26 January 2004

Bentley will reveal a £100,000, 180mph luxury saloon next spring, followed by a soft-top Continental GT in 2006. The twin-pronged attack will move the great British marque towards production of 6000 cars a year.

This is the first image of the gorgeous drop-top convertible, scheduled to go on sale in summer 2006. The key engineering feature is a lightweight and compact fabric roof, chosen for its ease of packaging into the tight confines of the Continental GT’s bodyshell. The coupé, upon which the rag-top is unashamedly based, has an underfloor fuel tank, which leaves a space between the rear cabin and luggage bay for the roof to fold away fully. This leaves the clean and uncluttered styling as revealed in our artist’s impression.

The convertible will need only minimal extra strengthening to retain body stiffness lost when the roof is removed from the coupé. Thanks to the choice of pillarless design for the Continental GT tin-top, the platform is already unusually stiff.

Powering the soft-top will be the same twin-turbo 552bhp 6.0-litre W12, driving through a six-speed automatic to all four wheels. Expect performance to be pegged slightly behind the coupé, with 0-60mph in about 5.5sec and a top speed of 185mph.

Despite parent company VW not yet signing off the design, US dealers have already started taking deposits on the GT convertible. A price of around £120,000 is likely in the UK.

Arriving before the convertible is Crewe’s answer to the Maserati Quattroporte and Mercedes S-Class. Expect the new four-door saloon to be launched at either the January 2005 Detroit Motor Show or March 2005’s Geneva show.

The four-door, codenamed BY611, will share the GT’s basic architecture, powertrain, suspension and sub-systems, but will have a longer wheelbase and its own body skin and upper structure.

‘Budget is not a constraint in creating this saloon,’ said one well-placed source. ‘They want to do it right and design a car that works as a whole.’

The seating position will be a little higher and the rakish A-pillars of the Continental GT moved slightly upright to give a more traditional saloon look. The redesigned pillars will help Bentley designers to raise the saloon’s roofline, giving more headroom and the feeling of space demanded in a luxury saloon.

Expected to feature in the design are a classic three-window glasshouse and solid B-pillar, with which Bentley’s engineers will help side-impact protection and the suppression of wind noise at speed, the latter being a weakness of the coupé.

The wheelbase has been stretched by around 200mm – most of which is devoted to increasing rear legroom. At a little over 2.9m, the wheelbase of the Bentley four-door will be slightly longer than the VW Phaeton’s – the platform which forms the basis of Bentley’s new model range – and similar to the Merc S-Class’s. Its overall length will be stretched to a shade over 5m.

The basic dimensions chosen for Bentley’s four-door are no accident. Customers are expected to come from the market occupied by top-end S-Classes such as the £85,000 S55 and £90,000 S600 L. But the Bentley will also pose a sales threat to Jaguar’s £60,000 XJR saloon, whose mix of British style and effortless performance is also Bentley’s home ground. However, Crewe’s new saloon won’t challenge existing luxury cars for cabin space, targeting interior luxury and sportiness as selling points instead.

Details of the new Bentley’s powertrain are sketchy, although it will use versions of the twin-turbo W12 developed specifically for Bentley and now assembled at Crewe. With 479lb ft of torque on tap, the Bentley four-door will become one of the fastest saloons on sale today. Although it's likely to be heavier than the coupé, the saloon will still muster an excellent power-to-weight ratio of close to 210bhp per tonne. That should make the 0-60mph sprint possible in around 5.0sec, together with an unrestricted top speed of around 180mph.

But the strong point of the saloon’s on-road behaviour will be its blend of effortless in-gear acceleration and comfort. The longer wheelbase of the saloon and cockpit-adjustable air suspension settings will make for a more cosseting low-speed ride, while it will be quieter and more comfortable at high speeds than the more stiffly sprung coupé.

Bentley’s engineers will also work on engine-bay refinement. At cruising speeds, the Continental GT suffers from engine drone, a failing that saloon owners won’t put up with. The cabin will feature the same high-quality mix of wood, leather and chrome as the Continental GT.

In fact, Bentley buyers are already voting with their wallets for the saloon. In the all-important US market, which takes 40 per cent of all Bentley production, dealers are taking orders for the saloon.US dealers have been told to quote a list price of $140,000 (£77,000) for the four-door, $10,000 (£5500) less than the Continental GT. ‘We’ve taken a dozen deposits for $10,000 on the sedan,’ said Kyle Racine, general manager of Bentley’s number two US dealer, Chicago-based Bentley Gold Coast.

Our Verdict

Toyota Avensis

The Toyota Avensis is adequate but generally underwhelming family transport

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