s no explosion of power, but rather a gradual (but quick) building until your entire head is being pushed back on the seat. It may have the same acceleration numbers as something like a Subaru WRX STI, but the power feels dramatically different. The WRX STI (and many other similar vehicles) feels like a larger, enclosed go-kart. The Continental GT really feels like a jet taking off.
The other parts of the driving experience are worth mentioning, too. Steering is very light, but the handling is quite precise — possibly the most divergent combination of "light steering and precise handling" I’ve ever felt. The car barely body rolls despite its massive heft, and it really does feel like a sports car when you’re in corners — or, it would, if it weren’t for the fact that the steering is so over-assisted it feels like a 1960s Buick. It’s an odd sensation, driving something that’s so relatively sporty, except with such a luxury car steering feel.
Speaking of which, the other thing I like about the Continental GT is the luxury experience of it all. The ride quality is wonderful, owing to some sort of air suspension system that’ll cost zillions of dollars to repair when it inevitably breaks, and the interior materials are absolutely gorgeous, with leather and real wood absolutely everywhere. This car still feels like the last word in high-end luxury, even 15 years after it came out.
Except, of course, for the technology — and this is one area where aging luxury cars really show their age. The technology in the Continental GT is almost laughable by modern standards: The infotainment screen in the middle isn’t a touchscreen, but rather it’s operated with little buttons on the left and right to select items. You still have to pull out a key and twist it to turn the car on. The brake lights are LED, but the rear turn signal is an ugly halogen. And the infotainment system looks like the 15-year-old computer it was designed on. Spend a few minutes messing with it, and you’ll wish you could turn that system into a wood panel and a traditional radio, and get rid of everything else.
Still, aside from the technology, this is still an amazing car, and it’s an amazing deal at $55,000 — it’s truly an enormous amount of car for the money. That is, assuming you can afford to own it. Because the big "catch" with this car is pretty simple: It’s an old luxury car, and it’s going to cost a lot of money to own. Or, maybe, if you buy a really nice one that’s been maintained well, and if you continue taking good care of it, you’ll get lucky, and it won’t be so bad to own. With a driving experience this good, it might be worth the gamble.
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.