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Drifting on packed snow with the throttle nailed and the tail cocked full hooligan is questionable behavior in a $200,000-plus Bentley Continental GT Speed—especially when it’s a prototype only two-thirds of the way through its final development schedule. But such activity, plus three encounters with roving reindeer herds, is par for the course when you’re embedded with Bentley’s top engineers wrapping up their winter test routines near the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland.
Full disclosure: This report deviates from our first-drive review norms. While we did drive a camouflaged third-generation Continental GT, scheduled to appear in final form at this fall’s Frankfurt auto show, for every minute in the driver’s seat we experienced an hour as a passenger. Compensation came in the form of unrestricted dialogue with three of Bentley’s top engineers: head of quality Jürgen Kern, powertrain chief Paul Williams, and whole-vehicle engineering director Cameron Paterson.
Bentley’s supercoupe is essentially an eleven-tenths-scale, five-times-as-expensive, 200-mph Britain-built Chevrolet Camaro SS. Other than clinically jaded journalists, no one really needs such a car, though there are scores of lucky souls who want them: captains of industry, stock-market manipulators, oil sheiks, and pro athletes, for instance.
This is some of the grandest touring that a very large heap of money will buy. While exceeding the GT’s previous blend of speed, poise, and luxury sounds like a film entitled Mission: Unlikely, that’s exactly what the third-generation 2018 model is engineered to do.
More Audi or More Porsche?
According to Paterson, this endeavor began more than four years ago when Bentley set about replacing the current GT, which uses underpinnings it shared with the late Volkswagen Phaeton. The VW Group store offered two platform candidates—one engineered by Porsche, the other by Audi. Several factors tilted the decision in the Porsche direction. Bentley CEO Wolfgang Dürheimer, who spent a fruitful decade at Porsche, aspires to purge the winged-B brand’s stodginess through participation in GT3 road racing and by appealing to a younger clientele with more agile products. To that end, Porsche’s MSB platform offered tantalizing credentials: more aluminum to trim hundreds of pounds of weight, significantly better weight distribution (achieved by shifting the front axle several inches forward to pass through, instead of behind, the engine), and ready hybridization.
Shifting to the Porsche platform makes the Continental GT a kissing cousin to the new Panamera, but Paterson is quick to note that Bentley’s core virtues—superb performance combined with sublime comfort and luxury—distinguish this touring coupe from Porsche’s four-door flagship.
W-12 Driving All Four
The building blocks discussed with the Bentley boys are impressive. To supplement the 300-to-400-pound weight loss, aero drag has been reduced. The new 6.0-liter twin-turbo W-12 is a claimed 18 percent more fuel efficient, contributing to an overall mileage gain of some 20 percent. No final power or fuel-economy figures have been released, but Bentley promises the new Continental GT’s W-12 will make “more” than 592 horsepower and 530 lb-ft of torque. The company projects a sub-4.0-second zero-to-60-mph time and a top speed in excess of 200 mph.
A new ZF eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission sends torque to both axles through a variable clutch that energizes the front wheels on demand to minimize rear-tire meltdown during acceleration and front tire scrub during hard cornering. A key thing to know here is that the Bentley’s new all-wheel-drive system (standard in this W-12 model—we’ve been told nothing about any equivalent to today’s V-8 version) operates in 100 percent rear-drive mode by default and only shifts torque to the front wheels when it detects slip at the rear. Previously, an AWD Bentley was more Audi-like in distributing torque to all four wheels all the time (in a 40/60 front-to-rear proportion). While the outgoing Continental is already one of our favorites in the ultra-GT class, this new edition seems like the quarter horse that sent the old gray mare to pasture.
Given the combined 680 horsepower Porsche packs into the 2018 Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid, I asked powertrain engineer Williams why he favors pistons over electrons. He’s convinced there’s another decade of life left in the twin-turbo W-12 that Bentley builds at its Crewe, England, factory, largely because it’s so steeped in advanced technology.
“This 12-cylinder has a creamy sound perfectly in tune with the Bentley character,” he said. “The W configuration is substantially shorter than a V-12, so we’re able to mount the engine rearward without consuming cabin space. But it’s the wealth of special features we’ve engineered into this engine that will keep it viable for years to come.”
That list includes both direct and port fuel injection, variable intake and exhaust valve timing, and dual-scroll Bosch-Mahle turbochargers. To improve cruising mileage, the passenger-side bank of six cylinders shuts down on cue. A blanket of acoustic foam surrounding the fuel pumps and injectors hushes noise radiating from this praiseworthy powerhouse.
Engineer Paterson is especially proud of the muffler valves that transition seamlessly between loud and soft modes without initiating boom or wail. “We use no contrived or artificial sounds in the GT,” he added, “so what you hear during full-throttle acceleration are the natural baritone notes produced by our W-12. Our goal is to combine a soothing, serene environment for long cruises with a powerful and entertaining spirit when the driver chooses to celebrate the sporty side of his GT’s character.”
The exhaust tuning was far from complete in the two prototypes we rode in, and snow-packed, speed-limited roads offered no opportunity to exploit the 12 cylinders plus two turbos’ worth of power at our disposal. That said, we can vouch for the quiet part of the Conti GT’s personality. During cruising, the only sound was the muted crunch of Pirelli winter tires scrabbling for grip. Even that noise will be diminished, according to Paterson, because of the foam inserts that will blanket the inside of each tire carcass once production begins.
