2012 Bentley Continental GT

October 21, 2011

Introduced in 2004, the Continental GT quickly became Bentley's best-seller. Arguably, it launched a new segment of luxury cars priced lower than the usual fare from ultra-luxury brands but higher than top models from the likes of BMW and Jaguar. It was a risky move. It paid off. I've always respected that, but I've never liked the Continental as much as I wanted to.

Until now: For 2012, a collection of seemingly small improvements make the redesigned Bentley Continental GT the car I always thought it could be.

Though several Continental body styles and versions are already available as 2012 models, only the regular GT Coupe reviewed here has been fully redesigned (it skipped the 2011 model year). The GTC convertible is on hold for 2012 but is likely to return for 2013. Still available with some upgrades are the Supersports, in coupe and convertible body styles, and the four-door Flying Spur.

Though ultra-lux buyers aren't as concerned as most of us about gas prices, they're sure to appreciate the Continental's EPA-estimated mileage improvement: 12/19 mpg city/highway on premium gas over the 2010 model's 10/17 mpg. With this, the gas-guzzler tax has decreased by $700, to $3,000. The standard W-12 flex-fuel engine can run on E85, which is 85 percent ethyl alcohol and 15 percent gasoline. On this fuel, however, mileage drops to 8/14 mpg.

Bentley says a higher-mileage V-8 engine option will come later in 2011.

Exterior & Styling

The deftly restyled GT is like a Hollywood star who's received the best kind of plastic surgery: Many people don't notice anything has been done, but it sure looks great. The most significant change comes from more creases and body lines, stronger haunches and a more squared-off rear end. In short, it now looks less like the world's fastest bar of soap. Where previous model years drew attention for their uniqueness and obviously high price tag, virtually all comments I received during my time with the 2012 were raves about the styling itself.

My one styling complaint is an old one: The chrome grille, which is larger than ever, looks cheap. Most grilles are plastic, but they needn't look that way. I've said the same in the past — mainly about Jaguars and prior Bentleys — and it hasn't improved from either brand. Grilles ain't sheet metal; they can be changed relatively easily. I hope this one will be.

Drivers See the Lightness

The 2012 Continental GT drives better than the previous generation, too. It feels substantially lighter, which was badly needed. There are three main reasons: One is that it has shed roughly 65 pounds versus the 2010 model. That may be just a drop in a 5,115-pound bucket, but every bit helps. And at least the car didn't gain weight, as redesigned models typically do.

The second reason is the drivetrain, which carries over with upgrades to both the twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter W-12 engine and six-speed automatic transmission. The tweaked engine boosts horsepower to 567 hp from 552 hp in the previous generation, and torque to 516 pounds-feet from 479 pounds-feet. More oomph can't help but make a car feel lighter. The zero-to-60 mph time is now below 4.5 seconds, due in part to the standard all-wheel drive, which ensures that the power gets to the road. Don't let it bother you that the transmission has "only" six speeds when the market now has seven- and eight-speed automatics. It's well-behaved, which is what matters most, and I like the placement of the manual-shift paddles on the steering column rather than the wheel: You always know where to find them, and you're unlikely to trigger one by accident.

In my estimation, the revised all-wheel drive is the most significant contributor to the 2012 model's lighter feel. As is the case with recent versions of Quattro from Audi — Bentley's corporate sibling under the Volkswagen Group — the all-wheel drive now sends 60 percent of torque to the rear wheels as a default, rather than the 50/50 split in earlier versions. As a result, the car handles more like a rear-wheel-drive car and doesn't understeer as much when powering through turns. Steering feedback remains minimal, and it's still a heavy car overall, weighing anywhere from hundreds to more than a thousand pounds more than comparable cars from Aston Martin and Ferrari, but the experience is transformed versus the previous generation.

Our test car's grippy Pirelli PZero summer performance tires on optional 21-inch wheels also play a part. According to tirerack.com, the replacement cost for these tires is $489 apiece — actually better than I'd expected. The standard 20-inch size costs $343 a pop. As of the car's release, there are no all-season or winter tires available for either diameter, but Bentley says we'll see winter tires before the first winter. Granted, this car would be no one's first choice for winter use, but the all-wheel drive and height-adjustable air suspension are certainly tempting for buyers who experience at least occasional winter conditions, for which summer tires are simply unfit.

