Full of character and still able to impress, particularly as a V8

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As the Bentley Continental GT rapidly approaches the 15-year mark, you have to wonder whether ‘Walter Owen’ would have envisaged such popularity for the marque that bears his name, 90-odd years ago – either in his wildest or even most troubling dreams.

Remember that the ‘Continental’ moniker used to be applied internally to any model that had been taken to mainland Europe by WO himself, and tested at high speed there. The first official Continental was the 1952 R-type coupé. The name was used on updated versions of that car through the later 1950s and 1960s, and subsequently applied to Rolls-Royce Corniche-based coupés and convertibles of the late 1980s and 1990s.

The Bentley GT loses none of its charm and desirability to its VW Group roots

There’s no doubt, though, that the most recent incarnation has done more for Bentley’s bank accounts than any of its predecessors. So 2011 was about time that the Continental GT coupé, bedrock of the company’s sales figures, had a facelift, and not content with that Bentley gave it another going-over for 2015 too.

The 2011 model wasn't an all-new car, although Crewe would like you to believe it is. The generously proportioned two-plus-two has been put on a diet, given a styling massage inside and out, and had some telling mechanical updates, chief among which was the introduction of a 4.0-litre V8 option as an alternative to the continuing 6.0-litre W12 variant, along with an expanding number of Continental GT variations to choose from.

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As Bentley begins to tease its plans for the next generation Continental GT expected to arrive in 2018, with murmurings it will share the same underpinnings as the new Porsche Panamera, buyers currently have a vast choice of brilliant long-distance luxury cruisers at their disposal, something we have proven during our long-term test of the 4.0-litre V8 Continental GT.


Bentley Continental GT rear

The very latest aluminium superforming production technology has allowed Bentley’s design team, led by Dirk van Braeckel, much greater freedom for sculpture in the Continental GT's panels, carved into sharper, more pronounced creases and curves than the original could ever have had.

The updated GT looks contemporary and sacrifices a little of the original’s simple elegance for greater visual muscularity. To our eyes, it’s an appealing compromise. There’s even scope for a few references to pre-war Bentleys.

The complex-looking grille is a throwback to Bentleys of old

The Continental sits on 20-inch wheels as standard, but there’s a choice of Mulliner-spec 21-inchers as options. That’s a restrictive line-up by Bentley’s standards, of course; the company’s reputation for craftsmanship and bespoke interior trim is just as applicable to the Continental as it is a Mulsanne.

The 2011-revised styling is only quietly suggestive of what Bentley has done to the mechanicals of this car to make it a match for the Aston Martins, Ferraris and Porsches of this decade. The updated GT’s body is 40mm wider than it was, and the track widths of its chassis are 41mm wider up front and 48mm greater at the rear.

There has been a greater effort to keep the emissions under control, with an 8-speed close-ratio automatic gearbox and variable displacement system controlling the CO2 output despite the increase in power. The introduction of a smaller 4.0-litre V8 engine means less weight on at the front and better efficiency without compromising too much on performance.


Bentley Continental GT interior

It would be entirely fair to record that Bentley didn't reinvent the wheel inside the revised Continental – if it weren’t for the fact that a new steering wheel is actually chief among the revisions. The new tiller is smaller in diameter than before and it also acts on the front wheels via a slightly faster steering rack.

Most of the cabin is carried over from the superseded car, however. In our test car, soft embroidered leathers, attractive walnut veneers, handmade aluminium fascia inserts and chrome-bezelled control dials all contributed to a superbly rich and luxurious ‘old English’ cabin ambience that few car makers can pull off.

The infotainment system is from Volkswagen. Visually, it’s a bit clunky compared with the best on offer elsewhere

Fit and finish in our test cars has been excellent – as it should be from Crewe’s self-proclaimed ‘master craftsmen’, whose attention to detail would still seem to be the envy of the industry.

The biggest substantive difference inside comes courtesy of two new, slimmed-down, scalloped front seats, which, claims Bentley, liberate an extra 46mm of legroom for rear passengers. The extra space is welcome, but it doesn’t transform the GT into a car fit for four adults. In the back, headroom for anyone over six feet tall is still tight.

Up front, while the new touchscreen multimedia system is welcome, and even though the system is developed in house there’s still room for improvement in some areas. The ergonomics of the column stalks leaves a little to be desired, too; you’ll lose count of the number of times you tug on the left-hand gearchange paddle while you’re fumbling for the indicators.

Equally frustrating is the fact that changing the damper settings from Comfort, through two intermediate settings, to Sport means pressing a button on the transmission tunnel and then cycling through a menu on the fascia-mounted touchscreen.

Buyers now have a wealth of options to choose from before they get the opportunity to make their Conti bespoke. First decision is whether to opt for the Coupé or go for the convertible, then whether to choose the 6.0-litre W12 or 4.0-litre V8 engines.

Even then the decision-making isn't over as there are multiple models to choose from, including the standard GT in 582bhp W12 or 500bhp V8 forms, for those wanting a bit more poise and speed the Speed versions are available producing 626bhp and 520bhp respectively, while those wanting a road-going version of the GT3 race car are catered from with the 572bhp 4.0-litre V8 GT3-R.


6.0-litre W12 Bentley Continental GT engine

Any car that weighs at least 2320kg yet can still sprint to 60mph in 4.6sec and to 100mph in 10.9sec is not exactly short of a spot of shove. Bentley’s forced-induction 6.0-litre W12 engine produces 582bhp from 5998cc in the Continental GT. Just as enticing is the prospect 516lb ft of torque.

The Continental GT’s engine is from the top division of internally combusted performance, capable of delivering great gobs of urge at will. The key to the flexibility comes not when the engine is making 6000rpm and peak power, but when the big turbochargers begin to spool up. This exceptional powerplant makes its peak torque at just 1700rpm.

