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2020 Bentley Continental GT first drive review: Grander touring

On winding Alpine pass or smooth Italian autostrada, there’s no better way to blast across Europe than in Bentley’s exquisite new Continental GT.

2020 Bentley Continental GT
Richard Pardon

It's starting to drizzle as I pull through the toll booth and begin my ascent up Austria's Grossglockner High Alpine Road. Thick fog obscures the view of the mountaintops ahead, and each new mile reveals ribbons of impeccable pavement that appear to have been lovingly drizzled onto the side of this particularly picturesque portion of the Alps.

The Grossglockner's 36 turns will take me 8,200 feet above sea level and back down again, each hairpin apex offering a vista somehow more breathtaking than the last. It's the sort of road that immediately comes to mind when you close your eyes and imagine a luxurious day of European grand touring in an exquisite machine like the new Bentley Continental GT.

That this road was used for testing during the new Continental GT's development is no mere coincidence. And it's up here, high above the quaint Alpine villages, where Bentley's new GT shows its improved reflexes, a newfound sense of athleticism that's perfectly dialed into an unflappably luxurious experience.

Redesigning an icon

The Continental GT was the first Bentley to launch under Volkswagen AG ownership, and since its introduction in 2003, some 70,000 have been sold worldwide. That's a relatively small number in the grand scheme of things, but a huge amount for an ultra-premium, small-volume marque like Bentley. It is arguably the automaker's most important product to date; Bentley designers lovingly refer to the Continental as their "icon."

Indeed, even before the Continental GT's improved on-road enthusiasm or its sumptuous interior have a chance to seal the deal, it's the design that'll grab your attention. Just stop for a moment and take it all in -- the long dash-to-axle ratio, the prominent haunch over the rear wheel, the way the roofline dissolves into a fastback swoop down to the short rear deck. This coupe is stunning to behold.

I'll admit, the dead-on front and rear views are still a little odd and, dare I say, bulbous, but from every other angle, and especially the rear three-quarter, the new Continental GT is a real beaut. Incredible crystal-like detailing in the head- and taillight clusters give the coupe a real presence on the road, though the full-matrix LED headlamps sadly won't make their way Stateside (blame current legislation, not Bentley). The impressive body sculpting is the result of Bentley's "superforming" technique, where huge, solid pieces of aluminum fit together with minimal cutlines and blend both sharp creases and smooth surfaces. The result is a car that has tremendous curb appeal.

Newfound enthusiasm

Beneath the 2020 Continental GT's longer, lower hood sits a familiar engine: Bentley's 6.0-liter twin-turbocharged W12, which now uses both direct and port fuel injection and boasts an impressive 626 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque. That's an increase of 44 horsepower and 133 pound-feet over the previous Continental, and paired with a new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive, is enough to propel this 4,947-pound coupe to 60 miles per hour in just 3.6 seconds.

Not that I'm performing any sort of daft, full-throttle maneuvers on my way up the Grossglockner, mind you. The long travel of the gas pedal makes it easy to modulate the engine's thrust. It all comes on with a progressive rush, and a pronounced whistle from the turbochargers as they breathe in the mountain air. In Sport mode, that wealth of power is accompanied by a robust exhaust note, one that has me revving to the high end of each gear before letting off the throttle just so I can hear some burbling on overrun.

Bentley's reworked 6.0-liter W12 uses two turbochargers, direct and port fuel injection, and makes an impressive 626 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque.

Richard Pardon

The 2020 Continental GT rides on Volkswagen Group's MSB architecture, found elsewhere underneath the new Porsche Panamera. So while the new Bentley is only 1.7 inches longer than its predecessor, there's a 4.1-inch increase in wheelbase. The W12 engine is positioned lower and further back in the chassis, which helps with overall weight distribution; Bentley says the Continental GT's front/rear balance improves from 58:42 in the outgoing car to 55:45 here. And speaking of weight, thanks to a greater use of aluminum throughout the body, the new Continental sheds some 170 pounds of mass in this new generation, despite its larger footprint.

While the old Continental was locked into a permanent 40:60 front/rear torque split, the new GT primarily acts as a rear-wheel drive car, only sending minor amounts of power to the front wheels when slip is detected. A maximum of 38 percent of the available torque can be moved forward at any time; in Sport mode, that number decreases to just 17 percent.

It only takes a few sharp turns up the Grossglockner to notice this improved balance. The front end is lighter, eager to dive into a turn and much more willing to rotate around tight bends. Bentley's engineers say it's possible to drift the Continental GT, but I'm not detecting even the faintest whiff of rear-end slip as I blast along the soaking wet asphalt. The fat contact patches of the GT's 275/35-series front and 315/30-series Z-rated Pirelli tires deserve a nod here, too.

