Grandest tourer

Bentley’s cross-country express reaches greater heights – BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT –

Here’s confidence for you: assemble a bunch of journalists at the bottom of the 8200ft Grössglockner Pass, distribute among them a small fleet of your new and rather weighty Grand Touring cars and tell them to see you at the top. The new Bentley Continental GT is not just vast in stature, it is not short of heft either: although lighter than the car it replaces, this is still 2244kg of prime British Bentley I’m about to fire up one the highest road in Austria.So you settle down in one of its enormous chairs, fire up its 626bhp, 6-litre W12 motor, pull the shifter back into manual mode, pull the pin and let it go.

You notice the thrust first – it’ll do 0-62mph in 3.7sec despite all the inertia it must first overcome – and then the howl of the engine and how much easier on the ear it is than the identically configured but barely related motor in the previous Continental GT.

Next you feel the gearchanges and this is new: while the old car had its shifts slurred and slushed by a conventional automatic box, its successor sports a beefed-up Porsche eight-speed double-clutch transmission. If Sport mode is selected, not only do you get the usual thundering exhausts, stiffened suspension and sharpened throttle, you can also feel each shift being banged through, a new and tactile approach I rather appreciated. Bentley delayed the launch of this car by several months to perfect the gearbox calibration, and while awkward and embarrassing in the short term, a terrific powertrain is the result and over time that will count for rather more.

So it’s good in a straight line. What Bentley was not? For too many in the recent and not so recent past, it’s the corners where Bentleys have struggled, especially slow turns, with treacherous cambers and tricky gradients to negotiate, just like those that punctuate the Grössglockner from base to summit. I remember well the frustration felt driving the very last of the old Conti GTs, the 700bhp Supersports, because its strengths when the road ran true served only to throw into stark relief its manifest weaknesses when it did not. Clearly this new Continental GT would be better, sharing as it does many of its sub-structures with the new Porsche Panamera. But would it be actually good? Could this enormous Bentley possibly rise to immense challenge ahead and prove itself to be genuinely fun to drive?

It seemed unlikely. That mass, a 2.85 metre wheelbase and air springs are all ingredients you’d leave firmly in their packaging were you attempting to configure a truly rewarding driver’s machine, and to expect such a device to fulfil its touring brief as well as tackle this preposterously long and difficult climb appeared to be asking too much.

Yet despite it all, the Bentley was indeed good. Not brilliant, mind, but impressive given what it as being asked to do. It never felt light, nor in the least bit chuckable and despite Bentley’s assurances it never felt inclined even to shake its hips let alone drift, but it was poised, precise and pleasurable to drive, in a way the old one never was. In that moment it proved that, at least to drive, it was the best new Bentley since VW took the reins 20 years ago.

Although I have long admired the quality of every Bentley I’ve driven in the interim, there has always been a certain youthfulness missing from their characters, and the new Conti goes a certain distance to addressing that deficit. No one is going to find it as entertaining as an Aston Martin DB11 on this sort of road or any other, but it has more than halved the span of what was until recently a yawning dynamic chasm between them.

And then there is all the other stuff that the old Continental GT always did well, at least in its latter years. But the new one is exceptional. It is a delight to guide down a fast open road of the kind Grand Tourers are made for: that there is effectively unlimited torque underfoot will surprise no one, the fact that its steering is better weighted and has more feel than that of the closely related Panamera simply amazed me.

But its greatest assets are its ride and refinement. The suspension is so good that even in Sport mode the car is always comfortable. In Comfort it is sublime. As for the noise levels in the cabin, all I can tell you is that at speeds I have no intention of owning up to here, me and my massively experienced driving partner were laughing at how uncannily quiet it remained.

A shame, then, that it is let down by, of all things, its cabin. The job of creating a harmonious marriage between traditional upholstery and state of the art telematics is rarely an easy one and in the Continental GT it doesn’t quite work. TFT instruments look great in a Panamera (and, indeed, an Audi A4 or even VW Golf) but they don’t in a Bentley. I don’t want to look at a thin film transistor screen in a Bentley however clever it might be: I want to look at big, chunky, beautiful analogue clocks. Also the centre console is far too cluttered and I bet that even after months of acclimatisation owners will still be struggling to find the option they want at the first stab of the finger. The car I drove also had some awful ‘diamond knurling’ around the air vents, representing almost £1500 I would most definitely leave in the bank.

And a word about the car’s party piece, its famous rotating dash which can flip the central navigation display to reveal three dials giving outside temperature, your compass heading and a chronometer. And for the novelty value you might think £470 a reasonable price to pay for the option. Unfortunately it doesn’t cost £470 but £4700 or, put another way, a perfectly serviceable second-hand family hatchback. Given you get the navigation screen anyway which already tells you the direction in which you’re heading, and that the temperature is displayed elsewhere, what you’re actually doing is paying almost five grand for a stopwatch.

But we won’t let this coud the essential fact that the new Continental GT is not just a fine new car, but an outstanding new Bentley. Existing owners will scarcely believe the progress that has been made, but I expect it will create some converts to the cause as well. It feels as beautifully built as ever but within an envelope of overall ability that has been ballooned compared to what went before. It doesn’t break any new ground, but following quite easily the most successful car in Bentley’s near 100 years, it was never going to. What it does is take the essentially sound concept of the original Continental GT and reimagine it on a level where it may still be neither the best-looking nor the most exciting Grand Tourer on sale, but for all-round, every day ability, it almost certainly the best.

Bentley Continental GT

Price £156,700 Engine 6.0 litres, 12 cylinders, turbocharged Power 626bhp@5000rpm Torque 663lb ft@1350rpm Weight2244kg Power to weight 279bhp per tonne Transmission eight-speed double-clutch, four-wheel drive 0-60mph 3.7sec Top speed 207mph Economy 23.2mpg CO2 278g/km