First Drive: 2011 Bentley Continental GT

The Velvet Saber Gets a Comprehensive Sharpening

2011 Bentley Continental GT – Click above for high-res image gallery

When tasked with creating the 2011 Continental GT, Bentley officials sought the assistance of those who knew the outgoing car best – its owners. Upon querying current and past GT buyers about what they'd like to see in the new model, a surprisingly unified voice came back loud and clear: "Don't screw up my car, but fix the sat-nav." As far as owner surveys go, this type of response speaks volumes. Most apparent is that it speaks to the universal inadequacy of the outgoing car's wayfinding electronics, but more importantly, it serves to underscore just how much of a bull's-eye Bentley hit with the original model back in 2003. After all, who among us couldn't think of a laundry list of improvements for our daily driver? This also goes some way toward explaining how the GT has been on the market for eight years, yet it has still sold in respectable numbers.

Of course, given ever-toughening emissions and crash standards to contend with, Bentley couldn't simply shove a new infotainment system in the Conti's dashboard and amble off to the pub job-done, so they set about improving the car in a million little ways so that it's at once clearly new and fresh to the faithful, yet endearingly familiar. Surprisingly, much the same can be said for the Sultanate of Oman where Bentley hosted our first drive...

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Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Paukert / AOL and Bentley

Bordered by Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Oman is one of the fastest growing economies among the Middle East's oil-bearing nations. Because its economy has developed almost entirely in the last 40 years while casting a steady eye on the rest of the globe, there are significant linkages to the Western world in the capital of Muscat – this, despite its Islamic ties and otherworldly desert landscape.

In other words, Muscat is clearly a modern city, yet it's familiar enough that first-time visitors feel surprisingly at home in short order. Most of Muscat's buildings are new – if done in traditional forms – and there is an unexpected (if somewhat disturbing) amount of familiar signage for everything from Shell gas to Subway sandwich shops that help us Westerners get our bearings. Even the motoring behavior is similar, with left-hand drive cars and trucks and surprisingly continental driving styles (albeit punctuated by the periodic near-suicidal passing attempts). Better still, the infrastructure is among the best we've ever encountered, with an expansive road network that appeared to have been laid down in the weeks leading up to our arrival.

Despite boasting all-new sheetmetal thanks in part to its "Superformed" aluminum fenders, hood and trunk lid, the 2011 Continental GT is clearly a measured update of the outgoing car. This has been done on purpose, as the exit car's fluid styling was arguably the single attribute that owners most wanted to protect. To that end, Bentley's designers have done a bang-up job subtly but completely reworking the coupe's shape without corrupting the original's design's ethos.

Admittedly, much of the GT's predecessor's organic Rubenesque form has given way to crisper edges, and with a 41 mm wider track at the front and 48 mm wider rump, the car definitely looks broader and a bit flatter – especially with its more vertical grille. We have to admit that the GT's changes didn't strike us as terribly attractive when we first saw early photos of the car, but upon viewing it in the metal under Oman's harshly omnipresent sun, it's quite handsome and markedly more aggressive than its predecessor. We're still not quite sold on the 'bigs and littles' headlight treatment – particularly when viewed from certain off-center angles – but it's still a good-looking piece, and with a smoother underbelly, it looks better to the wind, too, registering a cD of .33. Overall, despite a wholesale change in sheetmetal, there's no mistaking this for anything but a Continental.

2011 Bentley Continental GT

There was little wrong with last year's powertrain combination, but Bentley's engineers have effected a raft of changes that add up to 567 brake horsepower (@ 6,000 rpm) and 516 pound-feet of torque (@ 1,700 rpm) from the flex-fuel 6.0-liter W12 engine – an increase of 15 hp and 37 lb-ft, respectively. And while the ZF automatic gearbox still only has six ratios, tugs on the batwing paddles are met with 200-millisecond shift times (quicker by 50 percent) and double-downshift capability – useful facility when you're attempting to pass multiple vehicles in one go. That power is mainlined to all four wheels with a 40:60 front-to-rear standard torque split, a change from the old car's 50:50 distribution that curbs understeer and enables a bit more adjustability with the throttle.

Critically, Bentley hasn't just ladled on a raft of new features and more power for 2012, it's also put the GT on a diet. While anything but a lightweight at 5,115 pounds, the new Conti tips the scales at 143 pounds less than last year's model thanks in part to the increased use of aluminum in the body structure. The biggest single weight savings, however, comes from new 'Cobra' seats that shave a whopping 77 pounds. No, the old chairs weren't made of pig iron, the weight loss comes largely because the new perches forgo the old car's heavy integrated seatbelt assembly and crash structure in favor of body-mounted units that include motorized belt presenters to ensure you don't dislocate something while trying to buckle up. The new seats also have scalloped backsides for nearly two inches of additional knee room, but it's still somewhat tight in the back for extended journeys, and clambering into the Conti's leathery rear confines still requires a degree of flexibility.

As before, the cabin is a masterwork of top-quality leather, wood and metal, and despite looking familiar, the dashboard takes an all-new form complete with twin hooded cowls sewn in softer-feeling leather thanks to a specially devised padded substrate that adds 'give' on the dashtops while still offering, hard, crisp edges where the seams are sewn together. Despite the desert's oppressive sun and our tester's dark Imperial Blue hides, the AC compressor and optional cooled seats more than keep pace with the heat. The unerring civility of the Conti's book-matched veneers, rich leathers and cold-to-the-touch metals are enough to make one forget that when barreling through one of nature's most unforgiving climes, you're but a flat tire away from expiring, shriveled up like a human raisin.