Decades old as it is, the W12 is still a phenomenally good engine

At pretty much any revs, in any gear, the W12 Bentley is as flexible as you’d hope for a car whose primary purpose is to make countries feel smaller. Squirt the throttle at the start of a motorway sliproad at 30mph and 4.2sec later you’ll be at 70mph. Do the same at 50mph and 70mph is just 2.4sec away.

The annoyance caused by the earlier six-speed automatic gearbox has been replaced with an eight-speed version, which allows the engine to settle down quicker into a hushed silence. However, what the Conti lacks is being able to just electronically select ‘D’ and then run the show from brilliantly placed column shifters, which add an air of sophistication to an Aston Martin’s or Ferrari’s drivetrain that the Bentley’s ill-placed and plasticky-feeling paddles can’t match.

The new Audi-sourced, but Bentley-built, twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8, meanwhile, makes a compelling case for itself with improved thermal management, an optimised, on-demand electrical system, lower-rolling-resistance tyres and a cylinder deactivation mode.

Any lingering doubt you might have had that, with the removal of four cylinders, Bentley might have removed some of the more compelling aspect’s of the Continental’s performance linger no longer than it takes for your right foot to propel the pedal from rest to carpet. According to the manufacturer's figures, the 500bhp V8 can urge the Continental from 0-62mph in 4.8sec and on to a top speed of 188mph. It also returns a claimed 26.7mpg on the combined cycle compared to the bigger-engined car's 17.1mpg.

As far as we’re concerned, unless you’re particularly fascinated by the engineering layout of the 6.0-litre W12 model, there is absolutely no reason to look beyond the V8, particularly given the extra economy it offers.


Bentley Continental GT rear cornering

It’s true that the Bentley Continental GT does not smooth out surface imperfections with the aplomb of, say, a Mercedes S-Class Coupé. But those who assume that it cannot ride have not considered the relative benefit of two-and-a-bit tonnes riding on its springs.

Persuading all of those kilograms to offer anything other than immunity from surface imperfections is a feat in itself. It goes to making the Continental GT, particularly on its softer spring settings, a vastly capable long-distance cruiser. There is good straight-line stability, too.

The fuel filler and boot release buttons are worryingly close to the window switches

All of which comes at some kind of price. Aston Martins, fast Porsche 911s and the Maserati GranTurismo are, at their heart, sports cars that have been persuaded to become long-distance grand touring companions.

The Bentley, meanwhile, approaches it from the other end of the scale. That it can be made to corner while holding 1.05g of lateral grip is vastly impressive, but you’re left in little doubt while you’re doing it that this isn’t the GT’s finest element. Crushingly able and mildly engaging it might be, but a sports car it is not.

There is nothing in the slightest bit disappointing about the Continental GT’s optional carbon-ceramic brakes, though, supposing you can look past their price. Capable of hauling the GT from 60mph to rest in just 2.5sec in the dry (and 2.6sec in the wet), they have exceptional stopping power and resistance to fade.


Bentley Continental GT

The Continental GT is a generously equipped car in standard trim, but there is potential to add options that add five-figure sums to the base price through Bentley's lengthy options list.

Truth is, however, that you could easily kit out your GT with must-have extras, such as the carbon brakes and convenience pack, and escape the showroom having spent less than you would on a mid-spec Ferrari California or Aston Martin Virage.

The W12 meets stricter Euro 5 emissions regs and can now run on E85 biofuel

A 65kg saving has been made over the previous generation of Continental thanks to lightweight seats, among other things. Aerodynamic drag and aerodynamic lift have also been reduced – a measure that’s of more importance on a car capable of almost 200mph than on anything with a 155mph electronic speed limiter.

This diet cannot make the Continental a cheap car to run, though its owners aren’t likely to be particularly bothered by this side of its character. When we tested the W12, we concluded that our sub-15mpg average economy return was poor, but balanced against the GT’s immaculate record for reliability, it could be considered a small price to pay.

The figure does rise to around 22mpg during an undemanding cruise – hardly frugal, but respectable enough for a blown 6.0-litre engine hauling around this much weight. We actually think it could improve on this were Bentley a little braver on its top gear ratio.

Bentley has already addressed many of this car’s unavoidable efficiency issues with the V8. That car’s state-of-the-art motor, equipped with cylinder deactivation, brings fuel economy and emissions gains of around 40 per cent.


Bentley Continental Continental GT rear

The 2011 revisions to the Bentley Continental GT ran deep but they didn't transform the car, so it’s a credit to how well it the Bentley was engineered in the first instance that it still feels so impressive, solid and satisfying. 

Few cars have such a mighty powertrain as the W12 and, although we’re disappointed with the fuel economy, there’s little denying the pace and flexibility. They go a long way to making the GT supreme at shortening distances.

Brutal cruiser with new-found dynamic edge and refinement; still flawed

But for all the W12’s improvements, it’s the V8 model that is the star of the range now; it doesn’t feel weak of performance, yet its improvements in efficiency over the older engine make you wonder who will actually stump up the cash for the 6.0-litre unit from this point on.

Bentley still expects a 50/50 split between the two engines; it wouldn’t surprise us in the slightest if the W12’s client base shifts entirely to the Middle East, Russia and China, leaving the V8 as the sensible option for the rest of the planet.

Complaints? The interior wasn’t an ergonomic delight before and little has changed. The ride, too, is not as compliant as its most cosseting rivals’.

However, there are a few cars that can get away with such idiosyncrasies and, thanks to a feeling that it’s impeccably and individually built, the Continental GT is one of them. It has its failings, yes, but it also has charm.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Bentley Continental GT 2011-2018 First drives