CARANDDRIVER: 2019 Bentley Continental GT
An idealized version of its former self.
Austria’s Grossglockner High Alpine Road had only recently opened for the season when we nosed our 2019 Bentley Continental GT through the toll gate. With spritzing rain and the melting snowpack wetting the tarmac, we began our ascent of the more than 8200-foot pass, winding and unwinding the wheel through one switchback after another as we stair-stepped into the clouds and then descended through a thick fog.
The previous Continental GT would not have been happy on this road. Sure, it could have stormed up the mountain, pulled along by the ample thrust from one of its turbocharged engines, but it would have suffered through the turns, impatiently waiting to unleash its torque once the wheels were again pointed straight.
Although this is still a luxurious grand tourer and not a playful sports car, the new Continental is surprisingly at home on the mountain pass. Instead of overburdening its front tires, it uses all four contact patches, steers faithfully, and exhibits a graceful fluidity that its predecessor never knew. The Grossglockner revealed a new Continental GT that felt fitter, fleeter, more energetic—as if the car had been given an elixir of youth.
That run up the Hochter Pass dovetailed with the new Continental’s visual impression. First introduced for 2004 and reworked for 2012, the Continental GT led the brand out of musty obscurity with nearly 70,000 total units sold—a huge number by Bentley standards. “It has become our icon,” says chief exterior designer John Paul Gregory. “It’s very important that it be instantly recognizable.” The overall size, shape, and key design elements are retained, and yet the new version looks wider and lower, even though those dimensions have changed by less than an inch. Credit the broader, more upright grille, set lower in a more sculpted fascia. It’s flanked by new headlamps with 82 LEDs arranged in matrices (which unfortunately will be dumbed down for the U.S. market, with simple high- or low-beam functionality rather than the ability to switch off individual LEDs to shape the beams around oncoming cars).
Design-wise, the most critical features are that the fascia is more than four inches closer to the front wheels, the wheelbase has grown by 4.1 inches, and the rear overhang also is longer, all of which dramatically improve the car’s stance. There’s a longer hood, which also is lower because the engine sits lower and farther back in the chassis. Sleeker taillights are set in a concave oval panel, emphasizing the car’s width. The body panels are aluminum—save for the composite trunklid—helping the car shed a claimed 168 pounds, although at an estimated 5050 pounds it’s still a hefty machine.
The Bits in This Bentley
The greater changes are mechanical. The old version shared a platform with the staid Volkswagen Phaeton; the new model utilizes the VW Group’s MSB architecture, seen also in the Porsche Panamera. The W-12 engine returns, but this is a new iteration. Introduced in the Bentayga, it now boasts port and direct fuel injection, a pair of twin-scroll turbochargers, and a dual-mass flywheel, yet it’s 66 pounds lighter. Output here is 626 horsepower (versus 582 previously) from 6.0 liters, along with 664 lb-ft of torque, which pours forth from 1350 to 4500 rpm. The W-12 will be the only engine at launch, but given that the V-8 was chosen by roughly two-thirds of buyers of the outgoing car, we’d expect it to return, probably a year or so after the 12-cylinder model arrives next spring.
Compared with the version in the Bentayga, the W-12 in the Continental makes 26 more horsepower, largely due to different ECU mapping. It also has a block that has been altered to allow the front driveshaft to poke through. That’s because the engine has moved some five inches rearward in the chassis, a change that helps reduce the front weight bias from 58 percent in the old GT to 55 percent here, according to Bentley. The W-12 is mated to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission—the same ZF-sourced unit found in the Panamera—which Bentley has tuned for this application. This is the first ever dual-clutch in a Bentley, and its final programming delayed the car’s launch by six months. The results would seem to be worth it, as its low-speed smoothness rivals a torque-converter automatic’s and its shift strategy is unassailable—although there are shift paddles should you want to call the shots. (These are now located on the steering wheel rather than the previous column mounting.)
Once again, the engine drives all four wheels. But whereas the previous system had a 40/60 front/rear torque split, the new one effectively defaults to rear-wheel drive; when it detects slippage, it can direct a maximum of 38 percent of the torque to the front wheels—except in Sport mode, when just 17 percent can be sent forward.
