Change is not a process that happens overnight at Bentley Motors Ltd, the Crewe-based purvey or of automobiles that embody everything that’s quintessentially gentlemanly and British. Take the Continental GT, the company’s grand tourer par excellence, which has sold more than 50,000 examples since its launch in 2003. Sure, its sleek, muscular yet stately lines have received the occasional “refreshment”, but could you honestly tell an early Conti from a current one?
Not that tiny styling alterations here and there mean the car has remained unchanged beneath the skin. In fact, upgrades to transmission, suspension, steering, brakes,engine management and interior have been ongoing over the past 12 years, just as the original two-door coupe has been augmented by Convertible and four-door Flying Spur models, as well as higher-performance Speed, Supersports, S and GT3-R variants.
A further major step in 2012 was the announcement of a 4-litre, twin-turbo V8 engine option that, partly through its use of cylinderdeactivation technology, offered tangible improvements in economy over the till-thenstandard 6-litre turbocharged W12. This came shortly after the arrival of the second-generation very latest Continental boasts few obvious tweaks to its sheet metal, but there is one eye-popping difference: the dazzling array of colours these test cars have been dressed up in.
Of course you can stick with tradition and opt for British Racing Green, but that does seem a little unimaginative when it’s only one of 117 standard hues on offer (and don’t forget that Bentley will also match just about any colour you care to imagine). You can, for example, opt for candy Apple Green, a fire-engine-flaming St James Red or the equally exuberant Monaco Yellow, arrestingly extrovert shades that adorn some of the cars parked here today. Gentlemanly these colours assuredly are not, but they do bestow a renewed new lease of life to a silhouette that’s becoming just a tad familiar.
Otherwise – and here I need to don my carnerd’s anorak to detail the bodywork changes – I think I do detect a sharper, more aggressive character to the 2016 Conti, which is no doubt due to the smaller grille and revised bumper, the lower intake that stretches the width of the car and the more pronounced front wings. The rear end has received a similar massage, and there are new badges and chrome detailing, and a choice of wheels that now includes a directional design for V8 S and Speed models. But as with Bentley’s VW stablemate Porsche, whose 911 series notched up a half-century of continuous production two years ago, the developmental watchword with the Continental remains evolution, not revolution.
On a 335km test route that takes me from narrow fjords via the spectacular hairpins of the Trollstigen Pass to the other-worldly coastal vistas and impossibly curvaceous bridges of the famous Atlantic Road, I’m fortunate to try a trio of 2016 Continental GTs, starting with a W12 Speed Convertible. This, with 626bhp and 800Nm @ 2,000rpm from its W12, commands the greatest firepower of the current line-up and is thus surreally fast, though with a gross weight approaching three tonnes it’s a heavy car and, frankly, feels it when the going gets twisty.
In fact, between it and the regular W12 coupe, which I drive next, I’d probably choose the latter, as it’s a bit lighter, gives away little in terms of usable urge, and seems somehow the sweeter and more lively of the two. (I should mention here that all 12-cylinder engines now benefit from cylinder deactivation through a complex system that runs one narrow bank of six cylinders for almost a minute before switching to the other bank and so on, the alternations being linked by a three-second interval in which all 12 cylinders are firing.)
My Continental of choice, however, would unequivocally be the Monaco Yellow V8 S Coupe, which weighs some 150kg less than the Speed Convertible and feels much the better for it. Its 4-litre twin-turbo is much the same as the glorious engines that give Audi’s S8 and RS7 such a whopping punch, and here it produces more than 520 horses and 680 Newtons of torque at just 1,700rpm.
Those figures may not be quite as mindblowing as for the W12, but there’s easily sufficient twist to propel it to 100km/h in 4.5 seconds, while its awesome flexibility enables such effortless in-gear acceleration you’ll rarely need to snatch a lower ratio on the eight-speed ZF box. When hustled it makes all the wickedly antisocial noises that a decent V8 should, in contrast with the rest of the car’s arsenal of clever tech, which works so discreetly you’d never know it’s there.
Of course in bucolic, tranquil and law-abiding Norway we don’t even get close to the illicit speeds of which the car is capable (flat out is a fraction shy of 310km/h). The S, however, does prove itself an impressively effective tool on rain-swept blacktops such as these, being wholly unperturbed by successive short straights, corners and tight curves.
The limitless urge available from just a dab on the throttle simply chomps up the gradients,leaving the queues of motor caravans labouring on these narrow mountain thoroughfares gasping in our wake. Equally inspiring confidence – and especially when the next bend could easily spell disaster – are the outstanding levels of grip, predictable handling, super-precise speed-sensitive steering, brilliant brakes (the test car is fitted with optional carbon-ceramic rotors and, boy, do they work!) and permanent all-wheel drive, with 60 percent of torque vectored to the rear wheels. It’s a big, heavy car, but its dynamic abilities really do approach those of a considerably smaller two-seater.
Such exemplary agility, however, entails little if any trade-off in ride quality or comfort, a tribute to the self-levelling, multi-mode air suspension, continuous damping and well-modulated body control. Naturally the cabin is a cocoon of warmth, relaxation and, yes, civilisation, splendidly isolated from the Nordic drizzle outside, and heady with the sweet animal fragrance of the most supple and costly hide. The craftsmanship, fit and finish are superb, as are the front seats, and though this particular car eschews highly polished wood veneer in favour of sporty carbonfibre for the dash and console, this is clearly a most luxurious place to be. My only reservation here concerns the ageing infotainment system, though rumour has it this is next in line for an upgrade.
Yet incremental development such as this is surely the key to the car’s steady growth in stature, appeal and desirability. At its launch it was merely a very effective luxury sporting coupe, beautifully made and with presence in spades. Thanks to the continual ministrations of the technical boffins, however, today’s Continental is in every way a better and more convincing proposition – and especially so in V8 S guise, when it’s as absorbing and genuinely satisfying to drive as it’s also very rapid. Indeed, I’d go as far as saying it now nudges contemporary-classic status.
This is a car, in fact, that you’ll never tire of, and with an array of flamboyant colours to tickle the buyer’s fancy, a whole new clientele looks likely to fall for Bentley’s gracious GT. They – like you, if you haven’t driven a recent Continental – will soon be wondering why they didn’t make the jump a good deal earlier.
BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT V8 S
Engine: 4-litre, twin-turbocharged V8
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Max power: 521bhp
Max torque: 680Nm @ 1,700rpm
Max speed: 309km/h
Acceleration: 0-100km/h in 4.5 seconds
Kerb weight: 2,295kg