The best Bentley Continental yet

DAVE MOORE
Last updated 12:25 17/12/2012

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After the all-consuming power of the original 440kW six-litre W-12 engined device, I was prepared to be somewhat underwhelmed by the wee four-litre V8-powered version of Bentley's best-selling Continental GT.

AT A GLANCE
Drivetrain: Twin-turbocharged, Quad-cam 32-valve all-wheel-drive 4.0-litre V8, with 8-speed ZF Quickshift transmission.
Chassis: Front – four-link double wishbones. Rear – trapezoidal multi-links. Air suspension all-round. Speed-sensitive power steering.
Safety: Seven airbags, ESP, ABS, EBD, hydraulic brake assistance, drag torque control, vented front and rear disc brakes.
Dimensions: L 4806mm, W 2227mm, H 1403mm (GTC), 1404mm (GT), w/base 2746mm, weight 2295 to 2470kg, fuel 90 litres.
Output: Max 373kW (500hp) at 6000rpm, 660Nm from 1700rpm, 303kmh, 0-100kmh 4.6 secs, 10.5l/100km, 246g/km CO 2.
Pricing: Continental GT from $325,000, GTC from $375,000. Other Continentals from $365,000 to $445,000.
Hot: Restrained, muscular presence; bent-eight engine's power and vocals; unimpeachable ride and handling; utter class and quality.
Not: Fumbling touch-screen performance; low-rent badly placed shift paddles; uncultured noises with the hood down; a myriad of confusing options.
Verdict: The new bargain-basement bent-eight Bentley Continental is a revelation and simply the best in the lineup.

That feeling disappeared pretty quickly. It sneaked out of my brain the first time I opened up the car in Sydney to slip past a wobbly cyclist, when the car quickly arrived in the space I had earmarked. It arrived sooner than I expected it to and with a gurgling Nascar-meets-Nurburgring sound signature that almost seemed out of character for such a decorous and classy-looking beast.


To celebrate the new Bentley Continental we've listed our five other best luxury coupes, with four seats and preferably a convertible option. Click here to view them.


It was a little like Usain Bolt sprinting in a Georgio Armani suit - incongruous, and yet, just right.

If there was a skerrick of that underwhelming feeling left after that, it was immediately scrubbed from my synapses when turning right to the Anzac bridge. No W12-engined Continental ever turned-in like this. Without a trace of understeer, the car went just where it was pointed, gripping tightly despite greasily wet roads, all the while feeding back through the pale grey upholstered steering wheel rim the kind of road-level information the driver of an especially precious motor car requires.

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Trolling around the city, the car is all panache and good manners, deftly passing under the gaze of coffee-gripping pedestrians who have seen it all in their time, but even they couldn't avoid an appreciative smile. It's that kind of car. An hour later, as the suburbs give way to bush, the Bentley will hunker down with the best of them, bounding up to touring speed with implacable calm on part-throttle and able to explode past slower traffic with a tad more pressure on the throttle, accompanied by that guttural gurgle of power.

The lighter, better-balanced nose makes itself felt most effectively as I guide the beast through the snaking chicanery of the Blue Mountains. The uncanny thing is that the car manages to cover seriously broken surfaces with surprising ease, turning tightly and predictably over holes as if they aren't there, proving that air-suspension can work in such conditions.

Many systems can't react quickly enough at low speeds to little indentations and holes, but the Bentley's can, as it turns crisply aided by its standard all-wheel-drive system which deploys torque 40:60 front to rear. The car covers ground whatever shape and camber is offered up to it, negotiating the road surface amazingly well for something that weighs as much as a seven-seater SUV. Both the GT and GTC are unfazed by twisties like this and I recall how much more effort and concentration was required with the nose-heavier-W12 when driving it through Canterbury's Waimakariri and Rakaia gorges. It wasn't as much fun as the V8.

On a closed road, I was able to push the GT and GTC a little closer to their limits and, while there was a tad of tyre squeal on occasion, it was amazing how decorous these luxury drives could be under severe-cornering duress.

I would advise drivers who are likely to opt for track time to spend the extra on optional carbon ceramic brakes as, after repeated high-speed to hairpin retardation exercises, I did feel some fade when the big all-round discs warmed up a little too much.

Those who know Bentleys well will note that the GT and GTC enjoy a slight polishing of their lines compared with the original; the streaked detailing of the cars' flanks is crisper, the shaping of the car's muscles changed slightly. The body is 40 millimetres wider than the original's and sits on 41mm and 48mm wider front and rear tracks, and this must have been responsible for some of the cars' new-found nimbleness too. The interior remains very much the same, with room for four full-sizers and amid basically well-aged cabin architecture that can be personalised to taste.

Almost a decade ago, the modern Continental GT as we know it entered the market with a single W-12 engine choice and, at the time, a single close-coupled coupe body. The smallest Bentley since before the war had arrived, though with that immense engine under the bonnet of its muscular, well-portioned body, its performance was at the opposite end of the scale, with various car magazines and television programmes vying to scale the 200mph (320kmh) mark just to say they'd done it. Many did, and even the Flying Spur sedan based on the Continental's underpinnings also achieved that rather puerile mark. A cabriolet, labelled simply the GTC, had also been added to the range in the meantime, though slightly less effective aerodynamics and a 175kg weight penalty over the hard-roofed car meant that it was not as easy to drive it to the arbitrary "double-ton" mark.