The suspension utilizes new three-chamber air springs versus two-chamber units before; their extra bladder and greater volume is said to make for a more compliant ride. They work in concert with the standard active anti-roll bars (Bentley Dynamic Ride) powered by a 48-volt electrical system and first seen in the Bentayga. Brake-based torque vectoring—introduced on the previous GT3-R and Supersports models—can slow an inside rear wheel when entering a corner to aid turn-in and brake an inside front wheel when exiting to help the car power out of a corner. Vented, cast-iron brake rotors measure 16.5 inches up front and 15.0 at the rear, which Bentley boasts make them the largest discs ever fitted to a passenger car. (Bentley also claims the largest binders period, at 17.3 inches on the Bentayga; those are carbon-ceramics.) The fronts are squeezed by 10-piston calipers with four-piston units acting on the rears.
It’s an Experience
Less weight on the nose; a variable, more rear-biased torque split; torque vectoring; and those active anti-roll bars all go a long way toward explaining the Continental’s newfound appetite for curves. On the motorway, its dynamics are less changed. The Continental GT remains a serene mile eater. One new aspect, though, is sailing mode, which opens the transmission’s clutches and drops the revs to idle speed when you lift off the gas under certain conditions at highway speeds. Dip deep into the long-travel accelerator and the car hurtles forward with eye-widening quickness, speed building uninterrupted through the transmission’s ultra-quick shifts. Bentley says the Continental GT can reach 60 mph in 3.6 seconds, and the W-12 shows no sign of running out of steam even into triple-digit velocities—top speed is a claimed 207 mph. Even at full bellow, the W-12 doesn’t sing like a V-12, however. At most it emits a discreet bass rumble, and that’s only in Sport mode when you come off the throttle; there are none of the extroverted crackles and pops of, say, a Jaguar V-8.
The change in the exhaust note is one of the most notable differences switching from Comfort or the mid-level “Bentley” driving mode to Sport (a fourth choice is Custom), even though the modes also control the suspension, steering, transmission, and engine response. That the Continental GT does not vary wildly in its responses, however, proves to be part of its charm. Rather than trying to make this car appeal to a broad spectrum, the engineers seem to have aimed for a cohesive character, one that blends comfort and performance to a high degree. In any mode, the steering retains a pleasant heft and linearity, while the adaptive air springs and active anti-roll bars all but eliminate body lean without penalizing ride quality. The big Pirelli P Zeros (265/40ZR-21 front and 305/35ZR-21 rear as standard; a 275/35ZR-22 front and 315/30ZR-22 rear setup will be optional) acknowledge pavement imperfections, but the chassis is undisturbed by midcorner bumps.
The four-seat interior of the Continental GT is perhaps its most traditional aspect. One beholds acres of leather, its quilting both stitched and embossed. The hides extend even to usually neglected areas: the A-pillars, the sides of the console, the lower dash and door panels. Glossy wood trim or a new-for-2019 ribbed-aluminum alternative stretches from the console across the dash onto the door panels, while the controls and switches are rendered in chrome. Unlike in past Bentleys, however, the ritzy finishes aren’t compensating for dated, wonky electronics. The 12.3-inch central touchscreen (with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) is not only generously sized, it’s sharply rendered and easy to use. Physical buttons below and on-screen touchpoints along the side provide quick shortcuts, and the home screen can simultaneously display up to three functions. But if that all seems too garishly modern, the optional Bentley Rotating Display ($6270) allows one to press a button to make it disappear and reveal a trio of analog gauges or, when the engine is off, a simple strip of veneer. Ahead of the driver is a virtual instrument cluster, which also is configurable, and there’s a head-up display. Against modern trends, Bentley doesn’t believe that stark minimalism is the key to style. The high, broad center console includes plenty of physical buttons and knurled-edge knobs, all of which operate with a quality feel that no haptic flat panel can impart.
The Continental GT’s youth regimen has not eroded its distinctiveness. Instead, its renewed mechanicals and toned sheetmetal make it a more athletic, better-looking version of its former self—an enviable change for all of us headed in the opposite direction.
BY JOE LORIO
PHOTOS BY THE MANUFACTURER
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