Road tests

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It seems odd that the Bentley Continental GT is only seven years old. Partly this is because Bentley has made 43,000 of them (including derivatives), which is more Bentleys than the combined total made in the previous 84 years of the marque’s existence. But mainly it’s because life before Continental seems another era. In the BC years, Bentley was a cottage industry, making quaint and inexactly constructed leviathans for a select coterie of die-hard and monied traditionalists.

Now not only has Bentley changed beyond recognition, with the factory rebuilt to produce up to 9000 cars a year –10 times what Bentley has made in its darker days – so too have the customers. They’re younger, sharper, more techno-literate and more likely to buy a Bentley for what it can do than what it represents.

And it was the Continental GT that started it all, spawning wave after wave of variants including the Flying Spur, GTC, Speed and Supersports models.

But something else has changed in this time, even more than Bentley itself, and that is the world into which such cars are born. The genius of the Continental GT lay not in its impressive but hardly game-changing design and engineering, but how well those who designed and engineered it understood the customer, despite that customer having never bought a Bentley before. That clarity of vision served Bentley so well that demand briefly even overwhelmed its ability to supply, leading to a small number being built in the Dresden factory where the glacially slow-selling but structurally similar VW Phaeton is built. Then came the crash and among the louder noises you might have heard at the time were Bentley sales falling out of bed.

In 2009 Bentley sold only 4500 cars, half what it was making just two years previously. This year will be better but only by about 500 units. So it’s to the Continental GT that Bentley has turned once again to revive its fortunes.

Bentley calls this second-generation Continental GT ‘new’, but it isn’t really. The platform is the same, the engine and gearbox altered only in detail. Despite being some 65kg lighter (over half of which comes from thinner front seats which also liberates a useful extra 46mm of real legroom), improvements in acceleration and fuel consumption are measurable in small fractions of a single unit.

Yet in the flesh it seems at least renewed. As it was decided that every body panel would change, Bentley could have gone for something radically different, as Jaguar did with the XJ. But they plumped instead for an approach so evolutionary it makes the evolution of the VW Golf look positively daring. Even so the result looks far better and more distinctive on the road than it did at its unveiling at September’s Paris motor show, so you shouldn’t struggle to tell it from the earlier generation. It also has a higher aluminium content, the lightweight material now forming the bonnet, front wings, doors and boot lid.

Inside the fundamental architecture is carried over too, though thankfully the state of the ark telematics system has been replaced by something rather more up to date, with strong, clear graphics for the navigation.

Doesn’t seem like much, does it? At least, not much to justify appending the word ‘new’ to the car with any conviction.

And yet when you slip behind its hand handstitched wheel it feels more changed than its bare specifi cation suggests. You don’t notice the 65kg weight reduction (this is, after all, still a 2320kg car) any more than the 6-litre W12 engine’s paltry extra 14bhp, but what is instantly apparent is that this ‘new’ Continental
GT addresses the road in a completely different manner to the old.

This is because, in time-honoured Bentley fashion, there is much more going on here than is immediately apparent. For a start the frontto-rear torque split has been varied from 50/50 to 40/60, a feature hitherto seen only on the Supersports model. It also has that car’s widened front and rear track. Moreover the suspension now has aluminium uprights and revised settings not only for the springs and dampers but also the geometry at all four corners and a new front anti-roll bar.

The cumulative effect is undeniable. I spent a day thundering through the Omani desert in one and came away impressed not by its pace, which is all but unchanged, but its grace. Until now I’d never driven a Continental that rode really well, but this one does. Hitherto the handling of a Continental GT has always played a support role to its performance, but no longer: it felt poised, precise and almost agile, at least by the standards of cars sitting on the porky side of two tonnes. Fooling around for the camera with all the electronics turned off I’d expected nothing more than varying shades of understeer, because that’s what Conti GTs do. Not any more. If you’re surprised to see it drifting through a third-gear curve, that makes two of us. But it was easy, both to provoke and control.

It’s quieter too, though the now eerie absence of wind or road roar at a 100mph does tend to highlight both that you can never quite get away from the engine’s noise and also that noise is not good enough.

A Bentley should have a sound to savour, a fact well understood by WO over 90 years ago. And I expect it’s going to get one within the year. For the strangest aspect of this allegedly new Continental GT is that despite being available for order now at £135,760 with deliveries starting in March, it’s not finished yet.

I have mentioned before on these pages the forthcoming introduction of a 4-litre, twin turbo V8 motor but other than saying it will deliver a somewhat astonishing 40 per cent improvement in emissions (and therefore fuel consumption), Bentley is remaining tediously tight-lipped on the subject. But I was told by
people who’d know that it’s going to be ‘scarcely any slower’ than this GT which, even taking into account its inevitably lower weight, will still mean an output some distance the far side of 400bhp. But as key to its performance and environmental credentials will be its eight speed gearbox, an innovation denied the car I
drove because currently the ’box is unable to handle the W12’s torque. That, apparently, will change soon too.

