The Bentley Continental GT was the car that began VW's Crewe revolution in 2003. And, if Bentley was an ordinary car company, the latest round of improvements could probably be classed as a very thorough nose job. Stand back, half-close your eyes and the outlines of next year's Conti GT and the eight-year-old outgoing edition aren't so very different.
But Bentley isn't ordinary. It does everything with surgical precision and thoroughness. Thus the latest changes affect not just decor, but also fundamentals like the fascia layout and the electronics that lie behind it, the W12 engine's power and torque characteristics, the chassis setup, the trim and seats, and the front-to-rear torque split of its standard four-wheel-drive system. There's a weight saving, too. The car's bigger, yet it loses 143lbs in weight, due mainly to lighter seats and suspension bits.
Most important of all, the Continental GT is to get a brand-new engine: a still-secret “high efficiency” 4.0-liter direct injection V8, doubtless just about to emerge from the Audi stable and probably turbocharged, slated for launch during 2011. Bentley insiders assure us the V8-engined GT will have the same kind of effortless, low-revs performance as the W12 – now nearly a decade old in an era of incredible engine design progress – but will cut emissions (and probably fuel consumption) by a deeply impressive 40 percent.
In short, the 2011 Continental is fascinating for the fact that it is the Bentley team's criticism of its own work eight years ago. The importance of that work may be judged from two vital statistics: before 2003 Bentley had made 16,000 cars in 80 years, whereas since 2003 Bentley has built 23,000 GTs alone. This, more than any other, is the car that has transformed the company for the modern era.
The new GT is identical in length, height and wheelbase, but its body is wider at the wheel arches to accommodate wider tracks (increased by 41mm front and 48mm rear). The radiator is a little lower but more upright, which allows a longer hood to reduce the previous impression that the Conti's nose is a little short. The body's lines are simpler, crisper and better defined because Bentley has adopted super forming – shaping of aluminum panels by air pressure at high temperatures – which allows more accurate manufacture of large pieces.
The designers have also eliminated one whole body joint (where the front bumper previously met the wings) to give a more customized look. The stance has been adjusted, there are more modern headlight treatments (the inners are now much larger than the outers, and have surrounding LEDs to handle minor functions) and there is “a new muscle” that defines the edge of the hood, visible from the driver's seat.
The rear, two inches wider, incorporates plain-looking taillights which show the familiar twin ellipses of the outgoing model when lit. The trunk lid, beneath the spoiler, incorporates the “double horseshoe” shape recently introduced with the new Mulsanne, and there is a new diffuser that really works, according to Bentley's aero men. Though this 2011 edition is wider, its drag factor is “significantly better,” they say, although they're not quite proud enough of the achievement to name a figure.
Under the hood
The 2011 version of Bentley's familiar twin-turbo 6.0-liter W12 gets handy tweaks to its engine management electronics and some new low-friction measures that together boost both power and torque, from 552hp to 567 (at 6200rpm) and from 479lb-ft to 516lb-ft (from 2000rpm upward). The changes yield a four percent improvement in power-to-weight ratio without any increase in fuel consumption.
The enhanced power is still transmitted by a paddle-shift ZF 6-speed automatic, but the latest version of that gearbox has a “quickshift” function which halves shift times to an ultra-rapid 200 milliseconds (though torque delivery is maintained to some extent right through the shift process) and provides a multiple downshift function. The gearbox will now go, if required, from fourth to second in one action – a huge practical help on quick country roads. The combined effects of more power and faster shifting have marginally improved the Conti GT's already huge performance: top speed is now 198mph, and 0-60mph has been shaved by a tenth or two to 4.4sec.
A new torsen center differential splits torque 40/60, front to rear, a modification already used with the high-performance, low-volume Supersports model. The move gives the new standard model significantly better handling balance when driven hard, keeping it on line better as it exits slower corners under full power. However, on loose or slippery surfaces, the system, which monitors and adjusts each wheel independently, compensates for slippage instantly by sending torque to where the grip is. Bentley engineers and marketing men talk a lot about the car's central mission being to provide top-performance motoring without compromises on usability or comfort, and this facility is typical of the new Conti's other real-world properties.
Bentley isn't saying much about its all-new V8 except that the capacity is 4.0 liters, it is highly likely to be turbocharged and it'll come a year after the new Conti's launch next March. The V8 version will still have four-wheel drive, engineers say. It's a decent bet that it will adopt ZF's new 8-speed auto transmission, currently being adopted at the top end of the German industry, and that its power output will be 425 to 450hp. Like the W12, the new engine will run on E85 (mostly ethanol) fuel, which greatly decreases its greenhouse emissions.
Why doesn't Bentley use a dual-clutch transmission? Engineering director Ulrich Eichhorn says there are still refinement and weight penalties, and Bentley likes the torque multiplication at step-off offered by a torque converter automatic. No one at Bentley knows which of the pair will become the dominant GT engine after 2011, but since the new V8 will be assembled at Crewe, the company reckons it will have the flexibility to move easily with market demand. Bentley hasn't yet said whether the V8 will be meaningfully cheaper, but older marketing hands suggest buyers shouldn't expect a price much below the W12's $200,000. Pricing will be announced with the car's debut at this month's Paris motor show.
On the road
There's no better evidence of Bentley's penchant for thoroughness than its decision to redesign the suspension uprights to save unsprung weight and package the optional 21in. wheels, using a new process called cast forging, which allows the component to be immensely strong, yet hollow. This improvement works with wider tracks front and rear, the optional wheels on ultra-low-profile tires and re-rated springs, its continuously variable dampers and its anti-roll bars (also hollow, saving weight) to sharpen the car's agility and improve its already impressive handling balance. There's a new, more sophisticated electronic stability control that helps the car cope better with high corner entry speeds, and allows enthusiastic drivers a little more opportunity to allow the car to step out on exit, before the system intervenes. There are three drive settings: Normal, Sport and Off. Most of the development was done at the Nurburgring, and engineers cite comments from Le Mans winner and Bentley brand rep Derek Bell, who drove a greasy track at Goodwood, a very high-speed circuit, and found it easy to stay on the power.
The new Continental GT gets a swoopier fascia, still with white-on-black dials but with a new shape that echoes Bentley's “winged B” badge. There's a new, more modern touch screen to control non-driving functions, such as navigation, ventilation, phone and hi-fi. It also contains a new 30GB hard drive, plus a new, and much more supportive, “cobra” seat design. The front seats are both thinner and lighter, which means they contribute most of the weight saving and improve rear knee room by several inches. Most weight saving in the seats – available in two distinct styles – comes from the decision to abandon the principle of belts anchored directly into the seats. There are larger door bins, and a new acoustic package (which includes noise-suppressing glass) brings an 11 percent reduction in car-generated noise at 85mph.
Bentley intends to begin selling the revised Conti GT around the world next March. Prices will rise, but not dramatically beyond the present entry level. The car has been extremely valuable for Bentley, lowering its buyer age profile by a cool 10 years, but the company does not envisage a huge sales uplift; many rivals have appeared in this segment since 2003, and buyers are inclined to be promiscuous. Still, Bentley expects the new GT to start a strong flow of repeat business, and believes the new model will attract a whole new customer group. On first appearance, it deserves to.