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Bentley Continental GT
The best thing that could have happened to Rolls-Royce and Bentley did happen about a decade ago, when Vickers offloaded these once-revered but faded brands to BMW and VW, respectively. Now a Roller is a Roller again, a shamelessly magnificent execution of automotive opulence and serenity.
Bentley is back, too, and no longer the rebadged Roller hobbling along on its musty legend as the eminently respectable motorcar for the sporting upper crust. Rolls-Royce and Bentley had been stablemates since Walter Owen "W.O." Bentley's company hit hard times in 1931, and for a while the two brands retained distinct personalities. Introduced in 1952, the Bentley Continental R (inspiration for this GT) was named for performance more attuned to the roads of Continental Europe than Britain's country lanes. The 1950s and early 1960s were the waning days of the distinctive Bentley Continental, so it is only right that the VW-backed Bentley for the new century should revive the name.
The sporting Bentley of yore was bought and driven (not chauffeured) by old money, and in the boot of a 1960s Continental you'd likely find a set of MacGregor Tourney Tommy Armour Silver Scot golf clubs in a leather Tuff-Horse bag. There might be some Purdey shotguns or a Fortnum & Mason wicker picnic hamper in there, too. In the ashtray there'd be a Dunhill briar pipe and in the glove compartment, beside a tweed cap, you'd find a tin of ready-rubbed tobacco, maybe Player's Whiskey Flake.
Enough already. That's the nostalgia, and it bears little relevance to the car on these pages. One of the first new Bentley Continental GTs I laid eyes on, a few years ago in London, had just been unloaded from a sealed car transporter and driven to the lowest level of an underground car park near Trafalgar Square, where it joined an intoxicating array of rare cars with license plates from all over the world, gathered to compete in the Gumball Rally.
Nearly every inch of this particular Continental except the windscreen was as black as its tires, and it bore East European license plates-Hungarian, I seem to recall. A nouveau riche entrepreneur, I speculated, was out to have some fun with his winnings, tussling with the Ferraris, Astons, Porsches and Lambos parked alongside.
For me, this chance sighting said something about who buys a new Continental GT. It's not a car for someone who necessarily treasures the brand's old aura of pipe smoke, leather bonnet straps and the Brooklands race circuit. No, this is a car for new money (at least what's left of new money these days-Bentley went to a three-day workweek late this past summer). It moves around with subtle but distinctive and muscular style, with immense power and, thanks to taut suspension and all-wheel drive, surprising agility for a car as hefty as this.
I put 1,000 miles on a Continental GT in England with my son during a week this past summer and we had an absolute blast piloting the thing along English country lanes, some barely wide enough for two-way traffic. Driving the Bentley on motorways and wider open roads, however, was humdrum by contrast, and a sad lesson in the hostility Britain these days directs toward cars and drivers. The country is infested with speed cameras-or signs warning of their presence, which are just as effective. It seems Big Brother is watching every stretch of British road on which a car and its driver might conceivably frolic for a moment, and I returned the Continental GT to Bentley with equal doses of admiration for the car and gnawing paranoia about something I might have done with it to attract government scrutiny.
The GT is a bit of a squeeze for four people, but the back seats are more accommodating than the "occasional" seats of some other alleged four-seat coupes. If this is an issue, buy the Flying Spur four-door sedan. It has a more conservative presence, easier access and packs the exact same 552-hp W12. Beyond these two choices are the recently introduced 600-hp Continental GT Speed and Flying Spur Speed, with 15 percent more torque and chassis tuning for even tauter handling and agility than the basic GT, and optional carbon ceramic brakes. The standard brakes work just fine.
Some critics have dismissed the Continental GT as a gussied-up VW, but it is exactly what I would expect a 2009 Bentley coupe to be-powerful, agile, distinctive and capable of carrying four adults to dinner (set the suspension for comfort if it's Mom and Dad in the back) or two people in great comfort as far and as fast as they care to go (crank it up to firm for the curvy bits).
Above all, the Continental GT strikes me as a man's car, particularly a pilot's car. The winged logos of Bentley and the Breitling clock at top dead center in the panel were separated at birth. The woodwork inside looks good enough that you want to take some shavings, tamp them into the bowl of that briar and savor the aroma. The pedals are metal with shouldered drill holes for grip; the steering wheel is thick, like the stick of a Sukhoi Su-26 for serious high-G aerobatics, not the thin, finger-and-thumb wheel in a Rolls.
And the noise of that W12 (so named for the staggered, compact configuration of its 12 cylinders) is unlike any other dirty dozen's tune. While a V12's or H12's vocal range can stretch from perfect harmony to canvas-ripping scream, the W12 just grunts deeply at low revs while cranking out vast amounts of neck-bending torque. Beyond 3000 rpm, it roars like a bear that took a large-caliber bullet to the haunch and keeps charging toward 198 as long as you dare to keep slugging it.