New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Bentley Continental GT

In our recent drive of the outgoing, first-generation Bentley Continental, several of us expressed the desire, perhaps naïve, that the new Conti GT might have its engine in a different location than in front of the front axle. What, did we think they were going to wedge that W-12 into the back seat? Silly us. There’s simply no getting around the fact that the Conti GT has been, and will continue to be, a short-nosed car that’s packing a lot of hardware into a very small space. And, as Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen, Bentley’s patrician chief, explains, if they were to mount the engine on top of the axle, the car would have a very high center of gravity.

Wait, we said, when the all-new, twin-turbo, 4.0-liter V-8 arrives in late 2011, surely it will weigh significantly less and therefore constitute much less of a lump hanging off the front end of the car, right? Not so fast, advises Bentley’s longtime chief engineer, Dr. Ulrich Eichhorn. “Our W-12 is already one of the lightest and most compact twelve-cylinder engines in the world,” he tells us during the global media preview of the new Conti GT. “The 4.0-liter V-8, which we are developing with Audi, will not weigh that much less.”

To drive and enjoy the new Conti GT, then, is, as before, to accept the fact this is not some sort of Ferrari 458 Italia, with a high-revving, naturally aspirated V-8 tucked well behind the front axle and down toward the firewall. This is not a sports car; this is a grand touring coupe, and what a grand thing it is.

The W-12 is certainly grand. The Bentley guys are enamored of torque, not high revs, and although the last Conti GT wasn’t lacking for it, Eichhorn’s team massaged the 6.0-liter twin-turbo W-12 for another 37 lb-ft, for a total of 516 lb-ft. Horsepower is up marginally as well, to 567 hp. To access the endless stream of lag-free torque, all you have to do is mash your right foot, grab the beautifully stitched steering wheel, and hang on. Sure, there are steering column-mounted shift paddles, but they’re too far away for easy grabbing. Yes, you can shove the gearshift lever to the right, into a plus-or-minus gate, and shift for yourself that way, but such efforts seem largely superfluous. The reason you have a car with maximum torque available all the way from 1750 to 5200 rpm is so you can just mash-and-go.

Which we did repeatedly in the stunning canyons just off the coast of the Gulf of Oman outside the capital of Muscat and on long, empty, undulating strips of freshly laid blacktop in the Sharqiya Desert. The ZF gearbox, like that of the outgoing Continental GT Super Sports, is now capable of double-downshifting from, say, sixth gear directly to fourth. Shift times, Bentley says, are half what they used to be, 200 milliseconds. We found the shifts to be reasonably crisp and direct, but it was possible, especially at higher revs, to get the box to hiccup for a split-second. The eight-speed automatic that will be fitted to the twin-turbo V-8 in a year will be a welcome addition to the Conti spec sheet.

The Conti GT chassis and suspension designs carry over, as does standard all-wheel drive, but now the torque split is 40 percent front, 60 percent rear, versus 50:50 before, and it’s possible for 85 percent or more of torque to be shuffled to either axle. “We use open differentials at both the front and rear axles,” explains engineer Eichhorn, “but four-wheel traction control is actually superimposed over all that. If, say, the wheels on one side of the vehicle are on ice, you can easily drive away.” The GT is perhaps a little easier to oversteer than before, also, although easily corrected, as we learned while lapping some empty roundabouts on the mountain roads south of Muscat near Bentley’s host hotel, the Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa. The hotel is owned by the same guy, Rashad M. Al Zubair, who has the sole Bentley dealership in this emerging tourist destination, the third-largest nation on the Arabian peninsula.

Eichhorn beams when describing the weight loss that he and his team were able to achieve in the new Conti GT. “Most car lines, through additional equipment and other changes, tend to gain a bit of weight each year during their life cycle,” he tells us. “But we are quite happy that we were able to make the new GT 65 kilograms [143 lb] lighter than the outgoing car.” Bearing in mind that the Continental GT coupe still weighs a rather portly 5115 lb, we will join Eichhorn in celebrating this marginal but still significant weight loss, which was made possible by:

  • New front seats, which ditch the last car’s bulky built-in belts in favor of B-pillar belt-presenters and which have spaces sculpted into their backs, thus providing nearly two additional inches of rear-seat legroom in the process. Savings: 77 pounds
  • Lightweight chassis components: Savings: 18 pounds
  • The front fenders and the trunk lid are formed of aluminum using a new, high-temperature stamping process that allows bigger, lighter panels. Savings: 11 pounds
  • Various and sundry other shavings here and there, even though, as Eichhorn says, “the track is now 40 millimeters [1.6 inches] wider, the tires are one inch wider, and we now offer 21-inch wheels.”