Never has a two-and-a-half-ton Bentley attacked winding roads with such enthusiasm.

Richard Pardon

A big boon for handling comes via Bentley's 48-volt active antiroll bars -- first seen on the Bentayga SUV -- that adapt body motions based on road conditions and the selected driving mode. Appropriate amounts of waft accompany the ride in Comfort mode on smooth surfaces, but along technical Alpine roads with the diamond-knurled drive mode dial set to Sport, nary a hint of unwanted roll hinders the Conti's reflexes. On top of that, brake-based torque vectoring can restrict power delivery to individual wheels to help with mid-corner precision.

Speaking of brakes, Bentley fits the Continental GT with its largest iron stoppers ever, with massive, 16.5-inch rotors up front with 10-piston calipers, and 15-inch rotors out back, with four-piston calipers. The GT can hit a top speed of 207 mph, so you'll appreciate those huge, powerful brakes when it's time to slow this two-and-a-half-ton coupe with a quickness. And considering how effortless this Bentley is as a high-speed cruiser, you'll have no trouble digging deeper and deeper into the huge reserve of power as the countryside along your local autobahn becomes a vivid blur.

From the diamond knurling on the switchgear to the sumptuous leather on the seats, this cabin is absolutely befitting of a $200,000 car.

Richard Pardon

Incredible luxury, familiar tech

Every inch of the Continental GT's cockpit is shod in the finest materials. Each part is fitted together by hand, every stitch lovingly sewn by the talented ladies and gentlemen at Bentley's factory in Crewe, England. The overall interior design has a more contemporary appearance than before, yet the richness of the wood veneers and leather hides speaks to Bentley's century-old tradition of providing truly coachbuilt products.

Of particular interest here is the new double-diamond door stitch pattern, which Bentley's craftspeople spent over a year developing. (And should you ever pull that leather back from the panel, you'll see the signatures of the folks who stitched it.) The aforementioned diamond knurling on the dials and steering column stalks is a beautiful bit of detailed brightwork, as is the optional Côtes de Genève textured metal finishing on the center console, a bit of design brought over from watchmaking. The flat, angled surface of the console is reminiscent of the Porsche Panamera, though instead of flush-mounted controls with haptic feedback, there are cut-out buttons that have a decidedly unsatisfying click to their action. It's an un-Bentley-like experience in an otherwise phenomenal cabin.

It took Bentley's team over a year to perfect this double-diamond leather stitch pattern.

Richard Pardon

The centerpiece of the new Continental GT's interior is the $6,270 Bentley Rotating Display. Front and center in the dash, the mechanism is powered by two electric motors and has 40 moving parts. When the car is off, its flat surface matches the design of the rest of the dash, for a continuous, flush-mounted appearance. Turn the car on, and the whole piece silently rotates to reveal a 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment display. Press the Screen button on the left of the fixed row of shortcut controls below, and it rotates a third time, revealing a trio of stylized analog dials that show ambient temperature, a compass and chronometer.

If that 12.3-inch infotainment display looks familiar, it's because it's a Bentley-skinned version of what Porsche uses in the Panamera, with high-resolution graphics and quick response to inputs. Of course, that also means Android Auto isn't part of the equation, though Apple CarPlay comes standard.

A Bentley-specific version of Porsche's new infotainment system is housed in a 12.3-inch touchscreen, itself part of the $6,270 Bentley Rotating Display.

Richard Pardon

More borrowed tech is found in front of the driver, where the Continental's standard digital instrument panel is pretty much a Bentley-fied version of Audi's Virtual Cockpit. Again, not a bad thing -- the large speedometer and tachometer displays have Bentley-appropriate fonts and design detail, and the central display can show navigation, audio, communication or vehicle data.

Elsewhere, Bentley brings the Continental GT into the 21st century with a host of driver assistance tech, including a full-color head-up display, night vision, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and traffic sign recognition.

On the entertainment front, a choice of three sound systems can pump out the jams, with Bentley's highest-end Naim option featuring 18 speakers and 2,200 watts of power. Not that you'll need to crank your tunes, considering how quiet the cabin is. With new laminated glass that reduces exterior noise by 9 decibels, the Continental GT is library quiet at all times.

This is grand touring at its finest.

Richard Pardon

A sense of occasion

All of this grandeur is befitting of a car that will cost $214,600 when it arrives Stateside in spring 2019. And while you can certainly argue that an Aston Martin DB11 or Mercedes-AMG S65 Coupe check the same boxes for the same price, neither can match the Continental GT's sense of occasion, the aura of privilege and exclusivity that surrounds a beautiful car with a Flying B on its prow.

Even in six-figure territory, you can't put a price on that.

Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

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