Marrying old-world luxury with modern technology is one of the more difficult challenges facing designers these days. The folks at the Bentley plant, experts in wood, polished metal, and leather coachwork, now have to set a touch-screen LCD among these natural materials. Even in the $200,000 Continental GT, it comes off as an uneasy partnership.
The cabin of the 2012 Continental GT tested by CNET sports tasteful metal buttons and dials. A glass B emblem tops the metal gearshift, and metal organ-stop pulls open the vents. The color of the leather lining the cabin of CNET's car was called Beluga, something to which potential buyers of this car can relate.
And there, in the center of the dashboard, sat a touch-screen LCD, plastic buttons along its base clashing with the polished metal used elsewhere. Displayed on that screen were the bright colors and cartoonish design of the maps I've become familiar with from driving various Volkswagen models. And those cars cost a lot less than the Continental GT.
Volkswagen owns Bentley, so there is no mystery about how this navigation system got into the car. It is perfectly serviceable, showing graphics for upcoming turns and suggesting appropriate lanes for freeway junctions. It also includes traffic data, changing the route dynamically if there is a traffic jam ahead.
But what looks fine in a $25,000 Passat seems too common for the Continental GT. In a car like this, I would want something that looks like it was designed by Q for James Bond. Or, at least, give me the very excellent navigation electronics used by Audi, another Volkswagen property. Bentley's navigation system doesn't even have Internet-connected local search, instead relying on a static points-of-interest database.
Where the Continental GT's cabin electronics really excel is in the Naim Audio system. Audio is an area where electronics and luxury have progressed hand in hand, and Bentley partnered with one of the best. U.K.-based Naim Audio produces audiophile-quality amps and CD players, and designed a system with 1,100 watts and 11 speakers for Bentley.
Listening to Kruder & Dorfmeister's "The K&D Sessions," I was blown away by the system's capability to elevate vocals in these multilayered tracks. Bass held a quiet intensity that felt more like a body-molding mattress than a punch to the gut. The Naim audio system in the Continental GT stands with Bang & Olufsen's Audi systems as the best I have heard, but the Naim system handles medium-bit-rate MP3s better, covering over some of the inherent flaws from this compressed format.
And the Continental GT's stereo accepts all the modern digital=audio sources, including Bluetooth streaming, iPod, and HD Radio, while the car's own navigation hard drive offers room for digital tracks. The Naim system includes a six-CD changer in the glove box, right next to an audio port I know well from Volkswagen and Audi models. This proprietary port accepts adapter cables for iPod, USB, and other audio connectors. Its main fault is, as it's in the glove box, I had to stretch across the car every time I wanted to plug in or unplug my iPhone.
The Bluetooth phone system also works as expected, but offers one surprise. Bentley includes a handset docked in the car's center console. I could make calls using the microphone and speakers set into the cabin of the car, or I could use this handset. It does fall under California's law against using a handset while driving, but it would allow a passenger to take a call without bothering the driver quite so much.
Voice command worked well with the phone system, but in a bit of a letdown, did not control any of the other electronic features in the car. For example, I couldn't enter an address to the navigation system through voice.
Cruising down the freeway, I took advantage of the Continental GT's adaptive cruise control, one of the more advanced tech features Bentley managed to get into the car. At a speed of 65 mph, the big 6-liter twin-turbo W-12 kept the car quietly thrumming along, automatically matching speeds with slower traffic in front so I could listen to music over the stereo undisturbed.
Looking under the hood, I was impressed by the packaging of this engine. Volkswagen boasts about the compact design of the W-12, which was apparent even through all the plastic cladding.
The Continental GT keeps its 567 horsepower and 512 pound-feet of torque very manageable in everyday driving, largely through the grace of the six-speed automatic transmission, which is exceedingly well-matched with the engine. Acceleration is very smooth in the standard drive mode, and the huge power from the engine means the car climbs hills with no apparent effort.
The size of the car is not overwhelming either, despite its presence, making it easy to maneuver through city traffic. The wide side mirrors made it easy to see traffic to either side, although I still would like to see a blind-spot detection system here. The reverse camera is quite good, showing trajectory and distance lines. But considering a dinged fender will cost about as much as a new hatchback to repair, a surround-view camera system would also be nice.
Double-glazed windows and intense sound deadening contribute to a comfortable ride, but the suspension, in its softest mode, didn't completely isolate me from rough patches in the road. There was still a palpable feel of the car dealing with potholes and the like.
Bentley gives the Continental GT an adjustable suspension, with four settings from Comfort to Sport, and here are my two gripes about this system. First of all, I cannot imagine a Goldilocks sitting in the car, running through the different adjustments and thinking, "This one is too soft, and this one is too hard, but this one in the middle is just right." Bentley should really just make it a two-setting system.
Second, Bentley puts the setting adjustment on the touch screen, which is difficult to use while underway. I would much rather have the button, which brings up that screen, cycle through the different suspension settings. That way I wouldn't have to look at the screen as I am about to head down a particularly exciting bit of road.
And speaking of the Continental GT's sport handling, it came as a surprise that it could feel so light and easy through the corners. Something about the big rear fenders and upright wire grille give it the presence of a large car, the big 21-inch wheels adding to that effect. In normal driving, it feels very deliberate.
But things changed dramatically when I slipped the shifter into the S position and used that annoying screen interface to tighten up the suspension. The car became a little unruly at low speeds. The engine growled loud enough to hear through the thick windows and leather-lined everything, and wanted to deliver a big power spike every time I touched the gas pedal.
With the speed up, it flowed easily down narrow mountain roads, the 567 horsepower delivering more than enough push. And going into the turns, the car suddenly felt like a lightweight sports car. I could hear the tires whining, but the Continental GT felt eerily composed.
The adaptive suspension and Bentley's standard all-wheel-drive system were playing their parts in keeping the big car pointed where I wanted it. Likewise, the transmission, despite being an automatic, delivered fast, hard shifts when I hit the column-mounted paddles. Some of the Continental GT's cabin tech may not be first-rate, but its driving tech certainly is.
The 2012 Bentley Continental GT's performance gear, including all-wheel drive, transmission, and suspension, works sublimely together to deliver an excellent driving experience. The engine, while very powerful, is not the most economical around.
In the cabin, the Naim Audio system serves as a tent pole, offering a sublime listening experience, while other electronics let down the side a bit. The phone and navigation systems work just fine, but are a little average for such a pricey car.
|Model||2012 Bentley Continental GT|
|Power train||Twin turbocharged 6-liter W-12 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||12 mpg city/19 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||Not recorded|
|Navigation||Standard hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, SD card, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Naim 1,100-watt 11-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$222,565|