2011 Bentley Continental GT3
As I made my way from Nizwa to Muscat with Brian Gush, Bentley's man in charge of power trains, chassis and motorsports, as my passenger, we chatted about all sorts of things - and the topic that I can share with you is all the little improvements that have been made to the latest Continental GT coupe.
It was already an amazing car, a powerful, all-wheel-drive tourer that hugged the roads with the grip of the boa constrictor. The styling was already superbly luxurious with quilted leather seats, a hooded leather-and-wood dashboard, retro-fabulous analogue clock and chrome gear shifter. The paddle shifters that you could hang your coat on are still there, albeit my small hands prefer using the shifter on the floor for sequential changes. It has a design that is informed by the 1950s Bentley R-Type but is still very much a car for this century. These features have all remained.
But the horsepower is now up to 575hp from 550hp and torque is up to 700Nm from 650Nm. The rear spoiler can be raised at the touch of a button - but one with a strange logo that looks like a teardrop - and the engine note when you floor it in sports mode is almost poetic.
The gearbox remains resolutely at six speeds; Gush says it is working very well with the W12 engine and Bentley has no plans to ape Mercedes with a seven-speed transmission or stablemate Audi with an eight-speed box, and why should it? Gear changes on the Continental take around 1/200 of a second. Seamless may be a cliche but it fits nicely here.
The power ratio is split 40 per cent to the front wheels and 60 per cent to the rear for thrilling, if controlled corners, of which we experienced plenty on the roads between Muscat and Nizwa. Oh, for such driver-oriented roads in the UAE, the occasional surprise appearance by a goat notwithstanding.
Fuel economy has been improved by around 15 per cent - "and we are getting better and better every year," said Gush, when I noticed we'd driven close to 200 klicks on less than a quarter of a tank. OK, so it's not yet Prius-baiting fuel economy, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. The 6.0L W12 engine can run on petrol, bioethanol fuel or a combination of the two.
Despite being wider and higher, the car is also 60kg lighter and part of this is because of better-designed front seats that also allow for expanded legroom in the back. Every manufacturer that makes a coupe with a backseat claims it can fit two adults in comfort, but this one really delivers without the passengers having to take their knees off.
These new seats, still as quilted and lovely as before, also incorporates an excellent new massage feature. With the touch of a button, it puts deep pressure on different points all over the back and shoulder blades for 10 minutes, rather like one of those massages you get in the expensive seats on an aeroplane.
It is very much a driver's car and the dials are now more user-friendly - they are easy to read and are not sunk as deep into the panel as they were before. I may be long-sighted but it is good to have the speedo and tacho right where you can see them.
Gush says that, while some fortunate souls have a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley in their collection, overall very different people buy either of these two former stablemates. The Roller tends to be purchased by those who prefer to be driven while the Bentley, especially with its motorsport heritage, is a car that is purchased by people who want to be in control of their machine.
But like Rolls-Royce, there is a very wide scope for flexibility with interior colour choices in a Bentley. If you want a purple and green festival of colour, as one rich, eccentric Wimbledon tennis fan is rumoured to have, it's yours. As such, the first Continental I drove on the day had a bright red interior that extended to the ceiling and plush carpet that would not look out of place at a Hollywood premiere.
It is this brashness that means you will see more young celebrity types splurge on a Bentley rather than the more staid Rolls-Royce. Bentley is the brand that launched a special Hello Kitty edition, after all.
But even though the Hello Kitty-mobile did make me scoff, choke on my tea and say "Really?", it is representative of a brand that attracts young money. The second Continental I drove on the day had a more sober tan leather interior, but it was a brash, permatan brown that made me smile and pretend I was some young starlet.
While I will not be at all stunned if and when I read that Paris Hilton has bought one of these and found a way to reverse it over a fire hydrant or into a parked car, she might be pleased to know there is an element of the nanny state in this Bentley.
In any case, at high speeds on hot Middle Eastern roads, it may flash up a warning about not driving so fast in case of low tyre pressure. According to the immaculate little information screen on the dash, a stunning graphic informed us that the tyre pressure was fine, but you can't be too careful with your rubber in this part of the world.
There is also a system that will brake the car if you risk rear-ending another car - another function that is becoming very common. I am not convinced this will help people to become better drivers, but given the state of several crumpled Bentleys I saw when I visited the Musaffah Bentley workshop this year, it is probably a good idea in the UAE market.
It is indeed a stunning car and a pleasure to drive on sweeping, bending roads. Here's hoping those sold in the UAE only end up in Musaffah for a service.
Price base / as tested Dh900,000 / Dh950,000
Engine 6.0L W12 turbo
Gearbox six-speed automatic
Power 575hp @ 6,100rpm
Torque 700Nm @ 3,500rpm
Fuel economy, combined 16.5L / 100km
Published: November 3, 2010 04:00 AM