Pulling thick black thread through tightly spaced piercings, Cath cinched together for posterity the swaths of blue and cream leather strips draped over the rim of a steering wheel. The affable sexagenarian peered up at me over her glasses with a wry grin. “We’ve been doing this quite a while,” she said, referring to herself and the other two individuals tasked with wrapping butter-soft hides around Bentley steering wheels at its Crewe, England factory for the past several decades. And they knew each other’s work: “Put any of us in a Bentley made in the last 30 years and we can tell you which one of us sewed its wheel together.” Institutional knowledge, thy name is Cath.
So that was nine years ago, and since then, Bentley has added hundreds of new craftsmen and craftswomen to handle exploding sales on account of global expansion and the addition of its Bentayga SUV. Technological developments have added new driving assistants, convenience features and other modern luxostuffs to the 100-year-old brand, too, so as I gripped the hand-stitched wheel of Bentley’s all-new third-generation Continental GT coupe, I thought about Cath (who has retired, I hear) and wondered if all the new blood, new ideas and new technology might dilute that ineffable, organic character from which hand-built automobiles derive their indelible sense of warmth.
A Proper GT
Stylistically, the new Bentley Continental GT coupe and convertible are unmistakable as such, retaining the GT’s characteristic fastback coupe and fabric-topped convertible body styles, as well as carefully evolved updates to their sweeping fenders, ovoid lamps and wide chrome grilles. Hence, photos don’t convey how much slinkier, more planted, more voluptuous and enveloped by its wheels the new Continental appears. With the front wheels repositioned nearly a half-foot further forward, the engine and, in turn, the hood, are lowered, elongating the nose and achieving the elegant proportions befitting a proper grand tourer. The coupe retains its elegant pillar-less side window treatment, and the chrome ring around the cabin continues to define the ragtop. And each of its fluted and creased front fenders—the Brits call them “wings”—is a work of art, covering the vast expanse area from the the grille to the door, and from ankle level to the tapering “bonnet” with one highly three-dimensional “superformed” piece of aluminum into which the gorgeous, etched glass “whiskey-glass” headlamps are set without a single seam.
Intimate yet open, sleek yet warm, tech-laden yet welcoming, the Continental GT’s contemporary cabin is, in my opinion, Bentley’s best ever. Bentley offers abundant sybaritic delights, as expected, from heated, ventilated, back-rubbing seats, “neck warmer” vents on convertibles, zillion-watt sound systems, multi-zone ambient lighting, and intoxicatingly fragrant leather covering everything that’s not polished or machined metal or some sort of screen. Newfound elegance comes by way of “diamond-in-diamond” leather quilting with 712 stitches in each diamond, optional dual-wood veneers, up to 20 knurled metal bezels and knobs that feel oh so satisfying under the hand.
My favorite feature, however, is the motorized rotating infotainment display, presenting a hi-def touchscreen on one side and more formal analog instruments—a chronograph, compass, and an exterior temperature gauge—on the other. Not everything is new, though: The Continental retains delightfully analog push-pull, organ stop-style vent shutters that have graced Bentleys since the aforementioned Cath was a lass.
The 2020 Bentley Continental comes in 80+ paint colors, eight wheel styles, eight veneer materials, 15 primary and 11 secondary leather hues and deep-pile carpets to match or contrast. And that’s just what’s on the menu. With nearly infinite ways to tailor a Continental GT, making decisions might feel overwhelming. Fortunately, Bentley is making members of its design team—yes, the actual designers of the car—available for ongoing consultation as part of a no-extra-cost “Co-Creation” program.
Bentleys have long been known for their composed ride and formidable power, but with 200 fewer pounds, optimized weight distribution, and an all-wheel drive system that operates in rear-wheel drive until slippage occurs, the new Continental demonstrates eagerness more associated with Porsches than limousines. Usually quite wide and heavy feeling, Bentleys have traditionally been most satisfying as high-speed Interstate sleds, but this is the first Bentley I’ve gone out of my way to drive on mountain roads. Cornering precision is remarkable and grip is outstanding. The steering has actual life to it, a rarity among cars like this. And coincidentally, not two weeks following my test drives—the coupe over a weekend in Southern California and the convertible on a media program in Northern Cali—the Continental GT coupe set the world record for production cars at the annual Pike’s Peak Hillclimb race.
It couldn’t do that without serious power. As before, Continental GT coupes and convertibles offer a choice of V-8 or 12-cylinder engines, with the V-8 remaining both more efficient and more entertaining with its guttural exhaust note and a stout 542 horsepower. The 626-hp 12-cylinder is all new and delivers a breathtaking shove when provoked, all in eerie silence. From a standstill, highway speeds are just 3.5–4.0 seconds away, and Bentley claims that, given enough flat road, the 12-cylinder Continental GT can reach an eye-watering 207 mph.
Happily, whether I was casually cruising or canyon-carving, that ineffable sense of hand-crafted uniqueness was omnipresent. From the dashtop stitching to the lacquered veneers to the faceted knobs and certainly the steering wheel, everything I touched seemed to brandish the signature of the person who fashioned it. Sure, it exudes sex appeal, prestige, and high performance. But for me, the most impressive aspect of the new Continental GT is how it so close it brings you to the people that created it.
2020 Bentley Continental GT
Base Price (incl. destination/delivery): $198,500 (coupe); $218,350 (convertible)
Body Style: 2-Door, 4-passenger coupe or convertible
Power: 542-hp V-8 or 626-hp W-12
Shifter: 8-speed automatic with manual shift paddles
Drive wheels: all EPA Fuel Economy, MPG (city/highway): TBA