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Bentley Continental GT

 

Queenstown was the venue for the Australasian Launch of the second generation Bentley Continental GT.  Otago Daily Times motoring Editor David Thomson reports in on the new car and it's launch.

"Think of an elite athlete going on a training programme to get tighter, fitter and faster."Bentley_GT_015

That's the analogy Robin Page, Head of Bentley Motors' interior design offers as he describes the second-generation Continental GT to a group of four journalists - two Kiwi and two from Australia - who are sharing a coffee with Page at the Amisfield Winery in the Wakatipu Basin.

We are gathered here because Central Otago has been chosen by Bentley as the venue for the Australasian Launch of it's most important model.  It's an exclusive event, with only one car on hand to share around the small cadre of a dozen writers who assemble in groups of four over three successive days to learn about, and sample, the new machine.

Bentley would not be the success it is today without a massive investment by it's current owner, the Volkswagen Audi automotive group, but with design and manufacturing centred at Crewe, England, it remains a determinedly British brand.

'Britishness', in fact, is something that Page and others in the Bentley Design Team discuss before any major project.  They look at it in a heritage context (something that's easy to do when your company has been producing quintessentially British luxury sports cars since the 1920's) and from a modern perspective.

"We look especially at crafts such as furniture and jewellery making, and consider how the leading contemporary exponents have captured a Britishness that is rooted in heritage, but is utterly modern", Page explains.

That blend of heritage and the modern is what the stylists have sought in the latest Continental GT.  Page's explanation of the design of new car's nose gives a clue as to how it has been achieved.

Heritage Bentley's such as the iconic R-Type Continental of the 1950's featured very crisp crease lines on the front wings.  These lines were created by traditional hand-beaten construction of aluminium panels, but largely disappeared from car design in recent decades Bentley_GT_025as they were not possible to produce with machine-pressed panels.

Crisp creases return with the new GT thanks to Aluminium Super Forming, an advanced process that involves heating aluminium panels to 500 degrees and shaping them by precisely controlled air pressure.  As well as producing sharper crease lines this process, which comes from the aerospace industry, allows larger panels to be formed, eliminating welding and panel joints such as those that ran across the line of the headlights of the previous model.

Other changes about the nose include making the Bentley grille lower but more upright.  This, in tandem with the panel creasing, emphasises the length of the car's bonnet.  The car's headlights also change, with a more obvious size difference between the finely detailed outer and inner lights.  As well as echoing the headlight layout of classic Bentley's, this helps give the nose a more modern look.

Sharper lines are evident elsewhere on the exterior too and, along with a higher waistline, a widening of the car's track, and a move to standard 20-inch wheels (the older GT sat on 19-inch rims), give the car a tauter overall look that is right up to date.

The elegance that flows from simple clean lines embodies Page's view that the design is complete 'when there is nothing left to take away."

It's an approach obvious in the interior, which was Page's key area of responsibility for the new GT.  Bentley's winged emblem has continued to serve as the inspiration for the dash and centre console design, but in a revised and more dynamic form with the new car.

By moving the seatbelts from the seats to the sides of the car, Page and his team have been able to create lighter, thinner front seats, which as well as saving weight, liberate additional rear legroom.  Despite this, the GT remains a 2+2 rather than a full four-seater, with the rear seats best suited to kids or small adults on short trips.Bentley_GT_009

The other key challenge facing Bentley has been upgrading the cabin to cope with the latest in information and entertainment technology.  An 8-inch touch screen is fitted along with a 30GB hard-drive and there is seamless integration between the screen, the premium 11-speaker Naim sound system, and iPods and other portable devices.

Though a new, 40% more fuel efficient 4.0-litre V8 engine is on the way, the Continental is launched with an improved version of the hand-assembled 6-litre twin-turbo W12 seen on the previous model.  Thanks largely to engine management changes, peak outputs have increased to a mightly 423kW of power and 700Nm of torque, and this combined with a 65kg weight saving produces a six percent improvement in the car's power to weight ratio.

Borrowing largely from features introduced on performance-focused special editions of the previous model, the new Continental GT adopts a standard 60:40 torque split between the rear and front wheels (the old model split 50:50) and features steering and suspension modifications designed to improve driving feel.  The suspension uprights have also been re-designed to reduce unsprung weight, and the wheels produced by a new hollow casting process to achieve the same.

The car's paddle-shift 6-speed ZF gearbox has been modified to achieve faster (200 millisecond) downshifts and can now skip third gear to make a rapid downshift from fourth to second.  Changes have also been made to the electronic stability control system to enable enthusiastic types to better explore the car's traction envelope.

Climbing into the driving seat, I notice immediately that the crisper exterior panel lines improve definition of the outer extremities of the car.  There'sBentley_GT_008 also something re-assuring about the traditional approach to the car's main instrumentation - yes, those white-on-black dials with numbers and letter in classic Bentley fonts remain.

A press of the starter button brings the engine burbling to life and arouses a sense of grand anticipation, but also substantial responsibility, especially as within a minute or so I will be nosing up onto the Crown Range and seeking a driving rhythm that allows me to cross it in a smooth but spirited fashion.

Truth be known, the initial part of the climb is tighter than is ideal for such a substantial car, though it is still remarkably nimble given it's size and 2.3 tonne weight.  However, recent re-sealing of the road in smooth asphalt showcases the exceptional refinement of the car on decent surfaces.

As the corners open, the car gets into its stride.  Acceleration out of bends is stunning, which is hardly surprising given Bentley's offical figures of a 0-100kph sprint time of 4.6 secs, and a 0-160kph time of 10.2 secs.  The Continental GT's top speed is - conservatively I suspect - listed as 318 kph (198 mph).

While one never tires of the car's accelerative push or it's phenomenal grip, it makes its most marked performance stride over its predecessor in its handling.  With the majority of torque now going to the rear wheels, the new Continental GT is easier to balance and adjust on the throttle.  Improved steering feel also makes the new car easier to place into bends, and increases the sense of engagement with the driving experience.Bentley_GT_017

The only real criticism is that the car's seats are quite broad across the top, and so do not provide optimal support for occupants of a slender build; adjustable pneumatic side bolsters would offer Bentley a potential solution for the future.

Moving on to more open highways it makes sense to re-set both the transmission and the suspension from sport to normal modes.  The biggest local regret with this car is that New Zealand's speed limits are substantially lower than the 130kph+ limits and above that the Bentley - as a European luxury grand tourer- is designed for; it could happily take cruising at twice our legal speed limit in its stride.

Such considerations applied equally to the previous Continental GT, and did not prevent New Zealand being one of the top markets for the car on a per capita basis.  The only thing likely to stand in the way of similar levels of enthusiasm for the new model is current economic times, though one can still expect strong interest in a car which takes Bentley's rich grand touring tradition forward in such a decisive and stylish way.

 

BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT AT A GLANCE

ENGINE: 5998cc twelve-cylinder twin turbo petrol, max power 423kW@6000rpm, max torque 700Nm@1700rpm.

TRANSMISSION: Six-speed automatic with paddle shift controls, four-wheel-drive.

BRAKES AND STABILITY SYSTEM:  Disc brakes front and rear with ESP and ABS.

WHEELS AND TYRES:  Alloy wheels, 275/40 ZR20 tyres.

FUEL AND ECONOMY:  Petrol, 16.5L/100km on EU test combined cycle, capacity 90-litres.

DIMENSIONS:  Length 4806mm, Width 1944mm, Height 1404mm.

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