What would happen if you took VW's flagship car, the Phaeton, draped it with sexy coupe bodywork, added 2 turbos to the engine, and finished the interior in real wood, leather, and metal? You'd have a Bentley Continental GT. The Bentley shares its basic architecture with the VW Phaeton. The Bentley's engine is a twin-turbo version of the Phaeton's 6.0-liter W-12 engine, and that engine is placed in front of the front axle, just like in the VW. The suspension setup is also nearly the same, with air springs and multiple links front and rear. The Bentley's interior is mostly unique, but the steering wheel and switchgear are obviously from the VW parts bin. So is the Bentley worth nearly double the price of the VW? Or should we ask the more appropriate question: What's in a name? That is something that only your banker or your psychoanalyst can answer.
We can tell you that the Bentley is full of contradictions. It is an extremely luxurious car, but it doesn't have the feeling of bespoke craftsmanship that Bentleys have traditionally been known for. The Continental GT is Bentley's "entry level" car, but it is easily the fastest Bentley ever. Bentley's engineers assure us that no part larger than a shoe box is shared between the VW Phaeton and the Continental GT, but the Bentley suffers from obvious compromises resultant from sharing its layout with the VW. The interior is full of real wood and aluminum, but the shiny grille on the front of the car is actually chromed plastic.
The biggest contradiction of all is the one stemming from the disparity between what you hear and feel and what the speedometer says. There is simply no sensation of speed at any velocity you're likely to encounter. Acceleration could be compared with taking off in a jet; it is so linear and smooth that after it begins, it continues unabated seemingly in perpetuity. "You can't tell how fast you're going" has become a standard cliche when used to describe large luxury cars, but the Continental GT certainly elevates the requirements for that cliche's use to a new level. Wind noise is almost nonexistent even at double the highest speed limit in the U.S. and the suspension manages both to filter out bumps and avoid any wallowing. At 75 mph you could literally close your eyes and swear you were going 10 mph.
Indeed, the Continental GT may be the ultimate Autobahn luxury cruiser. If there is one thing this car does better than perhaps any other, it is eating miles in complete luxury and isolation at speeds comparable to a plane. Our own Georg Kacher shepherded a Continental GT to speeds over 200 mph on a private track (Automobile, December, 2003). The only problem with the Continental GT's prowess at these speeds is that it comes at the expense of agility. The VW corporate architecture that puts the engine in front of the front axle does help make the car safer and more stable at 180 mph, but at speeds you can actually drive it and retain a license, it makes the car feel positively huge and unwieldy. Even with the electronically adjustable suspension set to its sportiest mode, there is a lot of brake dive, and if we're going to discuss turn-in, we'll have to defer to one of our esteemed colleagues from Power & Motoryacht.
So this car isn't exactly agile. Is it fair to expect it to be? Probably not. The Continental GT is more about luxury and style than tearing up back roads. The sheer volume of high-quality wood, leather, and machined aluminum in this car's interior would surely impress anyone who'd never been in a Bentley or Rolls-Royce before. Even a jaded Mercedes-Benz S-class driver might be wowed by the real metal accents and the prominent Breitling clock. The materials and switchgear are a substantial cut above anything available from your local Mercedes or Lexus dealers. Many on our staff find the interior faultless. That said, the feeling of tailor-made craftsmanship isn't there to some of us. Previous Bentley owners we've heard from find the overall effect cold and common compared with the Bentleys they are accustomed to. We doubt Bentley concerns itself much with these folks anyhow; the company expects 75% of Continental GT's to be sold to so-called "conquest customers," people who haven't owned previous Bentleys. Sharon Osbourne and Denzel Washington, both of whom have reportedly purchased Continental GT's, will surely enjoy their cars.
The Continental GT's only real competitor in the mid-$100,000 grand touring coupe segment is the Aston Martin DB9. The DB9 feels more special inside, and it is more involving and fun to drive. The DB9's better weight distribution pays off in more neutral handling and faster responses in transitions. On paper, the Bentley should be much faster, what with its 100-horsepower power advantage. But look at curb weight figures and the Bentley's advantage is flipped on its back. The Bentley is a staggering 1375 pounds heavier than the Aston Martin. When power to weight ratios are compared, the DB9 is actually better by about 11 percent - a significant advantage. The Bentley can't catch up until it is well into triple-digit speeds, where only aerodynamic drag and power matter. The DB9 won't reach 200 mph (it tops out at 186 mph), but at speeds driven by all but the most flagrant flouters of US speed laws, it is the quicker car.
Where does that leave the Continental GT? Frankly, we're a bit divided on the issue. Some of us are smitten with the car's elegant interior, license-shredding top end, and commanding presence, while the rest of us are disappointed with the enormous weight, mediocre handling, and feeling of being a tarted-up VW. In the end, it doesn't matter what we think. Bentley has sold out production of the Continental GT for at least the first year.
Designer Dirk van Braeckel penned the 2000 Skoda Fabia (above), an economy car sold in Eastern Europe. He then designed the Continental GT. Any similarity is purely coincidental.