Road Tests

Greatest Drives: Bentley Continental GT

Time 12 years ago

WHEN was the last time you just got in a car and drove somewhere? I’m going to bet it was some time ago. Remember when you were young and had just passed your test – if you were anything like me you’d just get behind the wheel for the sheer hell of it.

Perhaps it was escapism; the feeling of being free with no one telling you what to do, how loud to have your music or where to go.

I remember the night I passed, I did exactly that – headed to my mate’s house, picked him up and hit the road. Only hours before I’d persuaded my dad to insure me on my mum’s white Peugeot 306 1.9-litre XND, and as I sat in a two-mile tailback out of town I couldn’t have been happier.

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10 years later, it’s Sunday evening and pouring with rain – and I’m stuck in a very similar traffic queue on my way to see that very same friend. Years of commuting; years of taking the car for granted may have numbed my joy of driving, but not tonight.

Tonight I’m going to relive the spirit of my youth and find that lost enthusiasm for simply driving an automobile purely for fun.

It helps that I’m in good company. This time I’m not crawling along in the old dear’s smokey old diesel – no, this time I’m behind the wheel of one of the iconic cars of the decade: the Bentley Continental GT.

Yes, it’s image may have been tarnished by those prancing footballers that seem to be attracted to the GT like magpies, but I’m not going to let that bother me. One thing’s for sure though, although I hate to admit it, those Manchester Rovers boys certainly know how to pick a beautiful motor.

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The GT really is a stunning machine – even five years after launch, it’s not looking any less gorgeous. That gaping front grille and twin-eye headlights may have been copied by lesser manufacturers, but they give the Continental serious presence.

And the sheer size of the car takes you by surprise too – this may be the ‘baby Bentley’, but it sure isn’t a tiddler.

The rain is bouncing off the bodywork as we creep out of town, slowly plotting a route towards the more exciting roads that lie at the end of this line of cars. Inside, I’m surrounded by polished wood, chrome and leather – it’s like driving the Ritz. It probably weights the same as the London hotel too.

It’s still a comfy place to be. Huge, multi-adjustable heated seats are slow-cooking my internal organs and helping me relax. I’m enjoying the calm before the storm. It’s the Sunday before fireworks night and all around me, undeterred by the rain, chavs are lighting up the sky with rockets. It doesn’t seem the credit crunch has stopped people setting light to their money…

Those rockets are a fitting start to what’s about to come. Describing the GT’s unending reserves of power as explosive might sound a little trite – but my word is it apt; the firepower this Bentley bruiser’s hiding away would put Iran to shame.

The 6.0-litre, twin-turbocharged W12 engine is capable of firing it to 60mph in 4.7 seconds and then on to 198mph. It might be a little Chris Moyles in lardiness, but don’t think that’s going to hold it back – those figures put it on a par with Porsches and Ferraris.

Half-an-hour in, the traffic is starting to ease and I point the good ship HMS Bentley towards the countryside. Just 10 miles from our Gosport HQ we’re fortunate to have a spider’s web of real driver’s roads. The Meon Valley is littered with testing stretches of asphalt that bisect the stunning scenery and we’re heading straight for them.

We start on the A32 towards Alton – it’s a fast stretch of road, punctuated by long straights and blind corners, that over the years have been given their own nicknames just like the Isle of Man TT course. Unlike the Manx isle, though, this stretch does have speed limits, but that isn’t going to stop me enjoying the GT.

Rivers of water are dripping off the fields at sporadic intervals, but the heavyweight GT ploughs on through. This is by no means a sportscar, but it’s still incredibly enjoyable to drive at speed.

The steering is not alive or as full of feedback as, say, its arch-rival the Aston Martin DB9, but it’s reassuringly direct. The GT is perfectly planted too – four-wheel drive keeps everything in check and it never once gets out of hand or lively, even in these treacherous conditions.

Never have I travelled in a car that isolates you from the feeling of speed so well. Whether that’s a good thing or not is open to question, but on more than one occasion I look down at the speedo and am shocked at the figures displayed.

The double thickness windows and insulated cabin make journeys a serene affair, that’s for sure – it’s not completely silent, but about as good as it’s going to get this side of a Rolls-Royce.

As the miles increase, it becomes clear Hampshire’s entire road users were stuck in that strange Sunday evening traffic jam as the country lanes are completely devoid of cars. Riding a colossal wave of torque I’m stringing together one straight after another, in a state of driving nirvana – and loving every minute.

Well, that is every minute not spent braking. That’s because whenever you call on the stop pedal to bring proceedings to a halt you can’t quite get over a feeling of dread.

When you’re in a car that’s heavier than the moon, stopping becomes quite a complex procedure and you can really feel the weight of the GT as it sheds those licence-losing figures. As the Continental shrugs off the speed that was all too easy to achieve, you become instantly aware of the forces of nature at work and they’re ferocious.

As quickly as the fun began, it’s over. Mud-covered tractor routes make way for the dual carriageway of the A3 and I’m soon heading back towards the coast. I re-engage brain and cruise control, and the big Bentley begins to make even more sense.

Wafting along, completely isolated from the outside world, the Continental dissolves 30 miles and I’m pulling up at my friend’s flat before I know it.

We head for the royalty of fast food establishments and watch from the empty diner as water evaporates off the bonnet. Over onion rings and fries, the same question asked after a drive in all test cars I’ve ever turned up in rears its head: If you had the money would you buy one?

Well, that’s like asking which member of Girls Aloud you’d most like a ‘liaison’ with. I tell him – it’s an unanswerable conundrum. But still we try and come up with a solution. At £120k list I probably wouldn’t sign on the dotted line – my heart still lies in Italian supercar territory at that price range, but now these W12 bruisers are starting at £50k in the used market, well that’s a very different matter.

A £50k Bentley is a no brainer, we both heartily agree, as is picking Cheryl Cole for that quiet drink…

by JAMES BAGGOTT

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