The Bentley Continental GT isn't just another car - it's a door onto another world. This most handsome, elegant and athletic-looking of Bentleys will transport you not merely to a top speed of 196 mph, but into the restrained extravagance of an upper-crust, British motorcar cabin.
You don't drop into this car - you slide onto a leather throne to assume a regal vantage point amid the scent of luxury. Acres of hide cover everything that isn't wood, aluminium, a control or an instrument, in a densely opulent haven. From here, you can view the proceedings as you glide past hoi polloi on a whiff of accelerator and a wave of smug superiority.
The Continental GT is the first Bentley in decades that isn't based on a Rolls Royce. These famous British blue-bloods, once of the same company, have been rent apart by the corporate manoeuvrings of previous bosses of Volkswagen and BMW. BMW got Rolls Royce, VW got Bentley, and this Continental GT is the first offspring of the now German-owned firm. German or not, Bentley has worked hard to retain the essential character of a toff's cruising tool, both the interior and the GT's elegantly authoritative face being entirely appropriate to the badge. But underneath, the Continental shares much with its new siblings from Audi and VW, its mechanical confection a blend of the bespoke and the borrowed, componentry sourced both from the Audi A8 and the VW Phaeton luxury saloons.
If this sounds unfortunate, it's not. Bentley's sudden access to the research and hardware of Europe's largest car conglomerate places it dramatically closer to the frontiers of technology. And for all the merits of the old-school, turbocharged Bentley Arnage saloon, one thing that it isn't is modern. Yet it can be argued that the Continental isn't modern enough either.
True, it is powered by a twin-turbo W12 engine, its interior presents a subtle festival of gizmology and its automatic gearbox flaunts six speeds that drive all four wheels, but this Bentley could have used the lightweight aluminium body construction pioneered by Audi to good effect. As it is, this two-plus-two coupe weighs in at 2.4 tonnes - equivalent to two Ford Fiestas. Though the engine musters a gloriously unnecessary 552 bhp and will thrust the Continental to 60 mph in under five seconds and to 100 mph in 11.8, plenty of lesser coupes will outsprint it.
Weight also affects the Bentley's ride. The suspension battles valiantly to control its hefty burden, the Continental proving startlingly agile when pressed along curvaceous roads; but its stiff sinews are frequently unable to absorb the slings and arrows of a poorly repaired road. This, some wind-roar and the odd creak and twitter from the trim make the Bentley a less restful place than it ought to be. Its bulk also makes it consumptive, 16 mpg being about the best you can expect.
Yet the Bentley remains a marvellously desirable car, with a waiting list stretching well into 2005 - especially as it is conspicuously good value at £110,000. That may sound odd, until you consider that its freshly launched rival, the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti, costs £177,500. The Continental's magnificent styling, rich interior, exclusivity and uniquely British flavour make it hard to resist, even if it could be more highly polished.
Bentley Continental GT
Max power 552 bhp
Max torque 479 lb ft
Max speed 196 mph
0-60mph 4.9 sec
Fuel consumption 16.5 mpg
CO2 emissions 410 g/km
Aston Martin DB9 £103,000
New V12 two-plus-two is handsome, good to drive and more capable than the Bentley.
Ferrari 612 Scaglietti £177,500
A great drive, and civilised. Better than the Bentley, but less attractive and very expensive.