By Jonathan Crouch
Nearly a century of Bentley history has seen the Crewe company bring us many legendary models. But the Continental GT has out-sold all of them combined, especially in this Coupe guise. And in second generation guise, it was focused as well as fantastically luxurious. Brutal performance, high-tech engineering and elegant design characterise this car's appeal. There's an efficient V8 to tempt Ferrari folk, with the continuing twelve cylinder engine prioritising laid back luxury. Sharper, smarter and easier to live with, it's the kind of car WO Bentley would have been proud of.
2dr Coupe (4.0 V8 [V8, V8S] / 6.0 W12 [GT, Speed])
There's no doubting the importance of the Continental GT to Bentley. Over 50,000 examples of the first generation version were sold, a car launched in 2003 representing the first fruits of Volkswagen Group Bentley ownership. Since then, the 'Conti' has provided an entry-level point to ownership of this famous brand without diluting the exclusivity that makes the marque what it is. Primarily, it remains a Grand Touring GT, but one that has become progressively more dynamic over the years as Speed and Supersports variations have come and gone. Models that ultimately gave Bentley the confidence to complete this second generation version, launched early in 2011, a car that could become more focused than any that this legendary name had previously brought us.
The first generation version was basically a very powerful, very luxurious long distance touring car with a sporting heritage. Which was fine if you were a buyer also considering a Mercedes CL or a Maserati GT. But perhaps less what you were looking for if your wish list covered supercars like Aston Martin's DBS or a Ferrari 599. In second generation form, Bentley hoped that both customer groups would be happy. Ferrari folk were provided with a newly-developed and powerfully eco-conscious snarling 500PS 4.0-litre V8. And more laid back land owners? Well, they can luxuriate in the top 567PS 6.0-litre W12 version, subsequently embellished by the addition of a faster 626PS 'Speed' variant. Either way, though the story here was similar to what went before, MK2 model buyers found that the plot had evolved with careful subtlety to create a much more satisfying ending. And a very desirable car indeed. A 'GTC' Convertible version was launched shortly after the fixed-top Coupe model that's our primary focus here. The Coupe sold until the replacement third generation model was launched in the Autumn of 2017.
What You Get
You might assume from a casual glance at this third generation Coupe model that it's merely a minor facelift of its predecessor. You might assume that. But you'd be wrong. Nearly every exterior panel was changed to sharpen and modernise the exterior, but brand heritage is ever-present, the familiar power lines and rear haunches echoing the original 1950s R-Type Continental model.
At the front, the classic Bentley matrix radiator grille is more upright than in the MK2 design, with a black gloss finish, a chrome frame and a red enamel Bentley 'B' badge if it cools a V8 within. The smart headlight design, with its traditional four-lamp format, has exquisite jewel-like detailing, including eye-catching, LED daylight-running lamps. At the rear, Bentley signature 'floating' LED tail lights extend around the corners of the wings, emphasising the car's width and purposeful stance. Again, there are subtle differences on the V8 variant, with a dark lower valance and chromed 'figure eight' exhaust pipes. Overall, it's a more assertive, more modern, more dynamic look, suggestive of the more important changes in place beneath the superformed aluminium skin. Chief Engineer Ulrich Eichhorn had little to do with the original version of this car but he's certainly set out to put his stamp on this one. There are larger wheels and not a single suspension joint has remained the same, with a wider track front and rear necessitating a body 40mm wider than before.
But it's still the hand-finished interior you'll remember most. Tug open the long, heavy doors and you'll find it as gloriously appointed as ever. As before, you sit quite high in front of a dash styled to echo the wings of the Bentley badge. The chrome-bezelled dials are beautiful and everywhere you look are soft-touch leathers, exquisite wood veneers, cool-touch metals and deep-pile carpets, all individually crafted by skilled artisans at the Bentley factory in Crewe. Traditional touches - the 'organ stop' air vents for example - blend surprising well with more modern features like the hi-tech colour touchscreen infotainment system. The seats are thinner than those of the MK2 model - though no less comfortable - mainly because the previous integrated belt mechanism was here replaced by one that hands the buckle to you over your shoulder once you're seated behind the wheel. Much nicer.
And because of those thinner front seats, this cabin became a more inviting place for rear seat occupants, who have slightly easier access to a back seat that here affords an extra 46mm of legroom. It still won't be ideal at the back for anyone over six foot in height though. Out back, there's a 358-litre boot that original owners could extend with a ski-hatch by opting for the extra-cost 'Touring Pack'.
What To Look For
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The Continental GT is an extremely reliable car. Many of the oily bits have racked up millions of miles underneath the skin of Volkswagen's Phaeton with very little complaint and the additional tender loving care that Bentley owners lavish on their cars means that the Continental GT is a solid used buy. Strangely, one of the few 'faults' that has been mentioned is the fact that darker coloured paint finishes can go rather 'swirly' through overpolishing!
Want some more specifics? Well the W12 engine featured in the majority of variants you'll find is a dependable unit, with no cam belts to worry about. That's a good thing, because the engine bay is pretty cramped so the engine has to come out for major work. The turbos tend not to give any problems and the spark plugs are replaced only every four years. Which is just as well because there's quite a lot of dismantling needed to get to them. The ZF six-speed auto used in the W12 is very reliable, and the few problems that have been seen are usually caused by switches and ECU connections. The variable dampers tend not to give trouble, but the front drop links for the anti-roll bar often wear, making a knocking noise. They're about £50 each to replace. The brake discs are big, to cope with the car's weight, but spirited driving can go through the front ones pretty quickly. Worn-out brakes are a good sign of a neglected car.
