Such is my life that on an otherwise humdrum Tuesday in May, while former Porsche performance design genius Wolfgang Hatz rots in a German jail, federal indictments hound Volkswagen’s ex-geschaftsführer Martin Winterkorn, and the future of the United States smolders in the darkening shadow of our National Orange Disgrace, that I find myself jerking a Bentley Continental GT up a series of switchbacks in the fir-covered Italian Alps. It is here, in an interior of wood veneer and leather sewn together by 310,675 stitches, that all of the agony in the world—the above mentioned calamities, but also Flint’s toxic water, the killing in Palestine, the lava-destroyed Ford Mustangs in Hawaii—it all recedes to a single gripe that consumes me until we stop for a five-star lunch somewhere high up in the green pine mountains: the filthy smudge of fingerprints on the piano-black dashboard of the new 2019 Bentley Continental GT.
That’s a strange effect of being pretend-wealthy for a day or two: In the absence of true pain, you invent grievances and focus on them like an obsessive child. Automotive writers are flown around the world by manufacturers and led from palazzi to chateaux just to test cars. But it takes just minutes for our eyes to linger on annoyances.
With the Bentley Continental GT, we have to look pretty close before we stay braying at the littlest flaws. This third evolution of one of the great modern touring cars is a stunner. Costing at least $215,000, it uses a tried-and-true 6.0-liter 12-cylinder engine to mill 626 horsepower of point-and-shoot power.
The exterior is characterized by strengthened lines. The swaths of sheet metal that form the fenders, hood, and doors are created by a “superforming” process that is able to create crazy convexities and subtly up the drama (if that’s possible). There are two lovely new signature lines, one that runs from the top of the front wheelwell and along the side of the car, and a second that climbs over the rear haunch. The nose is softer, and the front axle has been moved 130 millimeters forward, shortening the front overhang. Meanwhile, in the back, there's more overhang and a wider stance over dominantly-large 22-inch wheels. By nearly every measure, this is a more burly car than its predecessor: wider, longer, about the same weight. (That’s 5,000 pounds, bubba, but who’s counting?)
The most divisive new design feature is undoubtedly the revised oval taillights, a sharp departure from the squares and rectangles of GTs past. Some people think it makes the Bentley look like it’s afflicted with cataracts; others say it makes it look like an Aston Martin. But the truth is, it actually lightens the heft of the overall design, and adds a softness that you didn’t really know was missing.
This Bentley model, which was introduced in 2003 with a similar W-12 engine and coupe flair, always been a solid design, and crucial to a marque that needs to project alpha-dude speed, the smoothness of a four-figure massage, and a design that wouldn’t be out of place at a concours. This Continental GT is a “core vehicle” for Bentley, and one that will come in a distant second to the divisive Bentayga SUV on sales volume. But it’s still second place, and that ain’t bad. According to Mark Del Rosso, the new-ish CEO of Bentley North America, “The Continental GT and the Bentayga together represent the future of Bentley.”
Since the Continental GT was launched in 2003, Bentley has sold 70,000 units, averaging out to nearly 5,000 every year. This new iteration is born into a marketplace hostile to anything other than a crossover or an SUV. It may be a beautifully-built grand tourer that can chew up miles with little effort, but as a dealership deliverable, it has its work cut out.
About the chewing up of miles. One of my top 10 drives ever took place in the previous Continental GT. I was going to visit my parents in Maine, and I had to plow through a series of cold rain squalls and traffic snarls as the sun set. It was 278 miles of what should have been pure hell, but all of the individually-brilliant components of the Bentley—the bottomless well of power, the exquisite interior, the 2,200-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system—converged to shorten the drive, to make New England interstate traffic not just bearable but pleasant. It performed as well as any grand tourer could.
But this is not a sports car, especially with the powerplant W-12 under the bonnet. I can admire many things about a 12-cylinder engine in a coupe. Sometimes power is its own reward. But on this particular drive, on switchbacks up through the Alps, I want lithe, and the W-12, despite having twin turbos and more torque than a Mack truck, is not lithe. It pounds the road when I want it to leap over it. I want the toothy V8 that Bentley put in the Bentayga.
This is not much of a complaint. The car feels fantastic more often than not. It rides on a three-chamber air suspension that works in unison with the 48-volt-powered active roll bars to create unassailable stability. There are four driving modes, though there are really just two: comfort, and the "B" mode, an “engineer’s special” tuned by Bentley builders to extract what they feel each customer would want from the vehicle. That means a performance that lands something between really fast and really well-seated. A Bentley, basically.
There are some interiors that we appreciate for their simple elegance, such as the Volvo XC90. There are others to which we doff our caps because they seem to have taken a hit of acid and glimpsed a frenzied oblivion (the new Lexus LS), and others still we respect for being defiantly old-looking (Cadillac, with its 35-year-old parts-bin buttons). But very few can quite match the simple, no-bullshit luxury of the modern Bentley. The centerpiece of this Continental GT's interior is the rotating, three-sided “Toblerone” display. Press the display button to toggle between a three-dial analogue setup and a standard console screen; in the off position, it rotates to a blank surface and blends into the rest of the dash.
My only complaint—other than the propensity for certain greasy-fingered passengers to smudge the piano-black surface—is that there’s no way to get to the blank surface without turning the car off. In my mind, true luxury in a modern is the absence of interior gimmickry and commotion, and nothing screams gimmick and commotion like the insanity of the common modern car console. But the Bentley succeeds in this respect. There are details that are complex but subtle: the criss-crossed knurling of the selector knobs, the signature aluminum plungers that open and close the vents.
It’s just another Tuesday in the life of a car writer, trapped in a luxury grand tourer. I have my complaints. I always will. But if I had $215,000 to spend on a two-plus-two, I probably wouldn’t bitch too much about the Continental GT. And I wish it the best of luck going up against the SUV movement. It’s going to need it.