The Bentley Continental GT is a monumental departure for this conservative British builder of ultra-rare and luxurious cars: It brings an entirely new look with hints of old Bentleys, uses completely different technology than traditional models and targets a younger buyer with a six-figure price tag that's almost half that of other Bentleys.

A limited-production Diamond Series has been added for 2006. Only 400 will be made in commemoration of 60 years of production at the company's Crewe, England, facility.

The Diamond Series is based on the 2007 model-year Continental GT Mulliner Driving Specification, which differs from the standard Continental GT mainly in interior trim -- it features diamond-quilted leather on doors and seats, drilled alloy pedals, a leather-and-chrome transmission lever and dark-stained walnut or piano-black wood trim.

Features unique to the Continental GT Diamond Series include special carbon ceramic brake discs, 20-inch, 14-spoke alloy wheels, three new colors (in addition to the existing 15) and various insignia.

The Continental GT is the first Bentley to use a compact 6.0-liter W12 engine and all-wheel drive instead of traditional V8s or V12s and rear-wheel drive. The innovative engine and AWD system were developed by Bentley but are based on technology originally created by Volkswagen, which has owned Bentley since 1998.

The 552-hp twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter W12 is basically two V6 engines attached side by side. It's more compact than a traditional V12 -- which is typically longer by comparison, with two banks of six cylinders each, rather than four banks of three cylinders -- and allows for more efficient packaging and a larger interior. One feature that comes as a result of the efficient layout (and that isn't often seen on exotic cars) is the Continental GT's rear-seat trunk pass-through. It allows skis and other long, narrow objects to be carried in the trunk.

AWD was chosen over RWD because it transfers the engine's monstrous power more safely and effectively to the road. Sophisticated stability control, traction control and braking systems further enhance safety. The former two can be disabled to explore handling limits without electronic traction aids.

Bentley heralds the Continental GT as a modern evolution of classic Bentley coupes -- such as the 1928 Speed Six and 1950 R-Type Continental -- with a new look that retains some traditional styling cues. These include flowing lines over the wheel arches, the prominent mesh grille, a pillar-less side-window area and four round headlights, with the inner two larger than the outer two.

But the overall shape of the car is distinctly un-Bentley, lacking the long hood and elegant rear end of older models. The compact W12 engine is the culprit: Past Bentleys required long hoods and engine compartments to accommodate their big V8 and V12 engines.

With supercar performance and handing, limousine-like luxury and four seats, the Continental GT is a well-rounded alternative to similarly priced hard-core exotic sports cars from Aston Martin, Ferrari and Maserati. Its standard six-speed Tiptronic automatic is convenient and can be shifted manually using paddles behind the steering wheel or the gearshift lever between the front seats.

Occupants sit higher and more upright than in lower-slung sports cars. The computer-controlled suspension system is infinitely adjustable, using sensors that track wheel and body motion to regulate compliance, depending on road conditions.

The interior is sumptuous and impeccably crafted, with buttery leather, rich wood and polished aluminum trim. The symmetric dashboard mimics Bentley's winged logo and blends classic and modern style. Two front airbags, as well as side and side-curtain airbags for all occupants, are standard.

Ninety percent of all Bentleys are customized beyond the staggering standard list of interior trim and exterior paint choices, with the company’s Mulliner division able to satisfy virtually any whim.

Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy estimates of 12 mpg city/19 mpg highway subject the Continental GT to a federal gas-guzzler tax.

A convertible version of the Continental GT, called the Continental GTC, will be introduced later this year as a 2007 model.

Is the Continental GT for You?

Buy this Vehicle if - You're considering an Aston Martin, Ferrari or Maserati but want added comfort and convenience; you want to stand out; fuel economy isn't a concern; you demand customization of the minutest detail.

Keep Looking if - You miss the classic look and proportions of older Bentleys; you need space for five occupants; you prefer RWD and/or manual transmissions; fuel economy is a concern.

Who Fits? - Four occupants will be coddled in luxury, but taller occupants might feel cramped in the backseat; ample steering wheel and seat adjustments accommodate all body sizes in the front.

Options Worth Splurging on - Front-seat lumbar massage; heated steering wheel.

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