The tyre-pressure sensors are finished at around five years, after which the built-in battery runs out. New ones are £142 each, and by the time they're fitted, which includes removing and refitting the tyres and balancing the wheels, you could be looking at a bill of up to about £900 plus VAT. Check the car you're looking at an interview the seller to see exactly what has and hasn't been done. It's important to check that everything inside works as it should, because there are a lot of motors and electronics in there and two batteries to power them: a main one, and a smaller back-up one able to start the car in an emergency. You activate it by turning the key anti-clockwise and holding it there for 5-10sec.
(approx based on a 2013 Continental GT W12 excl. VAT) A Pirelli P Zero Rosso tyre will cost you around £280. A pair of brake pads are about £280 for a front set and brake discs are around £580 for a front pair. An oil filter will be about £20, an air filter will be about £150, spark plugs will set you back about £160 (for a set of 12) and coil packs are priced at around £350 (again for a set of 12).
On the Road
You expect a drive in a Bentley to number amongst the world's great automotive experiences and behind the wheel of this one, there's no disappointment on that score. Ease yourself behind the wheel with an admiring glance at the handcrafted leather and veneered wood and slot the key in the ignition. Push the exquisitely chromed starter button and somewhere in front of you, the huge engine bursts into life. If it's the 500bhp 4.0-litre V8, there's a purposeful bark to the engine note, a straining at the leash to be away, unfolding the horizon towards you. If power is being delivered by the 567PS W12 cylinder unit, the engine note is deeper, baser, more relaxed. But either way, you're left in little doubt that the drive you're about to make has the potential to be a very rapid one indeed.
How rapid? Well, persuading 2.3-tonnes that sixty should be reached from rest in just 4.4s is no small feat but 700Nm of torque is enough to do it. Keep your right foot buried in the deep pile carpet and 100mph will flash by in under 11 seconds before, if you're either very brave or have an aircraft runway on hand, ultimate velocity is reached at 198mph. That's if you're in the standard W12 variant - you can go even faster in the 626PS 'Speed' version. The V8 version (which shares its engine with Audi's S8 super saloon) is hardly any slower, thanks to 660NM of torque managing 4.6s and 188mph. For £100,000 more, you could buy a Ferrari FF that effectively goes no faster. Like that car, this one has four wheel drive to get all those horses to the tarmac but in a straight fight, you'd expect the Italian alternative to be the more satisfying choice.
Bentley though, narrowed the gap to such rivals with this second generation Continental GT, thanks to a whole package of changes, the most important of which was a revised 4WD system designed to send 60% of the engine's output to the rear wheels and 40% to the front, instead of equal amounts to all four. Add to that a wider track and various suspension refinements and you can see why this improved post-2011 GT model feels so significantly different. Compared to the original version, it's more agile, less nose heavy, easier to place into fast corners. Ultimately, more satisfying all-round.
Especially if you're in the V8 model and you've woken things up with a switch into 'Sport' mode. There are beautifully crafted paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, but such is the more alert response of the ZF auto gearbox - both the older 6-speed unit in the W12 and the more modern 8-speeder in the V8 feature lightning quick 200 millisecond shifts - that you'll find yourself generally ignoring them after the initial novelty has worn off. Around the twisty stuff, grip is impressive and thanks to CDC Continuous Damping Control, body roll very well controlled for a car of this size and weight. Don't expect it to change direction like a Ferrari 458 or a McLaren from his era, but against Aston Martins and Maseratis, this Continental is now more than able to hold its own. We'd still prefer a little more feel from the steering though - and from the standard brakes, though some original owners improved these by opting for a set of pricey optional ceramic ones.
When it comes to luxury though, this Bentley is unrivalled in its class. It rides beautifully on its computer-controlled air suspension. And no competitor from this era can rival the library quietness that comes with a Continental, further improved in this guise with acoustic glazing, under-floor shields and hidden anti-vibration panels throughout the interior. The engineers say that this car is 60% quieter at the driver's ears than the original version. We can believe that. And as a result, it's a beautiful car to travel in.
Bentley's original MK1 model Continental GT was a fine machine but it wasn't a sportscar. This second generation version can be. With V8 power, it proved to be more agile, more tactile, better sounding and, for those who cared, a whole lot more economic to run. That led some to question the continuing need for the pokier W12 model in the model line-up. But then not every Bentley owner wants to throw their car around. Many existing customers worldwide are very happy with a relaxed, sporting Grand Tourer - and this MK2 model proved to be an even better one.
With this second generation Continental GT design, this famous maker offered the market a choice. It could not only give customers a plutocratic sporting two-door GT but also provide a car to more credibly take on Aston Martin and Ferrari. A car that as well as taking you across the Alps, could take in a lap of the Nurburgring on the way there. This MK2 design showed that Bentley's German hierarchy had finally got a proper handle on what a car from this famous marque should be - what the brand was all about. On this evidence, this famous name is in good hands.