Ride & Controls

Despite the striking 21-inch wheels, the GT's ride quality was quite good, thanks in part to the adaptive suspension, though its adjustment is frustrated by its reliance on the touch-screen display. The physical center-console button with a shock-absorber icon merely calls up an onscreen menu with a four-position slider bar on it — too many steps for this feature.

Ride adjustments ought to have an easily reached physical control, especially when the touch-screen is as unresponsive as the Continental's. Here's a classic example of two steps forward and one back: The new screen replaces an old-style display that was flanked by physical "soft keys." This part is good. The delay in response after you push on the new screen is quite bad. First you push, then you wait a half-second before hearing a confirmation beep, and then you wait another beat before the action goes through. This behavior plagues most aspects of the new navigation and control system, which is further frustrated by a pair of small, slippery knobs that aren't knurled enough to grab if you have callused fingertips (weekend mechanics and guitar players, take note).

If you think I'm nitpicking too much by focusing on this stuff in a $190,000 car ($216,560 as tested), you've never met someone who has spent $190,000 on a car. The same goes for the cupholders, which are minimally improved over the old ones; somewhere in the world there's a decanter small enough for these things, but it's not in the USA. If issues like these annoy in an economy car, they madden in an ultra-luxury model.

A Whale of a Cabin

Otherwise, the interior looks great, with a welcome range of available appointments, from warm tones and wood trim to the contemporary gray-black leather and piano-black trim of our test car. Our leather was designated "Beluga," which is a type of whale, but Bentley says Beluga refers to Beluga caviar, which is a similar black color — and comes from a sturgeon, incidentally, not a whale. That covers all the bases, I suppose. No whales were harmed in the making of this car. As for the cows … it didn't work out as well for them.

The entire interior is nicely executed, and as a bonus, the various displays no longer have a distinctive Audi appearance, which always reminded me of the previous generation's corporate parent. There's no crime in sharing parts and technology, but it's a little unnerving to be reminded of it regularly — like the characteristic BMW chime that you hear when you open the door of a current Rolls-Royce.

The Continental's two-passenger backseat has gained a little more legroom, mainly due to resculpted front seats. At 6 feet tall, I was surprised by how workable the space was when the front occupant was willing to share some legroom.

Features & Options

By bundling more features into option packages, Bentley has thwarted my practice of listing outrageously expensive individual options. For example, our test car had a package called "Dealer Demo Sport Specification — MDS Polished Wheel" for $12,220 that included the 21-inch wheels, chromed lower bumper grille, a backup camera, front-seat ventilation and massage functions, alloy sport pedals, a knurled sports gear lever, an aluminum fuel-filler cap, quilted leather, a sculpted headliner, Bentley emblems on the head restraints, deep-pile floormats and piano-black trim.

All I can really pick on is the $1,830 contrast stitching, which is a lot for thread. Yes, it's hand-stitched, but so would be the matching color. Individual options not on our car include more premium "cross stitching" on the seats and doors for $3,470, and carbon-ceramic brakes that start at $13,335. Click on the Available Options button above to see a full list, including several customizable options.

Our car also had the Naim for Bentley premium audio system, which sounds better than the previous generation did, but the $7,015 is hard to swallow just on performance grounds. The stock stereo, which I haven't tested, would have to be truly dismal to make this expense worthwhile.

Safety

The Continental GT's airbags include frontal ones, front-seat-mounted side-impact bags, side curtains and a driver's knee airbag. Though it's not a new development for this model, all 2012 vehicles are required to include antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control as standard features.

Continental GT in the Market

Automakers don't always get it right the first time, though in this case they clearly got it right enough to appeal to buyers. In my estimation, the second-generation is much greater than the sum of its various improvements. It looks great, drives better and expands its appeal, just in time to fend off competitors that saw the car's success and dove into the market.

Snapshot:

Starting MSRP $189,900

MPG

City: 12

Highway: 19

Available Engines

567-hp, 6.0-liter W-12 (flexible; E85)

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