There is, sadly, a certain nouveau riche image problem for the Continental GT, I’m afraid, caused by too many high-profile sportsmen buying. Mention the baby-Bentley to most people and they’ll tell you that it’s a footballer’s car.
The same thing happened to Burberry in the UK, their image diluted and sullied by the production of too many low-end garments and accessories. The classic Burberry check became so closely linked to the hooligan element that some pubs in big cities banned anyone wearing it from even entering their establishments.
Which is a shame, of course. The original trench coat was adopted by the Officer-class of the Boer and First World Wars, and Amundsen wore a coat made from Burberry cloth to the South Pole.
Burberry even gained the ultimate accolade, a Royal Warrant, in 1955 for supplying Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A noble lineage ruined by the lure of a fast buck. Has Bentley done the same with its cheap, über -saloon?
Cheap, of course, is relative. The cost of the Bentley Continental GT in the UK is £135,000 ($215,000, €158,000), which is hardly small change. However, compared to the Mulsanne at £235,000 ($375,000, €275,000), it’s a positive bargain, meaning that a footballer only has to blow a week’s wages to get a Bentley on his drive.
The original Continental GT was launched nine years ago and it has been amazingly successful, selling 43,000 to date. There’s an all-new one due in November 2011, and Bentley felt the need to freshen things up a bit until then.
The overall shape of the face-lifted GT is a bit more contemporary, a bit edgier, the grille is more thrusting, more aggressive. Inside the seats are a bit slimmer making the rear seats genuinely useful now and the whole interior is just more, well, Bentley.
There were two surprises for me when the Continental was being handed over; there is no need to reach for the seat-belt, which automatically comes forward when the door closes, the second was the ability to adjust the suspension dampers.
The interior is, of course, wonderful. The Jaguar XJ Supersport has, perhaps, a greater sense of drama and occasion but for sheer unadulterated luxury and style there are few cars better than this. Chrome knobs abound. The leather seats are butter-soft and a beautiful tan colour in the test car. Just getting into the baby Bentley will brighten your day.
The wooden wheel feels just like the one in the old Jaguar MkII, but fatter. The Breitling clock in the middle of the dash is a touch vulgar, but the opulence of the rest of the cabin carries it off – just.
The twin-turbocharged W12 engine develops 567bhp at 6000rpm and 516lb ft at 1700rpm, so even though the car weighs a bulky 2,320kgs it is unlikely that you’ll ever find yourself wanting more. But the torque figure is the important one. The six-speed automatic gearbox (which can be operated as a full manual via two funky levers – not paddles, you could never call them paddles – on the dashboard behind the steering wheel) slurs its way to whatever speed you want to do without fuss, without drama, and with very little noise.
Driven with a bit more vim it does get noisier. In a good way, but not in an eager one. Perhaps I didn’t have enough time to get to know the car fully, but it just didn’t seem that keen to play. And that, I think, is the key to the Bentley Continental GT. It’s not a hooligan, it’s more like Sherlock Holmes; it can behave like a ruffian if it really needs to but it would rather not.
I suspect that learning the best way to drive the GT takes time and understanding. Time to learn to drive around the inertia that the car inevitably has; bulk like this cannot be overcome by power alone.
The four-wheel drive adds safety, of course, and allows you to plant the throttle with impunity coming out of a tight bend but it adds even more inertia. Perhaps fiddling with the damper settings – and anything else that Bentley think that you might want to adjust – might help.
Ponderous is too strong a word, but only just, and that’s an odd thing to say about any car that has this amount of power, much less one that will hit 62 mph (100 kph) in 4.6 seconds on its way to a top speed of 198 mph.
You’ll never regret buying a Bentley Continental GT, but you might just cast longing glances at the Aston Martin DB9 or Ferrari 599 (or even the far cheaper Jaguar XJ Supersport ) from time to time. Perhaps November’s new V8 – due to be more powerful, lighter and more fuel-efficient – will prevent the potential enviousness that the current car might encourage.