So at least one new engine and gearbox are on the way, though Bentley insists the W12 will remain on the strength ‘for as far into the future as the product plan goes’ which, knowing Bentley, is some distance.

But it’s the V8 I want to drive and listen to. Will it sound like a Bentley should, and deliver its torque in a solid wall from scarcely more
than idling speed? I suspect it will. And it will carry the Continental 100 miles further on each tank of fuel. Minimum.

So the new Continental GT is not new, but it is more improved than I’d expected and in areas I did not predict. But it still feels like a stop-gap, a mechanically yet to be optimised necessity to get some new product on sale and get people feeling good about Bentley again. As I handed it back to Bentley that was the exact feeling in my head, tinged only by the conviction that the best is yet to come.

*

Mercedes-Benz CLS

Some car concepts fail to take off. Do you remember the Renault Avantime? It was a car so far ahead of its time it may be centuries before anyone figures out the wisdom of a people carrier with just two doors. Others make history. The Mini, the Range Rover, etc.

The original Mercedes CLS deserves to be among their number. The idea of a coupé with four doors might seem as strange as an MP V with two but you only had to see how effortlessly integrated into near perfect lines those extra doors were to see the wisdom of it. Mercedes not only sold every one it could make,
it also spawned a stream of pretenders from the VW Passat CC to the Audi A7.

Sadly the new CLS has lost something in translation, at least as far as its looks are concerned. It seems to me that car manufacturers, undoubtedly in response to customer demand, are increasingly happy to trade proportion and elegance of line for an aggressive stance and jutting prow, so while the new CLS has more presence than before, some of its raw beauty has been sacrificed.

Otherwise, it’s maybe even more enticing than the old car.

What’s best about it is its quality. Regulars may recall I spent last month blundering around Europe in an S-class limo, but the CLS has moved the game on further still.

I spoke to Mercedes design chief Gorden Wagener about it and he confirmed this is no coincidence: “Quality is at the heart of everything we do. Wherever everyone else is, we must be better.” Which is why the CLS interior is so detailed and why what you see is, almost without exception, what you get. If it looks like
metal, it is metal. Same for the wood and leather.

But this is a car designed in a more hostile environment than the last which is why for the first time it’s being made available with a four-cylinder engine. This might sound like forcing Raymond Blanc to cook over a Primus stove but I find the idea quite attractive: with a 2.2-litre diesel it’ll still do 150mph, hit 60mph in under7.5sec yet return 47mpg.

Annoyingly there were none to drive at its launch so I jumped in one with the 3-litre diesel and, thanks to a well-chosen venue, was able to fling it over the Futa and Raticosa passes, roads made legendary by another Mercedes with a British driver at its helm back in 1955.

Now it’s no 300SLR and I’m no Moss, but I appreciated the precision offered by this not overtly sporting car and in particular the response of its electric steering system. Indeed I’d go so far as to say it’s the first car to have given up heavy, inefficient hydraulic steering for an efficient electric alternative without the driving experience suffering at all.

The CLS goes on sale in the spring, with a 540bhp AM G version due later in 2011. The act it has had to follow has been hard, but it’s done so with conviction and success.

*

If you wanted some indication of how slow the industry is to react to change, consider that it is only now, fully 10 seasons after its rebirth, that Mini is finally finding itself with some opposition. First came the surprisingly impressive Citroën DS 3 which is currently selling out wherever it goes, but the one we’ve all been waiting for is the Audi A1.

Even BMW must have shivered somewhat at the prospect. The standard Mini hatchback has always been a conspicuously good car to drive but there’s no doubting it has sold predominately on style and image. Yet these are precisely the things that Audi does best, a strategy that has seen Audi’s sales expand inexorably over the past 15 years, despite the fact that only a small number of the vast array of Audis launched in this time have actually been any good to drive.

But the A1 is a pulled punch, and in more ways that one.

In the flesh it actually looks very good – stylish, purposeful and unmistakably an Audi. But inside the designers have played it too safe. The cabin of a Mini actually exceeds the expectations placed upon it by its exterior appearance, but the A1 interior looks like a scaled down version of any other Audi, too much the executive express, not enough the chic fashion icon. Such touches as there are, like its translucent air vents, seem added on rather than designed in.

As a result I think it likely to appeal as much to older buyers looking to downsize into something small yet smart as bright young things looking to make a style statement. And while I am sure Audi will be delighted to take their money, they won’t come with the potential of a lifetime of Audi ownership
ahead of them.

Even so I still quite liked the A1. As a middle-aged man to whom the height of fashion is the latest Boden catalogue I appreciated its impressive engineering and lack of affectation. The version that I drove came with a 1.4-litre turbo which responded well to the right foot and matched neatly the engaging if hardly thrilling handling.

Audi would like you to think the A1 a landmark and has even had the nerve to suggest that it is the first small premium hatch, and it is of course neither of these things. What it is, however, is a capable and attractive small hatchback with few failings and some charm. Would I have it over the equivalent Mini? Probably not, but it would be a close run thing.