Brian Gush doesn't get easily annoyed â" at least that's what I'm told. But two hours into dinner and he points out to our fellow diners that it's the third time I've insulted him. The first was when I suggest that the Bentley Speed 8 that won Le Mans in 2003 was a re-skinned Audi R8, and the only reason it won was because the marketing men at Wolfsburg wanted the green car to win that year. Brian, as head of motorsport for Bentley, spent the next hour slapping that nonsense out of my head. The second was when I suggested the Mulsanne's venerable V8 pushrod engine traces its lineage to a post-war American V8. After choking on his prawns the next hour is spent on a fascinating discourse on the engine's history and why the rumour came to being (partly since Rolls-Royce used GM's automatic transmissions at that time). Brian should know â" he is also the director of chassis and powertrain at Bentley. And just as he finishes I inquire about the Volkswagen Phaeton Coupe we will be driving the next day.
Did I mention when Brian stands up he's not an insignificant man? And now he's properly annoyed.
But first some perspective: launched in 2003 the Continental GT was not only the first all-new Bentley from the new VW era (they'd just gone through a messy divorce where BMW grabbed the Rolls-Royce name while the factory, cars, engine and people went to the VW Group) but it was the first car since 1931, when Rolls-Royce bought Bentley, to be developed purely as a Bentley. It was a hugely important car and to hasten development the Phaeton's D1 platform was thrown at it including air suspension at the front and multi links at the rear. Plus it had the same W12 engine mounted ahead of the front axle like on the big VW (thus the Phaeton coupe barbs).
Brian doesn't deny the Continental did share components and modules but points (and makes sure I understand) out how everything was thoroughly re-engineered to meet the luxury, speed and refinement required of a Bentley. Not just the obvious things like wheelbase and overall dimensions or the furnishing that went into opulent cabin but also everything to do with the engine including the addition of twin turbos and whacking great performance. And now, seven years on, they've thoroughly revised the most important and best-selling Bentley in the brand's 92-
If it doesn't seem like much of an update in the pictures it's because Bentley projects the Conti GT as a design icon (a la Porsche 911) and wanted to stay true to the original. The bid for immortality means although every panel is new (only the windscreen carries over) you might need an old GT alongside to appreciate all the changes. View one in the metal though, especially in the crisp, searing sunlight we dealt with on our first drive in Oman, and, wow, it takes your breath away. The lines are sharper and the shape is smoother thanks to the use of superformed aluminium panels for the front fender and boot lid, an aerospace technology allowing complex shapes to be stamped into large panels (which also contributes to a weight saving). The characteristic Bentley grille is more upright and lower set but also looks wider and more aggressive while the jewel-like headlamps flanked by smaller and offset day time LED driving lamps are very much son-of-Mulsanne. It also makes the old GT look, well, old. Even the squared off boot-lid carries styling themes from the Mulsanne though the wider wraparound tail lamps with dual 'floating' LEDs are very much a Continental theme brought up to date. The wheels are bigger â" standard 20-inchers and optional 21-inchers â" which might not sound like much but along with the wider tracks and terrifically beefed-up rear haunches give the GT a more purposeful stance.
Step inside and it's just staggeringly luxurious, not to mention beautifully built. The first car I drove was swathed in deep red, from the carpets to the seats to even the headlining â" P Diddy spec I suppose (haven't you noticed GTs in every second hip-hop video?). It was only when I switched into a cabin swathed in a sober mix of brown leathers that, in the absence of my retinas getting seared, I could fully appreciate what a remarkable cabin this is. The two big sweeps in the dash â" one in front of the driver, the other in front of the passenger â" remain but are more prominently defined and lavishly cloaked in beautifully stitched leather while the sheer levels of opulence can be judged by the fact that there's even a removable Bentley-branded wood-veneered sunglass holder. The central stack loses the last vestiges of German involvement (there are no parts from VW's bin) with a new infotainment system that can be operated via polished metal controls (that are metal, not plastic) or the touch screen. And there's an optional 1100-watt Naim audio system acoustically tuned for the GT that's unforgivably glorious.
