2012 Bentley Continental
If you are a purveyor of exotic motorcars, one would suppose that you would conduct the debut of a new model in an exotic locale.
Thus it was that Bentley of Crewe, England, chose the Sultanate of Oman in the Middle East for the international introduction of its new Continental GT coupe.
The 2012 GT is another quickstep in a promenade of high-performance Bentley coupes and convertibles that sometimes resembles a game of musical chairs where potential customers can land on any of a half-dozen different versions of the same car.
Yet because of its special way of hand-building its cars to customers’ tastes, no Continental is the same as any of its siblings. Bentley’s favorite term of art is “bespoke,” which is a snooty and very British way of saying “custom.”
For example, if you request it, Bentley will assign a skilled craftsman to build you a bespoke steering wheel. It will take him two days of focused labor. Similarly, you can specify an instrument panel with exclusive combinations of materials.In recent years, Bentley has crafted six different Continental versions: GT coupe and convertible, GT Speed coupe and convertible, and Supersports coupe and convertible.
The 2012 GT, with styling alterations so subtle as to be undetectable to any but the cognoscenti, now starts a new round. Doubtless over the next few years we will see additional iterations of the two-door coupe and convertible.
It was unveiled in Oman, an Arab nation of deserts and mountains bordered by the Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Largely unknown to most Americans, it is a thoroughly modern nation with a long relationship with Great Britain.
Signs on the Omani network of pool-table smooth freeways and secondary roads are in Arabic and English. The country has been ruled since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said, who has maintained his nation on a path of moderation and modernization.
Most of the nearly three million people are adherents of the Ibadi branch of Islam, which is conservative but also nonviolent and restrained. Women wear colorful dresses over trousers and most men dress in sandals, an ankle-length robe, mostly white, called a dishdasha, and an embroidered cap called a kummar.
But Oman also is a wealthy country, with opulent five-star resorts and spas. Its citizens are inured to ostentatious signs of luxury, so it was no surprise that the Continental GT did not attract an undue amount of attention.The exception was when Ulrich Eichhorn, the chief engineer and a member of the Bentley board of directors, was behind the wheel. A driver of some renown, Eichhorn carved high-speed corners on remote two-lane roads where the tires were mere inches from skating off the road into a ravine. He also developed a practice of using scantily-traveled roundabouts as test-track skid pads to demonstrate the GT’s handling prowess.
That is the essence of the Continental GT, $219,015 as tested here. It is no mere luxury touring coupe, although in this day and age it would be difficult to find any big-bucks luxury car that did not have at least a modicum of superior performance.
The Continental GT is, in fact, a muscle car. It is powered by a 12-cylinder engine that originated with Bentley’s owner, Volkswagen, but has been re-engineered by Bentley’s own alchemists at the factory in Crewe. It is laid out in a “W” configuration rather than the more familiar “V,” but that matters little. It delivers 567 horsepower along with 516 foot-pounds of torque, or twisting power at low revolutions per minute.
Power goes to all four wheels via a snap-shifting six-speed automatic transmission that also can be manipulated manually with the shifter or steering-wheel mounted paddles
The all-wheel drive system is fully automatic, with the power divided 60% to the rear wheels and 40% to the front for balanced handling, which Eichhorn demonstrated by virtually driving sideways around the roundabouts.
Yet with all that performance, the GT is no neck-snapper on acceleration. Its forte is a deceptive surge of power that moves the two-and-one-half-ton coupe to extra-legal speeds in a few breaths.
Acceleration from rest to 60 miles an hour happens in 4.6 seconds, according to Bentley test numbers, with a top speed of 198 miles an hour. Yet when you reach high speeds, the ambiance is so serene that the GT feels more like a boulevardier than a sports car.
The front seats betray some of that luxury orientation. Though supportive and comfortable, they offer minimal lateral support for hustling around curves.
As with any coupe, the rear-seat accommodations are less than ideal. In fact, on some Continental models, Bentley will replace the back seat with a shelf that expands the cargo capacity.
With an EPA city/highway fuel economy rating of just 12/19 miles to the gallon, the Continental GT is nowhere near green. But Bentley assuages its conscience by engineering the GT from scratch as a flex-fuel vehicle. The company says it can run on up to 85% ethanol fuel with no discernible loss of performance.