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BROOKLANDS, England – ‘Continental GT’ embodies an idealized dream of carefree, trans-continental drives to the French Riviera or glamorous Swiss ski resorts. In reality and spirit, a long, long way from a gray January day in what is now a grocery store parking lot in a nondescript London suburb. But this place, or specifically the moss-covered concrete banking surrounding it, is as important to Bentley’s identity as 1930s playboys racing express trains across France, amateur heroes triumphing at Le Mans or the image of luxurious sedans crunching the gravel driveways of stately English homes.
In the modern age of Bentley, the racing history at Brooklands, and its expression through hardware supplied by its Volkswagen owners, is what underpins the brand. I’ve got 1,000 miles at the wheel of the latest V8 Continental GT to find out if that Brooklands tradition has been carried forth; to see if this Bentley is still a Bentley.
It’s an interesting moment to be driving a Continental GT, too. For all the British heritage this car embodies, it’s dependent on the centralized resources and manufacturing muscle of parent Volkswagen. The same goes for the Group’s other brands defined by tradition and local price: Lamborghini, Porsche and even Audi.
Yet, I’m enjoying this car just days before Britain formally quits the European Union. The implications are still to be fully understood but it puts Bentley in an especially perilous position, given it depends on overseas production and the free movement of parts from the continent to keep its factory running. Sure, Bentleys are meant to be expensive. But if that margin is suddenly consumed by tariffs on bodies from Volkswagen, engines from Porsche and gearboxes from ZF, the business case looks even shakier than it has been in the recent past. Nobody knows how it’ll shake out but one answer for VW would be to relocate the whole business to Germany rather than keep building them here.
You’d still have cars branded as Bentleys if that happened. But would they still be Bentleys? We talk about intellectual property. Arguably here we’re talking about emotional property. And the Englishness that makes the cars what they are.
Because more than anything, a Bentley is a feelgood car, even when your reality is grimy winter roads and a coating of salt on your fancy paint. The engine pulling you along may be shared with Audis, Lamborghinis and Porsches, and your hands may operate switchgear familiar from other cars in the family, but as the leather creaks under your butt and the miles waft effortlessly past, that winged ‘B’ still stands for something.
The long, wand-like shifters of the previous Continental may have been replaced with more generic paddles, but there are still quirks and eccentricities in the Bentley cabin. Some of the chrome looks suspiciously plasticky but the bits you interact with from door handles to ‘organ stop’ ventilation controls have weight and authority to them. And the fact you can spin the central screen away to display analogue dials – or nothing more than chrome and exquisitely lacquered veneer – is a pleasing subversion of the touchscreen-obsessed, haptic controlled Audis and Porsches using the same basic tech.
This may only be the ‘baby’ Continental, but as with the previous generation, the 4.0-liter V8 is in some ways more appealing than the W12. Sure, it doesn’t quite have the aristocratic refinement of that engine, but it has 542 horsepower, an eight-cylinder burble and the ability to shut down half its cylinders to cruise for roughly 500 miles between fills (25 mpg is possible). Given the sub-4-second 0-60 time (even on winter tires), I have no doubt it’ll hit the claimed 198-mph top speed, should opportunity arise. The fact it’s still charismatic at a tenth of that is the real trick.
The V8 GTs have always had a (relatively) more playful balance, too, given they have a lot less engine over the car’s nose. The Continental GT may be an all-wheel-drive cruiser, but on cold wet pavement, it has a surprisingly extrovert character and can be discreetly steered with the throttle. There isn’t anything so uncouth as a drift mode or other such gimmickry. But there’s driver-focused balance you only get when chassis engineers put the hard miles in, as the Bentley development guys do on the Welsh mountain roads not far from the factory. Only the steering disappoints, feeling more Audi than Bentley when compared with the previous-generation Continental.
Overall, though, it’s this neat ability to communicate soul through software that sets Bentley apart in the Volkswagen family. Porsche proudly boasts its latest 911 is more digital than ever and Audi still lives by the old ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ mantra, making its cars ever more complex without necessarily stopping to think if it also makes them more enjoyable to drive.
This was evident in the Audi RS Q8 I was driving a few weeks previous, all four-wheel steering, fancy diffs, adaptable steering modes, 23-inch wheels and 591 horsepower of vein-popping attitude. And yet it left me totally cold. Put similar money into a 626-hp Bentayga Speed built on the same platform and you get a totally different experience, demonstrating how regional flavors can be expressed through the same ingredients.
There’s less technical trickery in the Bentayga but a whole lot more soul. Leave the extrovert, rifle volley exhaust crackles and contrived sportiness of the Sport mode, stick to the best-of-everything ‘Bentley’ setting instead, and there’s genuine feel to the steering and ability to flow with the road surface no Urus, Q8 or Cayenne can rival. Which isn’t to argue the British do it better than their German colleagues. More that they appreciate character is about more than hitting attribute targets and that the trick is to communicate sensation through calibration. That is a real skill in itself. And one that Bentley, uniquely among its stablemates, offers its customers. It doesn’t matter that Brooklands is now a parking lot. Be it the Bentayga or this Continental GT V8, its spirit is still alive at Bentley.