There are also higher-performance versions of the W-12 car, like the simply labelled Speed and Supersports, but hand-on-heart, the new smaller-engined, and least-expensive Continental is the best in the line-up.

Firstly, it's just three-tenths of a second slower to 100kmh, while in every other aspect of its performance, from the quality of the noise it makes to the way it turns and steers, it's a ballerina to the W-12's Michael Flatley without that weighty, over-complicated power unit affecting its balance and turn-in - even if it was a huge achievement technically.

Bentley is not about to drop its 12-cylinder offering in the face of the brilliant new 373kW V8. The engine made enough impact from a marketing point of view that it cannot be ignored and, in markets such as Russia and China, oligarchs and new millionaires won't have anything else.

Dropping 100 horsepower (67kW), the new 4.0-litre V8- powered Bentley with 487Nm loses only 29Nm and, with its more compact engine sitting tight against the same firewall from which the longer, bulkier power unit protrudes in W-12 models, it's no wonder the newcomer feels so nimble and behaves with such lissom nonchalance on urban streets and backroads alike.

Simply, the V8 is the nimble, fine-handling machine Continentals always should have been.

Despite the extra weight over the GT - born of extra strengthening required for topless tourers - the GTC feels just as biddable and precise as its sibling.

One aspect of the V8 that is even more of a surprise than its ability to imbue the Continental with such nimbleness is its sound signature.

What is a rumblingly distinctive V8 burble at low engine speeds builds to a hammering Nascar-meets-Nurburgring racing snarl at higher revs. Even if you don't opt for the more-expensive GTC, it's worth spending an hour or so behind the wheel of one with the elegantly powered roof folded down so you can hear more of the mechanical aural accompaniment which is drawn from the exhausts and into the open cabin.

When you do open the engine up, nobody appears to link the luxuriously elegant Bentley coupe with the noise it creates. I found it deliciously, addictively, out of character.

Also a little out of character is the V8's thirst, for at 10.5 litres per 100km on the EU combined cycle, it's about what you'd expect from an Australian six-cylinder sedan. The W-12 is in a different league as far as fuel use is concerned, using more than half as much again - though this will matter little to those who can afford a car like this.

The fuel equation has been achieved in the V8 by technology that makes it into a V4 when ultimate power and torque are not required and, to listen to the engine as it transitions from four to eight cylinders and directs its exhaust impulses through a balance box and to one and then two silencers (or should this be amplifiers), is not quite orchestral - it's too guttural for that - but irrefutably entertaining.

The consumption level is also helped by having eight transmission ratios, which allow 100kmh cruising with barely 1300rpm showing one moment while being able to be paddled down to lower gears to summon the Bentley's volcanic surge of energy and aural accompaniment the next.

The shift paddles are still a little too far away from the wheel rim for those with shorter fingers. In a cabin replete with the luxurious best that British hide upholstery and classic veneer can provide, I expect a little better than plain matte-black finished metal levers. For me the sub-$30,000 Nissan Wingroad has the best shift paddles, and the dozen-times more expensive Bentley's designers could look and learn.

While we're on negatives, I didn't bond with the Bentley's touch-screen functions. While the lady's sat-nav voice was a blend of Downton Abbey soundtrack and matronly sternness, the operation interface was non-intuitive and, when using the screen for car functions such as suspension settings, I question the need for a button on the console to bring up the screen graphic, when you then have to prod the screen itself to make changes. The console button itself could have had all the functions built-in.

Everything else about the sumptuous cabin is perfect, as it should be in a range whose pricing starts in the same area as would a decent suburban home.

Straight, ruched or diamond-pleated plain and perforated hides in a profusion of colours are on offer for the GT and GTC. "My" navy blue and pale grey leather GTC's interior screamed "Ralph Lauren" and "America's Cup" and in the cars' three-centimetre-thick "brochure" - one each for the GT and GTC - the combination of veneers, fabrics, machined metal finishes and leather alternatives would have the well-to-do thinking for months.

I pored over the swatches for each texturfbe, colour and finish, and decided that my order would be a deep Havana brown GTC, riding on 21-inch "propeller" rims, with a beige hood, cross-stitched, diamond-pleated and perforated Bourbon hide with Portland beige piping, Tamo ash veneer, Beluga carpet, and Newmarket tan seatbelts.

It's doubtful that anyone will drive out of the Bentley showroom in a car costing the base $325,000 for the GT or the GTC's $375,000. There are so many items that you can refine or add or remove to taste. Even with the car's built-in soundtrack, people may still opt for the special $15,130 Naim sound system and another $2500 for TV, while hard drivers might like the carbon ceramic brakes for another $29,150. Just ticking a few boxes will take the Bentley's asking price to $400,000-plus.

Nearly 10 years old, the Bentley Continental still fronts up as a top-notch rich person's automobile, wearing its age remarkably well. When you look at the number of $500,000-plus coupes out there - I can count six - it's a much more complete and personal package for a whole lot less than that. What a pity we had to wait so long for the V8 version - the best Bentley Continental yet.

- Stuff

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