The Bentley Continental GTC sells mostly to current and previous Bentley owners. What will they think of the new version, the long-awaited follow-up to the original GTC, which had its debut in 2006? Well, conventional wisdom holds that luxury-car buyers do not like to be shocked by change, and they're unlikely to be shocked by the new GTC.
A little crisper, a little sharper, a bit more responsive, the 2012 model is the GTC fine-tuned. Crisper and sharper certainly describes the new sheetmetal, which at first glance looks not changed at all. In fact, all the body panels are new. The front fenders feature more prominent creases, the front end accommodates a wider and taller grille, and the new composite (rather than metal) decklid has a more complex form and also allows for a hidden satellite radio antenna. A larger and reshaped side glass area alters the car's profile, but on the road, the LED daytime running lights and brake lights (including the ultra-thin LED CHMSL) grab more attention. So, too, do newly optional 21-inch wheels, which do their part to keep the bling factor high.
Under the hood
The canvas convertible top, or "hood" in Brit-speak, has been redesigned with a less massive C-pillar area, but visibility with the top up is still not great. Consider the available backup camera a necessity. Bentley engineers claim that the heavily insulated roof provides the quietness of a coupe, but once highway speeds climb past 70 mph there is more wind noise than you get in the hardtop. Still, the convertible top is an impressive piece, able to be raised or lowered at speeds up to 20 mph and beautifully finished inside with a plush headliner and an integrated map light. It also doesn't hog any of the trunk space when lowered, which is a claim that most retractable hardtops can't make. Lower the top, and buffeting is really not an issue, even at speeds up to 80 mph. (A wind blocker can be fitted over the rear seat but it hardly seems necessary; it also takes up plenty of space in the trunk, so you're likely to leave it in the garage anyway.) Neck-level heated air vents built into the seats, as well as heated and cooled seats, extend the top-down season.
The GTC interior is at once familiar and updated. As before, soft hides cover every surface that isn't polished wood or metal -- kick panels, A-pillars, windshield header, there's no area that's too obscure or mundane to get the full leather treatment. The aluminum and wood trim is extensively customizable and impressively turned out. The front thrones are slightly less massive than before, due to the removal of the seat-mounted belts. The resulting slimmer seatbacks allow for fractionally greater rear-seat legroom, but the ability to sit adults back there remains entirely dependent on the willingness of those up front to scoot their seats forward. The biggest change from the previous version is the adoption of an up-to-date, touch-screen navigation system, which occupies center stage in the new dashboard.
It moves like a Bentley
We drove the new GTC in Croatia, which Bentley director of communications Michael Bauman described as "an undiscovered spot on the European map." To the first-time visitor, it seems to combine the dramatic coastline and seaside towns of the French Riviera and the interior hills and stone villages of Italy.
The W-12 engine spins to life and settles into a bass rumble. Moving the massive, metal-topped shifter into Drive we headed first into town. Immediately impressive is the beautifully matched calibration of throttle and brake. For both, the initial pedal travel is nicely progressive -- not jumpy or grabby -- and then as you go deeper the response seamlessly becomes much stronger. This allows for deliciously smooth takeoff when you're oozing through the streets of the crowded beachside cities.
And yet, when we turned toward the sparsely traveled interior, a deeper prod of the pedal unleashes major thrust. The twelve-cylinder is a bit more powerful than before, although still not at the level of the previous GTC Speed -- horsepower has climbed from 552 to 567, and torque is up from 479 to 516 pound-feet. Max torque arrives at only 1700 rpm, so you're never waiting for the boost to arrive; there's simply a great swell of torque that raises the prow of this big convertible then sends the car roaring ahead. Sixty mph arrives in 4.5 seconds, and 100 mph in 10.9.
Speaking of waiting, the automatic -- still a six-speed -- has been revised to match the quicker shift time of the Continental Supersports, and now also can drop down two gears at a time in response to a booted throttle. Through the empty, winding hillside roads, what was particularly welcome was that one can manually grab a gear via the oversize shift paddles (no need to move the lever into the manual gate first) and the gearbox would hold said gear for quite some time before figuring that it's okay to resume gear selection on its own.
Comfort or Sport? Good question
Through those same switchbacks and larger, sweeping curves, the new GTC was impressively responsive. The standard all-wheel-drive system now has a 60 percent rear torque bias, and the car has a wider track. Without having the previous car on hand, it's hard to quantify the difference those changes make, but this still-nose-heavy beast gets around corners without the plowing or pushing you might expect.
One difference that we found impossible to discern was between the comfort and sport settings for the adaptive suspension. Actually, there are four modes, but even switching back and forth between the most extreme comfort and sport settings, we found little evident change in suspension firmness or ride quality. New damper rates claim to be mellower at low speeds but firmer at high speeds; they appear to have made the selectable damping system redundant. That system does not affect the steering, which is fine because steering efforts are spot-on, neither overboosted nor too heavy. The ZF Servotronic rack is also commendably precise, which means a lot when you're piloting a machine this wide and a stray moped or Renault 4 wanders into your already narrow lane.
Bigger change is coming
Overall, this GTC is more like an idealized version of the old car than it is a truly new vehicle. But bigger change is coming, to both the GTC and the GT coupe. A turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8, based on the Audi engine and making an expected 500 hp, will arrive in both models late in 2012. (Details of its exact output will revealed at the Detroit auto show, in January.) It will be sold alongside the W-12, but at a lower price point. That might be particularly interesting news to those who might be looking at a new GTC (or GT) as their very first Bentley.
2012 Bentley Continental GTC
On sale: December 2011
Base price: $215,595
6.0-liter twin-turbo W-12
567 hp @ 6000 rpm
516 lb-ft @ 1700 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
9.5 x 21-inch wheels
275/35ZR21 Pirelli P Zero tires
Length x width: 189.2 x 87.7 in
Wheeblase: 108.1 in
Fuel economy (city/highway):