Desert perils aside, the big interior win, of course, is the massively improved sat-nav system that uses a crystal-clear eight-inch screen. Unlike the Audi-derived system with the all-in-one controller used in the new Mulsanne, the Conti's infotainment architecture is Volkswagen-based, and as such, employs touchscreen controls for greater ease-of-use while offering features like a 30-gigabyte hard drive (15 of which are available for music storage), real-time traffic and Google Maps. It's a major improvement to be sure, but we still wish Bentley had raided its corporate parts bin for the A8's brilliant new MMI system, gesture pad and all.

2011 Bentley Continental GT

As we power away from the speed cameras that dot Muscat's roadside every couple of kilometers and put the Arabian Sea in our rearview mirror, traffic thins, giving us more space to safely explore not just the Bentley's immense performance envelope (Cliff's Notes: 0-60 in 4.4 seconds, 0-100 in 10.2 seconds, 198 mph top whack), but also a better opportunity to appreciate Oman's staggering roads.

Oddly, despite averaging under four inches of rain per year (mostly in January), it pours on the eve of our drive, and with little drainage, certain low-lying sections have been washed out, forcing some rerouting onto roads that are so new as to be uncharted on our sat-nav, something we suspect is a common occurrence with how quickly the region is expanding. Even with this meteorological hiccup, it's clear this is a supercar driver's playground, with flawless surfaces, vast, miles-long straightaways and long, sweeping corners that are well marked. The region's wide roads are particularly well-suited to the big Bentley, as although there are undulating mountain sections and plenty of corners, the roads aren't particularly technical and laden with tight switchbacks. The road's pacing encourages piling into corners at remarkable velocities, and we quickly grow to trust that the GT's all-wheel-drive traction and newfound throttle adjustability can pull us through.

Because Oman's infrastructure is in such good nick, we never really test the air suspension's ride, and even on optional 21-inch Pirelli P-Zero steamrollers (20-inch wheels are standard), compliance is good regardless of what setting is specified from Comfort on through Sport. Despite being a B-pillarless coupe, the Conti has never lacked structural rigidity, and the new model still feels anvil-solid and utterly at home at triple-digit speeds on unfamiliar roads, the revised suspension soaking up long-amplitude undulations even better than before.

As ever, steering is light but accurate and the steel discs of our test car prove plenty capable and drama-free when one of the region's many free-roaming goats decides to wander into the our path. Carbon-ceramic brakes are optional, but unless you live in a particularly hilly (and constable-free) area or you enjoy piloting unusual trackday cars, the standard anchors are well-judged and remain up to the job. Despite weighing well over two tons, the GT whittles down corners with remarkable agility and flatness in a physics-defying ballet, and it feels less inert while doing so. The rejiggered torque split undoubtedly has something to do with it, and while we wouldn't go so far as to call the GT 'tossable,' it's a bit easier and more entertaining to induce throttle-steer than before.

While we never found the outgoing Continental to have a particularly noisy cabin, that hasn't stopped Bentley's boffins from secreting away a good deal of additional sound deadening, including new floor shields, special acoustic glass and more insulation. In fact, such progress has been made on the NVH front that Bentley has actually had to go back and retune the exhaust to make it louder when the twelve-cylinder engine is given the beans.

Regarding that last bit – if there's a chink in the W12's armor, it's that the engine has never sounded particularly melodious, a fact that doesn't change here. While V12s inherently sound glorious, the same can't be as easily said with Piëch's compact W12 wunderbox, even with its quicker-revving lower-inertia internals. Either way, we highly suggest indulging in the 11-speaker Naim audio, as the system is a fantastic way to create a high-fidelity soundtrack of one's own.

So the new GT is at once more chiseled, more powerful, lighter and more luxurious than ever before – what's left? Quite a bit, actually. Bentley has promised that the new Continental will receive its first-ever V8 model in about a year's time. The 4.0-liter engine in question is being co-developed with Audi, and like every other modern Bentley, it will feature twin turbocharging. Officials won't share how much power the eight-cylinder will make, but we're thinking that somewhere north of 400 horses and torques is a safe bet. And while power will be down on the W12, a 40-percent drop in emissions is promised, meaning that fuel economy should be significantly better than this car's 12 miles per gallon in the city and 19 mpg on the highway. Total mass should dip modestly as well, but as the W12 is already about as compact and light as most V8s of its size, we don't expect dramatic weight savings.

The new engine is expected to be paired with an eight-speed automatic (a dual-clutch was ruled out as not providing the sort of refinement expected of a Bentley), and the extra pair of ratios should not only help with the powertrain's overall efficiency, but it should also wallpaper over some of the power disparity between the V8 and its W12 big brother. Overall, we suspect the 4.0-liter to be the hot ticket in the range, as it figures to cost a good bit less while giving up relatively little in terms of real-world performance.

2011 Bentley Continental GT

Bentley tells us that most Conti owners have the wherewithal to average four or five cars in their personal garages, but it's the GT that they use as their daily drivers. We're not surprised. While it's hard to think of any $189,900 automobile as a bargain ($203,940 in the case of our Orange Flame tester), the 2011 Continental GT nearly succeeds at coming across as exactly that. It's capable of putting up performance numbers that rubs shoulders with some tight-cockpitted Italians, yet its packaging is far less compromised and significantly more luxurious than most out-and-out exotics. Not coincidentally, that's exactly the same formula that made the original Continental such a dynamic proposition, only this time, it's better in nearly every way – including the sat-nav.

Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Paukert / AOL and Bentley

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