All that said, the weight loss is pretty much negligible from behind the wheel, and Paefgen brushes off any suggestions that perhaps the Continental GT should one day be subjected to a truly serious diet: “I say, ‘why should we do that?’ Bentley will always be the heaviest car, with the most torque, in its segment.” The chairman continues: “As we announced in 2008, we will reduce our CO2 emissions by 25 percent. But we will not be the leader in weight reduction, because we are a low-volume manufacturer. A Bentley will always have a big engine, with lots of torque.” So if you were expecting a Bentley with a hybrid powertrain, think again.

“We have sold more than 46,000 Continentals, more than half of them GT coupes, since the car went on sale in late 2003,” recalls Paefgen, who counts the new Mulsanne superluxury sedan as the crowning achievement of a varied automotive career that began in 1976 at Ford of Europe. “You will see more derivatives of both the Mulsanne and the Continental GT over the next year.” Chief engineer Eichhorn is not as forthcoming but admits that the V-8 model is the next big step and will precede a new-generation Continental convertible. In the meantime, Bentley will continue to produce the old convertible at its factory in Crewe, England.

Really, what we have here is an update of a car that has been very successful for Bentley and which, as Paefgen recalls, “launched the new Bentley” back at the 2002 Paris Motor Show. Eichhorn explains: “Our existing Continental customers told us, ‘change as little as possible but make it new.’ They liked the silhouette: the strong roofline and the muscular haunches, so we decided to emphasize those in the new styling. The car is also much quieter, has a better ride, and features better interior craftsmanship.”

Eichhorn is hard to argue with. The Continental GT is at once familiar and fresh, and the cabin is even more sumptuous than before. The two big sweeps in the dash, one in front of the driver, the other in front of the passenger, return but are even more sharply defined, more painstakingly and effectively cloaked in exquisitely stitched leather, than before. The basic architecture of the center stack returns, as do the handsome aluminum climate control vents, which in the 92-degree Omani heat were ice cold to the touch. The controls are actually simpler than before, thanks to the biggest and, Eichhorn confirms, the most demanded change to the cabin: an all-new, state-of-the-art, Volkswagen-derived navigation system with touch-screen controls.

If you thought this was going to be an all-new car, you thought wrong. If you liked the old car, you’ll like this one even more. If you’ve never cared for the Continental GT formula, this one won’t change your mind. But there’s no denying the appeal of an opulently appointed supercoupe that can comfortably carry four people, accelerate to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, says Bentley, and ultimately reach 198 mph. We’ll have to wait a year to experience a Continental with a truly changed character, the one with the new twin-turbo V-8 and the eight-speed automatic. But we’ll know better than to think that this new engine will be located anywhere other than between the GT’s handsome headlights.

On sale: Late March 2011
Base price: $189,900 (+ $2595 destination charge and a gas guzzler tax that will likely fall between $2500 and $3000)

Engine: Twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter DOHC 48-valve W-12
Horsepower: 567 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 516 lb-ft @ 5750 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: 4-wheel

Suspension, front: Four link control arms
Suspension, rear: trapezoidal multi-link
Front: 15.9-inch ventilated discs; rear: 13.2-inch ventilated discs
Wheels and tyres
9.5J x 20″ (optional 9.5J x 21″)
275/40ZR 20 (optional 275/35 ZR21) Pirelli P Zero

L x W x H: 189.2 x 87.7 x 55.3 in
Cargo capacity: 12.6 cu ft
Curb Weight: 5115 lb
EPA Rating, estimated (city/highway): 12/14 mpg

Performance (manufacturer figures)
Top Speed: 198 mph
0 – 60 mph: 4.4 sec
0 -100 mph: 10.2 sec
30 – 50 mph: 1.7 sec
50 – 75 mph: 2.9 sec

Buying Guide
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11 City / 19 Hwy

Horse Power:

567 @ 6000


516 @ 1700