The Bentley Continental GT: A Timeless Symbol of Luxury and Performance
For 20 years the Bentley Continental GT has been an iconic presence on the roads, representing the pinnacle of luxury and performance, and almost creating its own class of car - a 4-seat luxury grand tourer. It is hard to believe that 20 years have passed since its launch, maybe in part due to Bentley keeping true to the design language through the generations. A non-car enthusiast would be hard-pressed to differentiate between the cars aesthetics, such is the continuation of its style.
With its elegant design, powerful engine, and advanced technology, the Continental GT has since become synonymous with opulence, and refinement and one of the finest ways to drive through Europe to a favourite destination.
It may not have turned out this way though. Back in 1998, Bentley sold a mere 414 cars when they were bought by the Volkswagen group. With a £500m investment in a new factory and the creation of the Continental GT, the brand was resurrected from being one that, shall we say, the older generation bought, to one that wealthy 20 and 30-somethings were proud to own. This was helped by the attractive pricing of £110k on launch, representing a £40k decrease from the company’s other models, whilst retaining the same level of luxury. It took the company into the modern era and injected a new lease of life into the brand, alongside the new audience.
Between the prototype being shown in Paris on September 26th 2022 and the final production specification displayed in Geneva on March 5th 2003, an astonishing 3200 deposits were taken. To my basic accounting skills, that equates to £352m of orders being taken without options. Volkswagen must have been very happy.
What drew people to the car was not only the looks - it delivered in performance as well. With 550 bhp on tap from the 6.0-litre W12 engine, 4-wheel drive kept enthusiastic drivers on the road and in supreme comfort from the air suspension. I don’t think any car on the road could catapult the driver to 0-60 in 4.8 seconds, have seating for 4 and have the capacity to house 2 sets of golf clubs in the boot. It literally stood alone in a sector it had to itself.
I was recently invited to Crewe to drive 9 variants, from the original to the latest 3rd generation model:
An early 2004 first-generation Continental GT
First-generation Continental Supersports
Second-generation Continental GT V8 S
Continental GT Azure V8
Continental GT Speed Le Mans Collection
Continental GT Mulliner
Continental GTC S
I could feel the car's DNA through the ages and imagined how it must have felt to drive 20 years ago. The 1st generation still feels fast now, but the latest 3rd generation in the V8 guise will propel you to 60mph in just 3.9 seconds. Inside all the cars you feel a sense of place, refinement and luxury. It is a cabin that you are pleased to be in and one that transports you to your destination effortlessly.
Each had its own personality from the more lively and analogue 1st generation Supersports, which was a thrill to drive with its 621bhp to the GT Speed which was simply incredible. On returning from my drive I commented that it felt so much more engaging than the Mulliner version, more alive and eager to be pushed. It was explained that the gearbox adapts to driving styles over time. The particular car I was driving had been driven hard to make a drifting film, whilst the Mulliner was more accustomed to sedate motorway drives. I found it fascinating that the car could adapt in this way, by learning your driving style. It really can offer excitement alongside refinement.
Let's look at the DNA of the Continental GT that has made it attractive to buyers over the past 20 years.
Design: Design inspiration came from the achingly beautiful R Type Continental of 1952, of which only 208 were built in a 4-year production period. The R Type itself was revolutionary and took some persuading to receive board approval. They didn’t see how it would sit alongside their line of Rolls Royce models (under the same ownership as Bentley at the time), being too sporty for their clientele. It was also costly at £6928 when the average house price was £1891.
Looking at the Continental GT today, those influences are all apparent. Its sleek and muscular silhouette with its haunch is a result of blending modern aesthetics with the traditional characteristics of the sloping roofline. The signature matrix grille, perfectly integrated headlights, and sculpted lines create a commanding presence on the road, without appearing ostentatious.
Powertrain: Under the bonnet, every Continental GT packs a powerful punch. Bentley's engineers have consistently provided an array of engine options to cater to different preferences. Whether it's the racy V8 or the effortless W12, the Continental GT delivers an exhilarating driving experience. However, performance doesn't overshadow efficiency, as Bentley has managed to enhance fuel economy without compromising on power.
