ANGLESEY, Wales — Down by the sea near the Welsh port of Holyhead sits the Anglesey race track. It’s a great circuit, picturesque and challenging, with an enticing mix of fast and not so fast sections complemented by several climbs and descents. It isn’t the greatest day to be here, what with the heavy cloud cover, occasional drizzle, high winds, and chilly temperatures. But we’ve got a new Bentley to drive, and it’s a biggie — a prototype version of the all-new, 2018 Bentley Continental GT — so we’re not exactly complaining.
In order to give us a better idea of what the new Continental is all about, Bentley also brought along the present-generation car, which has been on the market for some 14 years now. With 582 horsepower and 531 lb-ft of torque on tap, today’s 6.0-liter W-12-powered version of the GT is certainly no sluggard. But its road manners are decidedly old school, as you’d expect for a car that’s reached its teenage years. It’s a classic case of splendid isolation; when it was conceived, sportiness and agility were not yet among the marque’s top brand values.
To the surprise of no one, the camouflaged prototype we’re about to set foot in is made of sterner stuff. Its heavily modified 6.0-liter W-12 musters roughly 624 hp and 664 lb-ft, and the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, suspension layout, all-wheel-drive system, and electronic architecture were reinvented from scratch. Arguably the biggest update, however, is the car’s new chassis, a bespoke variation of the Volkswagen Group’s modular MSB architecture, which is set to underpin all future upmarket Porsches, Audis, and Bentleys.
“MSB is a quantum leap forward,” says Bentley’s beaming chief technical officer, Rolf Frech, who has strapped himself to the passenger seat. “Even though we introduced several new high-tech features, the weight has come down by 130 kilos [287 pounds]. In combination with the more evenly balanced weight distribution and the uprated three-chamber air suspension, the difference in ride quality and handling prowess is simply mind-boggling.”
A leap of another sort is evident the moment you open the door. Stepping into the new car is like entering a different world, and that’s even before you hit the starter button and select drive. The winged cockpit looks fresh and modern, the infotainment system is up to date at last, the ergonomics are relatively fail-safe, and the seats are more comfortable and supportive.
As we stream from pit lane toward the first corner, we gradually lay on the power and torque. The lesson learned after only two laps in the prototype is this: We’re braking too early, turning in too early, struggling to carry enough momentum onto the next straight. “Come on, Georg. You can do better than this,” says that nagging voice in my head. After all, the steering feel is now on the case at all times in the new Continental, changing direction with tempo and transparency (a rear-wheel steering setup cribbed from the Porsche Panamera will reportedly be offered at a later stage). Even through Anglesey’s tricky flat-out uphill right-hander, the 21-inch Michelins hang on like thirsty bloodsuckers.
Input equals output as far as direction changes, deceleration maneuvers, and torque feed are concerned. The new Conti’s electronically operated anti-roll bars ensure a stable upright posture, the triple air chamber suspension fuses comfort and stability, and the electronic supervisory authorities work much closer to the brink of adhesion. Bentley’s rotary drive mode selector offers three different calibrations of power assistance, throttle response, shift strategy, and ride quality: Comfort, Sport, and Bentley’s own preferred setting. One may also mix and match the key vehicle traits.
“On slippery surfaces, you don’t have to deactivate traction and stability control completely anymore to coax the new model into a mild slide,” Frech says. “In the dry, however, keeping the ESC button pushed for several seconds will trigger all the attitude and drama you could ever ask for.” Let’s try it, shall we? The yellow warning symbol lights up, the automatic upshift function no longer applies, and the fully variable torque split puts the rear wheels on fire from the go. Press on hard, and the eight-speed dual-clutch transmission will dial in gears with vigor and velocity. Since the bottom three ratios are more closely staggered than before, riding the torque surge in a taller gear makes for a more elegant locomotion.
Out on the open road, this Bentley is a superior long-distance express, totally relaxed yet always on the alert, fast but never pushy. Embedded in a cossetting and functional driver environment, you may leave the transmission lever in auto or shift the gears via paddles, which are now attached to the steering wheel instead of the column. In essence, this luxury liner is all about refinement and compliance. But as soon as you feel the itch, the new Conti GT will gladly shed its mink coat to show off its blue Superman T-shirt underneath.
Like the Panamera, the new Continental GT employs double wishbones up front and a multilink rear axle. Not exactly a revolutionary layout, but in combination with the much stiffer aluminum-intensive body and the MSB platform, it forms the bones of a real driver’s car. Even on winding roads dotted with dopey motorhomes and impatient delivery vans, there is always enough instant torque on tap to leave the dirty air behind you, presto. While the steel brakes may not be the last word in wisdom when it comes to superfast lap times, they work absolutely fine in traffic where modulation, effort, and effect strike a delicate balance.
With a Cd of 0.29, the wider and roomier 2018 Continental GT is notably more slippery than the previous generation car. It should rush from 0 to 60 mph in around 3.7 seconds, with a top speed in the 210 mph ballpark. Claimed range is an astonishing 500 miles thanks in large part to its large, roughly 26-gallon tank, along with modest fuel-efficiency improvements and its lighter weight at about 4,825 pounds. Down the line, Bentley is expected to add a 4.0-liter V-8 powered model and a plug-in hybrid featuring somewhat surprisingly, a 3.0-liter V-6.
Inside, most of the materials are still of the old-world variety — polished timber, gleaming chrome, supple leather — but the instrument display is now a colorful digital circus ring, and the main touchscreen should rocket smartphone aficionados to seventh heaven. Those who prefer the classic Bentley cockpits of yore can specify a unique center stack with a revolving top section. Twist it, and engine and road speed will be indicated by old-fashioned mechanical dials. While the old car was notorious for its antiquated connectivity and the near-total lack of assistance systems, the new model will be up to spec with numerous high tech options.
While it has always been good-looking and beautifully executed, the previous Continental occasionally struggled at bridging the gap between luxury cruiser and GT. Thanks in part to some healthy brand cooperation, the all-new Continental GT is now state-of-the-art driving car, too.