Quality and Refinement
Three-chamber air springs with continuously variable damping and isolated front and rear subframes are part of Porsche’s platform plan. Seat height is approximately one inch higher than in the Panamera but an inch lower than in today’s Continental GT. Expecting to find a cramped rear seat, we instead found ample knee, head, and leg room back there. This is the Mustang GT that went to heaven, as far as plus-two riders are concerned.
Paterson and Williams both took note of a few improprieties remaining in the new dual-clutch eight-speed automatic transmission. Refinement is harder to achieve with no torque converter to soothe launches, and in spite of the 100 messages per second flowing between the engine and transmission on a dedicated communications link, an occasional lurch or clunk spoils the driveline bliss, typically during the first-to-second-gear upshift.
Since he’s responsible for every aspect of quality, we asked Cameron how he defines that oft quoted word in the Bentley context. His answer made it clear that we weren’t the first to ask that question. “We divide quality into three distinct categories. The first, geometric quality, is the perfect fit of adjoining components inside and out of the car. Next, and of equal importance, is functional quality; assuring that every feature in the vehicle—from the twist of a control knob to the action of the transmission shifter—works exactly as you’d expect it to. Emotional quality, the third and arguably most important category, is what separates any Bentley from every other automobile. This is the blend of agility, sporting performance, and class-leading refinement we discussed earlier. Bentleys are cars you don’t necessarily need but want because of the distinctive feeling they impart during driving.” The beauty of these thumbnail explanations of subtle concepts such as quality is that they’re handy for explaining the brand’s character traits, nurtured for decades, to outsiders and newcomers.
Cameron adds that perfecting function is why his team is living with these prototypes. Pointing out the receptacle notched into both sides of the center console, he explained that they were added as a convenient spot for cellphones. “Unfortunately, the bottom of the pocket was sloped in such a way that, during hard acceleration, phones were launched into the back seat,” he said. “While we all agree that these receptacles are excellent features, their shape will change in the next generation of prototypes to hone their function.”
Just Enough Technology
The Bentley Bentayga advanced the cause of electronic display technology with a digital center screen combined with classic analog driver instruments, but the Continental GT is all digital. While we admire how expeditiously the tachometer needle moves across the bright dial to the 6300-rpm redline, Cameron believes the motion is too twitchy for Bentley customers and said it will be slowed a touch. A second cabin highlight is a three-position center dash screen, affectionately known as the Toblerone because its cross section resembles that of the triangular Swiss chocolate bar. In the first position, the 10-inch-diagonal panel is lovely wood veneer matched perfectly to the surrounding interior surfaces. Stop two is a touchscreen configured primarily for navigation. The third choice is what Cameron calls supplementary performance gauges. Given the Continental’s innate vitality, that last option should be entertaining. Unfortunately, the prototype’s nav screen doesn’t rotate, and the gaps between it and its surroundings are wide enough to swallow a pencil.
Heartening news: Bentley is in no hurry to pursue autonomous driving. “Bentleys are driver’s cars,” Cameron reminded us. “We’ll be competitive, but we have no intention to lead with that technology. We want the driver always in control, so automatic steering is of little interest to us except for possibly providing the driver a break during long cross-country journeys.”
This philosophy relates to how the electric power steering, also shared with Porsche, is tuned for the desired Bentley feel. Cameron defined the goal as isolation from any bad news emanating from the road surface with a clear feel of what the front tires are doing during spirited driving.
Wheeling on Ice
Out in the middle of a frozen lake located a few miles south of the Arctic Circle, we finally have the opportunity to take the pulse of the new Continental GT from the driver’s seat. A few laps with all safety systems active convince us that this edition is indeed far more agile and responsive than the car it replaces. Twisting what the Bentley boys call the “charisma” control (it’s a drive-mode knob) to the Sport setting allows more entertaining drift angles. Co-driver Cameron goads us to flatten the accelerator while dialing in the appropriate countersteer to hold an arc at the outer edge of the packed 1000-foot-diameter circle. The key is to minimize steering inputs so that the stability system understands exactly where you want to go. What surprises are the steering’s speed, reasonable effort, and the tangible feedback it provides even on this slippery surface. Very Porsche-like, we tell our host, a compliment he accepts in stride.
With stability control clicked off, the drift task is more challenging but still at the driver’s disposal. Unfortunately, before we make friends with this facet of the Conti GT’s feisty personality, one of the 100 onboard electronic controllers calls a halt and terminates the fun. Engineering analysis reveals that the rear differential may be overheating, even though the ambient temperature is below freezing. Various fixes have been devised, but installing them will have to wait for the next generation of prototypes.
Exposure to a three-quarters-baked prototype is an experience we seldom enjoy—for obvious reasons. Makers always strive to showcase perfect products in ideal circumstances, and this trip to Lapland was anything but that. The best part was learning how serious Bentley is about building a GT coupe that’s a quantum leap over not only the competition but also the company’s past achievements. Now that we’ve had our share of turning left flat out on an ice rink, we can’t wait to light off Bentley’s bolide on dry pavement.
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