The Bentley Continental GT
A test drive by our intrepid Chairman: Ian Rimmer
For over thirty years, whilst working for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars at Crewe, I had the opportunity to drive almost every model of Rolls-Royce motorcar and the Bentleys built by Rolls-Royce, from the 2-cylinder 10hp and Silver Ghost to the Silver Seraph and Bentley Arnage. Since retiring in 1999, I have not driven any of the latest products from Crewe so when offered the chance to drive the Bentley Continental GT, I looked forward to the experience, especially with the glowing reports in the media.
Prior to the mid-1980s, Bentleys, which were virtually identical to their Rolls-Royce equivalents, had been in such small demand that their very future had been questioned. Along came turbocharging, which was initially confined to the Bentley marque, and demand started to rise, such that by 1990, sales of Bentleys reached the same levels as the Rolls-Royce models. This trend continued until the Company was bought by Volkswagen in 1998, by which time Bentleys were outselling Rolls-Royce cars by three to one. The new models that followed, the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph and Bentley Arnage, were fine cars but were, in my opinion, spoiled by their BMW-sourced engines that lacked the traditional Rolls-Royce and Bentley qualities. Production of the Silver Seraph finished in 2002, but the Arnage enjoyed a revival, once fitted with the legendary Crewe-built 6750 ccs V-8 engine, and the current Arnage T is now a true Bentley touring saloon.
From the end of 2002, the Crewe factory had become Bentley only, but the Volkswagen group had already started to develop a totally new car, known initially as the MSB (mid-sized Bentley), and this was revealed during 2003 as a two-door ‘fast-back’ coupé with a brand new V12 engine of 6 litres. Some of the styling cues had been taken from the Bentley R Type Continental of the early 1950s and so it was not surprising that the new car was named the Continental GT.
In December 2005 I was scheduled to attend the AGM of the Central Southern Section at a hotel in West Sussex. This offered a good opportunity to assess the Continental GT over a reasonable mileage and so this was suggested and fortunately agreed to. I had had the opportunity to see these cars being built and
was thus familiar with a number of aspects, but I felt that a proper introduction was desirable before setting off down the road. This indeed proved invaluable since there are so many new features in the car which were not in the previous models with which I was familiar. Keyless unlocking and locking of the doors was explained, along with keyless engine starting and stopping, with the warning that the key should be kept on your person and not left inside the car when exiting.
The usual controls were explained, but the major new feature to me was the information screen which covered in-car entertainment, satellite navigation, climate control, ride height adjustment, rear spoiler operation and other items of information such as temperature, journey time and mileage, fuel consumption and range. Things like the steering column, adjustable for height and reach, gear selection with manual override, electrically operated parking brake and seat and mirror adjustment, all had differences from those features I was familiar with.
Once on the road the first impression is of the enormous power available which needed careful pedal control. Although the steering was very positive it was
somewhat heavier than that of the previous Rolls-Royce models and also the suspension was noticeably firmer. A few miles to get familiar with the car were
essential and exploring the navigation system occupied much of this time. One of the most valuable appraisals of any car is to ask your wife what she thinks. She was most impressed when she first saw the car standing alongside my Silver Wraith II (which she dearly loves) and she found getting in and out of the car presented no problems in spite of her physical disability. She was very impressed with the appearance of the facia but was particularly intrigued by the navigation system which neither she nor I had experienced previously. Whilst on my own the performance was explored and this can only be described as exhilarating with legal speed limits being reached before you have time to look at the speedometer.
When the time came to drive down to West Sussex, I decided that I would keep the speed at moderate levels which would be largely pegged by using the cruise control. This car is so lively and hence it is so easy to exceed speed limits without constantly having to monitor the speedometer. I decided to set the sat nav system to get to my destination. Unfortunately the village of Trotton in West Sussex was not listed so I chose the nearest town of Midhurst. When it asked for the street name I found Trotton Avenue listed so I selected that. Amazingly, the route instructions followed exactly the route that I had planned and in fact, somehow, it directed me right into the hotel car park where I was aiming for.
Driving the car, mostly on motorways, was a real pleasure although, whilst cruising mostly at constant speed, I resisted the urge to keep up with much of the traffic that was passing me. I found the booming of the exhaust to be a little too much during the cruise but quite acceptable during acceleration when it is to be expected. In fact the noise level at motorway speeds almost drowned the verbal instructions from the navigation system and with the radio on it was impossible to hear what was being said. The seat proved comfortable at first, but after a while felt rather too firm after more than three hours on the road. The seats have obviously been designed to give good lateral support, which they do well, but this isn’t really required when motorway cruising. The extending bolster cushion did help somewhat. Features like automatic headlamp operation and rain-sensing windscreen wipers were most useful, along with the lane-change facility, where the indicator switch cancels after three flashes.
Although I checked the manual gearchange selection I did not find this necessary for the type of driving I was doing. I did find that the gearbox changed down automatically rather too readily as soon as throttle pedal pressure was applied and it did take quite a speed to maintain sixth gear. Braking at low speeds is extremely powerful and takes a little while to get used to, but at higher speeds it is fine and still powerful. On minor roads with poor surfaces the ride felt rather firm and the car tended to follow ruts in the road surface.
Whilst the in-car entertainment quality was very good I was disappointed that I could not select Radio 5 (long wave) which I mostly listen to when driving. I recorded an average fuel consumption in each direction of a little over 21 mpg which I thought was excellent and much better than I was expecting.
Whilst parked outside the hotel where my meeting was being held, the car attracted a lot of admiration and compliments from Club members. Although one
member arrived in his brand new Continental Flying Spur, several comments favoured the GT. It is, however, not a full four-seater car unless the rear occupants are small and the front seats moved forward to an uncomfortable position for driving. Access into the rear is also difficult unless you are small or very nimble. Even getting into the front seats requires care to avoid bumping your head. In spite of this, once installed in the car there is plenty of space and adequate headroom for all but the tallest persons.
My overall impressions of the Continental GT are that it achieves its mission superbly. It is very stylish and compares very favourably with most other supercars, according to published figures, and is priced at just the right level. Any minor criticisms of mine probably suggest that this is not the right car for me. Perhaps the Continental Flying Spur, with four doors and a spacious rear compartment would suit me better, or more likely the Arnage T. The huge popularity of the two Continental models is keeping the Crewe factory very busy and when the new Continental GTC convertible comes out later in 2006 this can only be a huge success.
Ian Rimmer: December 2005