Once upon a time, a car's identity was buried deep in its DNA. In these days of multinational parts and platform sharing, brands are born in a marketing memo, then programmed onto a computer chip. Even the most discerning car hack struggles to tell where a Mercedes SLK ends and a Chrysler Crossfire begins. All of which begs the question: is the Bentley Continental GT, the company's first all-new model since Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated– sorry, since Volkswagen bought the firm, a 'real' Bentley?
Hell if I know. The GT was my first close encounter with the Bentley brand. But I'll tell you this: you can be ambling down the highway in a Continental GT, doing nothing more strenuous than listening to right wing radio, look down at the speedo and see 120 on the clock, no problem. If "GT" stands for "Grand Tourer", no car does it better.
Except maybe a VW Phaeton. As one of the few people who's driven Vee Dub's commercially questionable flagship equipped with a W12 engine, I can report that the shared powerplant accounts for much of the Bentley's charm. Tread lightly on the go-pedal and both cars will saunter through town as happily as a recently elected mayor. Mash the gas, and both machines will accelerate deep into triple digits like a [very heavy] thing possessed.
Of course, the twin turbo, 552-horse Bentley is significantly faster than its sister under the skin. The blown Bentley will scoot to sixty in 4.7 seconds, and on to a V-max of, I kid you not, 198mph. But the GT's basic nature– the way it piles on the speed in a single, seamless lunge– is the same; and there's nothing wrong with that.
Actually, there is. The world's most compact 12-cylinder engine produces aural Prozac. Despite Bentley's attempts to tune the exhaust note to suit the brand's sporting aspirations, the GT's engine has all the sonic sex appeal of a pixilated race car from a '70's arcade game. It's loud at idle, loud under load and… that's it. Considering the company's long tradition of stuffing big-block baritone V8's into the engine bay, the variable decibel drone is a major disappointment.
In the corners, the GT is fast and… that's it. Thanks to Audi's four-wheel-drive system, the baby Bentley dispatches long sweepers with mindless ease. But, as you'd expect, throwing the 5250-pound two-door into a sharp corner is a less than relaxing pursuit. If nothing else, the GT's fingertip light steering makes initial turn-in and mid-corner adjustment a very tricky business. Anyway, why bother? The Bentley is about as suited to thrashing as a Lotus Elise is to long road trips.
Oh, and it may seem churlish to mention it, but the Continental GT guzzles gas like an alcoholic aristocrat quaffing Dom. In semi-hooligan mode, I burned a gallon of dead dinosaur every 7.4 urban miles. An extended session of interstate cruising managed to double the figure– just. Again, who cares? Stateside, the flying "B" above the radiator gives owners a free pass from any social and/or environmental obligation. And that's why the GT's sheet metal and interior, rather than its on-road dynamics, ultimately define the car's character.
Bentley's new owners worked hard to imbue their muscle coupe with brand-specific styling cues (e.g. twin headlights of varying size). To my eyes, the overall design looks like a squished, angular version of an Aston Martin Vanquish. The GT's shape, though vaguely British, lacks cohesion. In particular, the sharp creases on either side of the hood make the prow look as if it was formed by a Play-Do shape cutter. I reckon the Chrysler 300C is a better looking Bentley. But hey, that's me. Most people consider the GT a suitably British "gentleman's express".
Once inside, the olfactory sense overwhelms aesthetic sensibility. Every inch of the GT's cabin that isn't covered with piano-grade wood or satin finish aluminum or what was once Wilton carpet is slathered in perfectly-stitched, glove soft, dizzyingly fragrant leather. I reckon the GT's immaculate upholstery is the car's finest hour, in perfect keeping with Britain's bespoke tailoring tradition.
From there, it's straight back to the Fatherland. The GT's main display screen and attendant buttons are lifted straight from the Phaeton. All the switches– even the signature "organ stop" vent controls– work with Germanic precision. And in case you missed the point, the words "Made in Germany" are written in large type at the base of the cigarette lighter.
Is that a bad thing? Is it fair to diss the GT simply because it didn't evolve from the brand's original DNA? That depends. If you believe an automobile should reflect the engineering and design gestalt of its native land, then no, we shouldn't impugn this mighty machine. The Bentley Continental GT is a truly superb German automobile.