As an idle young British nobleman in the 18th century, on the occasion of your 21st birthday or thereabouts, you’d pack your things and head out on a traditional Grand Tour. With an unlimited supply of cash from mommy and daddy, you would gallivant across the Continent for a few years to soak up art, culture, poetry, language and presumably quite a lot of alcohol. Since selfies hadn’t yet been invented, you’d commission a portrait of yourself. It was an upper-crust rite of passage.
Beginning in the 1930s, auto makers began catering to this desire to cross continents in style at great speed with cars such as the Alfa Romeo 8C Berlinetta and Bugatti Type 57. It was an era before radar traps and traffic jams. You could have breakfast in Bavaria, lunch at Lake Como and be drinking on the French Riviera by sunset.
Bentley’s all-new Continental GT is the latest addition to this rarified automotive tradition.
“Quite simply, this car had to be the best grand tourer in the world,” said Bob Teale, chief engineer of the Continental GT. The brief was to make it sharper, lighter and faster than before.
Only the “faster“ bit would’ve presented much challenge. The old Continental was a porky thing that handled a lot like a bullet train, but it was fast. Before the Bentayga SUV came along, it was Bentley’s most popular model.
The GT is now in its third incarnation since 2003. The 2019 car is by far the biggest change in the model’s history. It’s a little lighter, sure, but the big story is the chassis. Where the old model shared an architecture with Volkswagen and Audi vehicles, the new Continental’s platform was co-developed with Porsche and also underpins the Panamera.
The engineers in Crewe, England, were able to push the W-12 engine back toward the cabin while moving the front axle forward. It gives the car a more prestigious, imperial silhouette, and drastically improves weight distribution.
Triple-chamber air suspension and a 48-volt active anti-roll system aim to mask the car’s 2,244-kilogram girth. A rear-biased all-wheel-drive system with torque vectoring by braking completes the chassis package.
Our test route takes us 400 kilometres up over the Grossglockner High Alpine Road in Austria, dipping south into Italy, and east along the Autostrada before re-entering Austria. A mini grand tour.
In the Alps, the Continental defies its considerable girth, scything along twisting roads but never getting caught out by a quick change of direction. It feels natural, effortless where the old model would have had to work hard. It’s no sports car, and the weight begins to make itself known if you drive flat out. When you’re merely in a hurry, however, the front wheels tip into corners eagerly, faithfully leading the charge up to the 2,504-metre peak of the Grossglockner.
You don’t feel the need to carry major speed mid-corner anyway, not with 626 horsepower available to blast you to the next bend. Maximum torque from the revised 6.0-litre twin-turbo W-12 comes in earlier than before, 664 lb-ft at just 1,350 rpm. The new dual-clutch eight-speed automatic almost seems superfluous. Any gear will do.
On a long stretch of Autostrada, the GT’s air suspension demonstrates its wide breadth of ability. In Sport mode, it stiffened to keep body movement in check. In full Comfort mode, it was fluffy like a down-filled parka. And then there’s Bentley mode.
“Bentley mode is the personal recommendation of our chassis engineers and is perfect for grand touring,” Teale said. Since you’re paying the equivalent of the deposit on a house for this car, the least the engineers could do was set it up for you.
Smoothness is the overriding sensation in the new Continental GT: smoothness of power delivery, of handling and of the way it floats over the road.
If there’s any criticism to be made, it’s that it can feel slightly aloof, as if the driver is one step removed from the action. But a case could be made that is exactly what a grand tourer should do.
The Continental GT, which will arrive in Canada next spring, is undeniably excellent. For perhaps the first time, it feels like a real Bentley. Whether it’s the best grand tourer in the world, though, depends on you. If you want a more engaging experience, try the gorgeous Aston Martin DB11 but be warned the Bentley has a nicer interior with a superior infotainment system. The Rolls-Royce Wraith and Ferrari GTC4Lusso are more expensive alternatives. The former is even more aloof, while the latter is more exhilarating.
Today, for many people, the Grand Tour has evolved into a more humble tradition, typically involving a gap year during university, a Eurail pass and nights in some questionable hostels.
Fear not, aristocrats, because this new generation of grand-touring automobiles are keeping the upper-crust tradition alive and well. This is another grand-touring golden age.
- Base price: $285,681
- Engine: 6.0-litre twin-turbo W-12
- Transmission/drive: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic/all-wheel
- Alternatives: Aston Martin DB11, Ferrari GTC4Lusso, Rolls-Royce Wraith, Mercedes-AMG S65 Coupe
The Continental name can trace its roots all the way back to the R-Type Continental coupe of the early 1950s. Today, mint examples go for about US$1.75-million. The new car is the best looking of the modern Continentals, thanks to its longer wheelbase. But we can’t help but wish it looked a little more like Bentley’s EXP Speed 6 concept from Geneva a few years ago.
Okay, yes, the cabin is best in class. If you’re wondering where your money’s gone, it takes 40 moving parts with whisker-thin tolerances to make the infotainment screen spin and disappear behind a wood panel. It takes nine hours and 10 square metres of wood veneer to adorn the cabin.
Bentley succeeded in making the new car faster. It tops out at 333 km/h, which is admittedly useless unless you live near an Autobahn. Acceleration to 100 km/h takes 3.7 seconds. The steering isn’t as communicative as in the Aston DB11, but the Bentley floats better over bad roads.
The infotainment system is Porsche-based and best in class. All told, it takes 2,300 circuits, eight kilometres of wiring and up to 92 electronic control units (ECUs) to make this car work. (Just hope nothing goes wrong.) But the real tech highlight of the new Continental is the Naim stereo system, all 2,200 watts of it. Alas, it’ll likely cost you nearly $10,000 as an option.