Stepping on the throttle releases an adrenaline-inducing surge, propelling the car forward with astonishing force given its size and weight. I was taken with the car's agility, especially in the Supersports versions (I preferred the rawness of the 1st edition over the 2nd) with power delivery smooth and effortless.
Interior: Once inside the car, you are enveloped in a world of luxury, particularly in the Mulliner spec. The cabin is meticulously crafted with premium materials such as hand-stitched leather, real wood veneers, and polished metal accents. The layout is intuitive and driver-centric, while the comfort of the seats ensures that long journeys are a pleasure rather than a chore. The later models come equipped with HUD as you might expect. The driving position is ergonomically crafted, ensuring that all controls are within easy reach. The thick-rimmed steering wheel feels substantial in your hands, and the paddle shifters offer engaging manual control over gear changes when desired.
Driving: Driving the Bentley Continental GT is never a chore, and as its name suggests, it will transport you across continents effortlessly. From the moment you press the start button, you feel enveloped in a cocoon of luxury and power. The car seamlessly blends comfort, performance, and refinement, offering a driving experience that evokes excitement, confidence, and a desire to keep going. It is a car that blends the ability to be driven every day, or reserved for a weekend away.
The ride quality is exceptional, but you would expect that. Bentley's engineers have fine-tuned the suspension to provide a perfect balance between sportiness and comfort. The adaptive air suspension system adjusts to road imperfections, ensuring a smooth ride. Whether cruising around the M25 or navigating through London's streets, the cabin remains quiet and relatively insulated from external noises.
The car is responsive and its precise handling gives you an immediate connection with the road. The all-wheel-drive system provides superb traction, instilling confidence even in challenging driving conditions, such as the country lanes we find throughout the UK. Whether taking the sweeping corners or manoeuvring through tight bends around Crewe, I found that it maintained its composure, allowing me to push the capabilities of the car with confidence.
The performance is matched by the sounds coming from the engine. Whether it's the V8's sporty roar or the mighty W12 that just sounds, well, powerful. It resonates through the cabin, creating an aural sensation that reminded me of the power I had on tap should I wish to use it. Road noise was minimal, making for effortless conversation with any companion.
Despite the car's dynamic abilities, it remains a comfortable and composed car, as alluded to earlier, making it an ideal grand tourer. In the 9 variants, I drove back to back, from the first models to the current, I found myself wanting to either head north to the Highlands of Scotland and Islay to visit whisky distilleries, or south to Lake Garda. It is a car you simply enjoy driving.
Technology: While the Continental GT pays homage to Bentley's heritage, it is also firmly grounded in the digital age. The infotainment system, featuring a large touchscreen display, is intuitive and user-friendly. The car's connectivity options allow seamless integration with smartphones and other devices, ensuring a connected and convenient driving experience. The HUD system in the latest cars is superb, allowing you to focus solely on the road and spot any potential hazards.
Customisation: One of the hallmarks of owning a Bentley Continental GT is the ability to personalize the vehicle to one's tastes. Bentley offers an extensive range of customisation options, allowing customers to select from an array of colours, materials, and finishes to create a truly unique car that reflects their individual style. This is done under the Mulliner name, who have been in existence since 1559 when they made horse saddles. As the 20th century unfolded they moved into the automotive sector, collaborating with Bentley in 1923. After 100 years, the two names are intrinsic to one another.
Safety: While Bentley is renowned for its opulence, it doesn't compromise on safety features. The modern Continental GT is equipped with a suite of advanced safety technologies, including adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and autonomous emergency braking, providing peace of mind during journeys. It may be a fast-paced trans-continental human delivery vehicle, but you feel planted on the road. Its weight gives a justified sense of safety, you feel that getting into any trouble would be difficult unless proactively trying to.
The Bentley Continental GT stands as a testament to a refined blend of luxury, performance, and craftsmanship. Its elegant design, powerful engine, and cutting-edge technology have propelled it to become a timeless classic. As Bentley maintains its commitment to innovation, it's safe to say that the Continental GT's legacy will endure for generations to come. Being a whisky writer, a drive to Macallan in Speyside would be my first adventure, knowing I had vast amounts of power, comfort and importantly, space to whisky in the boot. Where would you choose to go?