The roads of the UAE have a cheeky habit of turning the extraordinary into the everyday – and perhaps none more so than in the case of Bentley’s Continental GT. Here is a car, after all, that costs from a smidge more than Dh1 million, yet you will struggle to go a day in the Emirates without spying at least one – I can recall multiple occasions waiting alongside two or more at a single set of traffic lights.
Some mild maths to put that into a wider context: by the most recently available figures, more than 11 per cent of the 11,000 or so cars that comprised Bentley’s annual worldwide sales were acquired by Middle East buyers. This is the top-selling model. By the standards of this rarefied end of the market, that equates to a bona fide unit shifter.
So what of the third generation of a model that made its debut 15 years ago – and last had a full refresh in 2010? Well, for one, the latest incarnation is faster and lighter. As anybody who has had the pleasure of driving the previous-generation Conti can attest, the latter has to be a good thing. Not that this predecessor wasn’t a remarkable two-door grand tourer. It was just that your awareness of its bulk never fully left you. Now, with aluminium aplenty, it has slimmed down to 2,244 kilograms. The engine alone has shed 30kg.
And how fast, exactly? A not inconsiderable 3.7 seconds to hit 100kph from standstill, and a max out of 333kph. That, in the “regular” car, is a mite quicker than outgoing sports-centric special the Continental GT Speed.
With such gas-guzzling raw velocity from a new twin-turbocharged 6.0-litre engine in Bentley’s patented W12 cylinder formation, developed from the Bentayga SUV, the green lobby might very reasonably be clearing their throats to have a word. The Continental GT already has an answer, of sorts: when cruising at about 70kph to 80kph, half of those aforementioned cylinders automatically shut down to save on petrol.
That equates to a potential range of 800km (from a sizeable 90-litre fuel tank) and a 16 per cent improvement on fuel consumption from the old Conti. Admittedly, 12.2 litres per 100km will win few prizes for budget running. But given Bentley’s success in the Middle East – added to the fact that its biggest market is the United States, where petrol is also affordable – the luxury carmaker didn’t necessarily need to bother with environmental concerns.
To find out how these two opposing sets of motoring goals stack up in real life, I’m in the show-stopping surrounds of the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse, a mountain road that slices up, down and through the Austrian Central Alps in spectacular style. Soon after a stopover at the small strip of tarmac of Lienz-Nikolsdorf Airport to illustrate how the Conti’s external lines are inspired by aircraft fuselages, I certainly get to experience first-hand the benefits of another increased stat: bigger brakes.
A people-carrier in front takes little heed of the Bentley approaching from behind when deciding to suddenly half pull on to the grass verge. With traffic ahead in the opposite direction, the only option is to give the callipers an enthusiastic workout. What, in many cars of this weight, could have turned the incident into a expletive-laden close call is instead comfortably averted. It is tangibly nimbler while manoeuvring at speed, too.
The exterior is a welcome update on the old Conti, which was beginning to look a little over-familiar. Larger wheels give an added dash of hunched drama, with flanks skimming around the 21-inch Pirellis (22-inchers are an optional extra) as part of a noticeably more aggressive profile. The headlamps, meant to evoke crystal-cut glass, are rowdier; the rear is sharper.
Those headlamps contains a dose of impressive tech, as well: there are 82 LEDs, which can be individually cut out as the car detects vehicles ahead to shape the light emitted, meaning that you can leave on full beam without worrying about dazzling other drivers.
Running the numbers on the inside and beneath the car’s skin yields similarly impressive results: 10 square metres of veneer; more than 310,000 stitches go into the omnipresent leather; the electrics feature 2,300 circuits and about 8km of wiring. And with Dubai among a clutch of testing locations around the world for the Conti, you can be fairly sure that it all should stand up to the mercury-melting extremes of a UAE summer.
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The headline-grabbing innovation of an interior that already features head-up display, numerous camera-assisted aids (including infra-red night vision) and a 10-speaker audio system as standard, however, is undoubtedly a revolving dash display. It can be switched between a row of analogue dials, the 12.3-inch central touchscreen and a plain, classy veneer section – and is rather Q from James Bond.
The Conti isn’t quite perfect. Most notably, the gear lever is often fiddly to engage, particularly when selecting reverse. And while flipping the drive-mode dial far left into Sport mode catalyses a fitting bump in performance, it is all done without an aural drama that you can’t help but crave – from inside the car, the exhaust pops are a slight victim of the Bentley’s superbly insulated cabin.
The Aston Martin DB11 is arguably this car’s closest competitor. And while Bentley won’t join the Bond-backed brand in moving into a second century of remarkable cars until next year, the Continental GT is keeping pace with its rival.
What it lacks in straight-up driving thrills, it makes up in genuine grand tourer pedigree. How else can you hit 333kph while feeling daisy-fresh from within a cabin this luxurious?