History repeats itself with Bentley's Continental GT
For a while, Bentley lost its mojo. Just a little bit.
It was ensconced under the Rolls-Royce moniker for a long time and, even as it was sold to the Volkswagen group in 1998, it lacked a bit of direction. After setting the gold standard for speed and racing in the early 20th century, the marque had been getting soft and staid. But that's all changed in the past decade.
Having shed its dusty, decades-old corporate overcoat, Bentley has revealed a gleaming, gladiatorial physique. Its trajectory towards a golden, celebrity-studded future seems unstoppable, even in these uncertain times. The marque has returned to its roots of sport luxury touring on a grand scale; on planet Bentley, the only thing that's been cut back is austerity itself.
The face of that change is the Continental GT. It harks back to the heyday of the Grand Tour, when the likes of Noël Coward would cruise the palm-spiked shores of the Riviera or the snowy passes of St Moritz with nothing but a Louis Vuitton valise for company. Unfortunately, today's grand tours would probably involve extended shopping trips around Knightsbridge and Manhattan in the company of Paris Hilton, Kieron Dyer or Ghostface Killah, all Bentley aficionados. That, however is not the car's fault, and so with a tip of our flat caps, it was decided the new GT should have a tour worthy of its adventurous heritage.
Nowhere in its leather-encased manual does it say you cannot take this 2.3 tonne supercar off-road. So with that loophole firmly established, why not take a decidedly adventurous drive down Wadi Bih?
But first, with such low chassis clearance and low-profile tyres, it was important to litmus-test the car's off-road capability and, because it's a Bentley, location is everything. To get to the Six Senses Hideaway Resort in Zighy Bay in Oman, you must first traverse the mountain that separates the sea from the Hajjar mountain range. Although barely graded, the track is steep enough to warrant signing a disclaimer form at the entrance before attempting to drive up it in your own vehicle, and most that attempt the climb do so in a real 4x4.
Still, the GT is armed with all-wheel drive and enough torque to bend time, and once the horrendous speed bumps and cattle-grid had been negotiated it was all about trying not to fly off the corners and into thin air.
Despite the lack of smooth asphalt, a magnificent suspension makes the ride incredibly calm. Each wheel is adjusted accordingly, 600 times per second; difficult to judge, but it's written in the manual so it must be true, surely.
Such was the GT's affinity for steep track, loose gravel and rain-carved ruts that there was a temptation to let rip. The grippy seats and sense of invulnerability of being inside a cocoon of pure, engineered money gives you false confidence, but then nearly flying off a corner and into the valley hundreds of metres below will tend to bring you back to reality fairly sharpish.
Tourists in a Nissan Patrol hunkered past the car at the viewing station at the top, faces pressed to the SUV's glass, the extraordinary vista of the Indian Ocean lapping against the Omani shoreline lost in the golden glare of the Bentley and its sheer, unbridled opulence. At least that's how we perceived it from our side of the glass.
Having avoided the temptation to rally the car to the bottom of Zighy Bay, we glided into the resort to be welcomed by impossibly high humidity and an honour guard of staff, who clearly knew a good thing when they see it.
It's unclear what the boys in Crewe (Bentley's HQ in Cheshire, UK) had in mind when designing this extraordinary car. The interior is like sitting inside the world's most luxurious golf shoe, the touch screen navigation and entertainment system are sublime, but the dominant aspect is the scent. The car reeks of money, the leather oozes a luxury pheromone that forces you to stay in your seat, your brain addled by the stupendous amount of cash that must have gone into the leather detailing. Stitching has never been so mesmerising. By now, the technical aspects are moot; it would seem uncouth to ask about fuel economy or question the necessity of the lovely 567hp from its 6.0L W12 engine or the fact that once your suitcase is in the back you'll be on your merry way in a blistering 0-to-96 kph in 4.6 seconds.
The GT's styling is not subtle; the 22-inch radials peek out of the muscular wheel arches like Veronica Lake's legs from a ball gown. A promise of excitement and danger. In metallic gold, the car looks like a cruise missile as imagined by Van Cleef & Arpels, and even when the engine is switched off you sense it may bite.
Once the Zighy Bay trial was out of the way it was back to the valley floor and on to Wadi Bih. The Six Senses Hideaway was a thoroughly civilised way to start the drive - the resort staff even washed the car. But soon we're heading at high speed into the jaws of the wadi, leaving behind a plume of dust rising into the clear sky like a skip full of burning dirham notes.
Park your gold Bentley outside Harrod's in London on a Saturday afternoon and it will hardly elicit a glance, its sleek styling and unquestionable breeding lost in urban anonymity. Park the same car next to the sheer, elemental cliffs of Wadi Bih and the effect is shattering. Against the ancient rock, the styling is hyper-accentuated. In this lost valley, the car is about as out of place as the England squad in a World Cup final; it's a mirage.
And there is another, unexpected windfall to taking this GT out into this natural amphitheatre of rock; when pushed, the engine snarls like a tiger, and this music rebounds off the steep walls of the wadi and results in what feels like a minor earthquake.
As we progressed deeper and steeper into Bih, the Bentley began to settle into its environment: the tyres were no longer strafing the walls with tiny rocks and the bumps and bangs had gone. The enormous weight and power of the car makes it a solid proposition and, with a nod to the 1950s classic film Wages of Fear, we decided to test the theory of optimum speed over uneven ground. In the film, Yves Montand maintains a steady 100kph across a stretch of corrugated road known as the Washboard; at this speed the rattling lorry full of high-explosive steadies out and he avoids blowing himself up. The GT is no rattling truck, and at 130kph things become positively serene, instantly and surprisingly elevating the Bentley to our all-time off-road vehicle of choice.
As the day progressed and the sun rose higher, the wadi turned into a furnace, flash-flooded with a 48° Celsius river of heat. After an hour or so we rolled up next to some military types in a tricked-out army SUV, but the men inside looked unsurprised by the Bentley. They asked where we were going, and we told them we're on a picnic. That got the thumbs up; everyone loves a picnic.
On the highest point of the wadi the view is incredible: one part Grand Canyon, one part lunar landscape. There are ancient, abandoned small holdings now inhabited by goats too happily employed in extreme, high-altitude shrub detection to notice our presence.
The Oman/UAE border crossing has been closed to non-GCC nationals for more than a year, and we knew that before the trip. But we had hoped that the stupendous sight of the GT emerging from the shimmering heat, Omar Sharif-style, would be enough to warrant a polite doffing of a hat and a wave through. Unfortunately not. The border guard flagged us down and asked to see some identification, then asked if the car was an Aston Martin. I let the question hang in the air for a second. "Actually officer, it's a Bentley, and we'd like to go to RAK please."
"Sorry," he said, shaking his head. "Road closed, you must go back to Dibba."
Naturally, I kept my thoughts about the Aston comment in my head: "Like we'd bring an Aston down here, are you mad? It wouldn't get more than 20 feet before throwing a hissy fit." Instead, I nodded, engaged reverse, cranked up the air conditioning, turned up a Warren Zevon track and headed back into the rocky ravine, making our way back along the 25km or so route that we had traversed.
It may not be environmentally or morally sound or even just plain sensible to drive around a rough mountain pass in a car inches away from a cool Dh1 million, but once you have you'll want to do it again. Although the UAE is home to plenty of luxury cars, and it's lovely to see them grazing in their natural five-star hotel environment, once in a while it's good to reflect on the very nature of Bentley's long and great heritage; and that is the pure spirit of adventure.
Published: August 6, 2011 04:00 AM