Even though the dimensions remain unchanged there is more space in the cabin mainly due to the new Cobra seats (for their snake-like profile) that are slimmer and ditch the integrated seatbelts for B-pillar mounts and an elegant 'presenter'. They're claimed to provide an ideal balance between comfort and support (neither seem compromised to be honest) while the contours allow easier access into the rear quarters which, contrary to what you might think, is quite comfortable with an additional two inches of leg room. However if inter-continental blasts are on the agenda you'd be better off in the front. Actually you'll be better off behind the wheel, stoking that glorious W12 engine and putting yourself in very real danger of losing your license.
Probably that's why the international press launch of the new GT was held in Oman â" a rather unlikely destination on the face of it â" but the roads we sampled were some of the best anywhere in the world. The route took us from the fabulously located Barr Al Jissah resort on the Gulf of Oman past the hustle and bustle of Muscat on to speed-regulated motorways, typical fare anywhere in the world save for uncharacteristically poor lane discipline. A good place then to stick the GT in cruise control and sample the exquisite refinement, surprisingly good ride quality and totally mind-blowing Naim stereo, stuff that really matters on a Grand Tourer. But once we turned off the motorway towards Oman's ancient capital of Nizwa through the Sharqiya desert the speed cameras magically disappeared. Though a single carriageway, what lay ahead was one long, empty, undulating and freshly laid ribbon of tarmac. Traffic thinned out, an occasional goat crossed the road, and the eight Continental GTs reared their heads for the horizon. Nobody writes about them but these roads will figure in any petrolhead's list of best driving roads in the world and for the nearly 200km to Nizwa (and the same distance back) we threw whatever we could at the GT. And she responded - beautifully.
Not that the W12 engine needed any more power but an additional 45PS has been squeezed out of the W12 to raise total power to 575PS and together with the 65kg weight reduction it improves the power-to-weight by a useful six per cent. Bentley engines though are all about torque and a further 50Nm has been massaged out for a total of 700Nm peaking at just 1700rpm. It makes for an incredible driving experience. Breathe on the throttle and there's an endless stream of lag-free surge propelling the GT oh so quickly and so imperceptibly to twice the speed limit that our cars were fitted with warning beepers set to go off at 240kmph. And the first time it went off I couldn't believe she was doing those speeds, such was her unruffled, unflustered demeanour. Keep your foot pinned in and she will go all the way to 320kmph. While the roads through the desert were deliciously inviting for top speed runs the occasionally dawdling goat put sense in our heads.
Later in the year there will be a 4.0-litre V8 which will address the Conti's voracious appetite for fuel while also making it cleaner, greener, lighter and a fair bit cheaper. But for now there's the W12, an engine that still sounds unlike any high-performance engine, humming quietly under light throttle but give it gas and it sounds far racier; enough for us to keep hammering away at the steering wheel paddles just to get her to holler. The Quickshift gearbox is borrowed from the Supersport which halves shift times of the 6-speed ZF unit to just 200 milliseconds and can shift down two gears in one go if required (for instance from sixth to fourth). The GT also borrows the Supersport's 40/60 torque split for the permanent all-wheel drive that delivers a sportier feel that we proceeded to sample as we hit some ultra-fast sweepers. Yup, corners in a desert, some mountains too, and stunning canyons in between â" all seemingly tailor-made for the GT's abilities. I can't imagine the GT being anywhere near a lithe and nimble hot hatch on ultra-tight switchbacks but hit sport mode on the air suspension and over fast sweepers she is simply glorious. The old GT had grip to spare. Now with wider tracks, more light-weight aluminium in the suspension and revised springs, dampers and anti-roll bars the GT feels surprisingly light on its feet. And when you consider she still weighs 2.5 tonnes it beggars belief just how fast she can cover ground. Or eat corners.
As we sit down to dinner by the coast, a bunch of Omanis beating drums and blowing pipes, Brian slides over, sleeves rolled up and half expecting to be insulted again. But Phaeton coupe barbs will have to be flushed away. The new Conti GT is arguably the finest Grand Tourer money can buy â" a hell of a lot of money at Rs 2.0 crore â" but a damn fine way to spend it!
The 6.0-litre W12 comes from the Phaeton but is re-engineered to suit the performance of the Bentley. The Conti GT also takes a few design cues from the Mulsanne such as the offset day time running LEDs and the squared off boot