Bentley's Continental GT Convertible is one of the world's most desirable luxury convertibles - and has been much improved. Jonathan Crouch drives it
The Bentley Continental GT Convertible offers a seductive combination of power, style and craftsmanship. This iconic brand has been making iconic open tourers for over ninety years, some built to achieve success at Le Mans and Brooklands, others to convey their glamorous owners to the resorts of Monte Carlo and Cannes. All have been memorable but in truth, none has been truly sporting in the supercar sense. Until now perhaps. With a choice of 4.0-litre V8 or 6.0-litre twin-turbo W12 engines, this model possesses a blend of trans-continental pace, dynamic drive and luxurious comfort that very few other vehicles can match.
Has the market ever been offered a proper four-seat luxury convertible supercar? I'd argue not. Yes, there are supercar drop-tops with cramped rear seats good for little but designer shopping bags. And, at the other extreme, huge leather-lined four-seater cabrios with lumbering luxury powerplants. But nothing that really combines that Ferrari feeling with space enough to share it en famille. In its original form launched in 2006, this car, the Bentley Continental GT Convertible, arguably got the closest to achieving this, but at heart, it was still more a Grand Tourer than a great sportscar - in first generation form at least. Here though, we're going to look at the current model, an open-topped Bentley that, we're told, now has the drive to delight Ferrari folk, yet manages to combine that with the space and rare refinement of an open-topped Rolls Royce. In prospect then, a very special car indeed. Let's try it.
From rest, the experience is much as it's always been, with the familiar sights, smells and sensations as you ease yourself behind the wheel, casting an admiring glance at the handcrafted leather and veneered wood before pushing the exquisitely chromed starter button. Somewhere in front of you, the huge engine bursts into life with a roar that it's worth taking an extra 25 seconds to experience first hand - this the amount of time it'll take to lower the three-layer fabric roof. If the GT Convertible in question is powered by this 500bhp 4.0-litre V8, then there's a purposeful bark to the note, a straining at the leash to be away, unfolding the horizon towards you. There's also a 521bhp V8S variant with uprated suspension that makes it more of a driver's car. If, on the other hand, power is being delivered by the 567bhp W12 cylinder unit, the engine note is deeper, baser, more relaxed. There's also a 626bhp GT Speed W12 variant at ther top of the range. Whichever engine you choose, you're left in little doubt that the drive you're about to make has the potential to be a very rapid one indeed. Owners with access to an airfield or who happen to have a particularly extravagant driveway on the front of their stately home will marvel even in the base V8 model as sixty flashes by in five seconds before being able to see 187mph figure register on the speedometer if they're brave enough. Go for twelve cylinders and in the standard variant, there's a fractional improvement to 4.5s and 195mph, figures you can further embellish by opting for the pokier 626bhp version of the 6.0-litre unit that's been fitted to the top 200mph GT Speed variant.
Where the very first Continental GT Convertible was elegant and understated, this current version aims to be more modern and contemporary, re-interpreting a family heritage that goes all the way back to Bentley's 1950s R-Type Continental. Hence the more confident look with its wider track, its extra length and its higher waistline. More justification for this model's exalted price tag is found in the beautiful Karmann-made fabric hood which, together with chassis alterations, adds 175kgs to the standard coupe model's already considerable weight. Although it's not the quickest folding mechanism around at 25 seconds from roof up to roof down, you can operate it at speeds of up to 20mph and its cantilevered operation is seamless, with not one mechanical part visible as it goes through its contortions. With seven bows to preserve stiffness, the hood features a triple-lined fabric construction to ensure the best acoustic and thermal insulation properties. The outer layer is thicker than that of any convertible, while the middle insulating layer is also a good deal thicker than the entire roof sections of most drop-tops. The inner layer meanwhile, is made from high quality cloth so impressive that inside, you'd think you were in the fixed-top coupe version of this car. Even an interior light is built into the headlining. Of course, that roof has to go somewhere when not in use and sure enough, bootspace is reduced to 260-litres, down from the 358-litres you could expect from the coupe model.
List prices suggest that, depending on the variant you choose, you'll probably be paying somewhere from just under £140,000 to just over £165,000 once you've allowed for a few well chosen extras. That equates to a premium of around £13,000 over the fixed-top coupe bodystyle. There's also a £13,000 premium to find if you want to progress from the 500bhp V8 to the 567bhp W12 variant, with a further £16,000 to find on top of that if you want the marginal extra performance of the flagship Speed model. Whether you choose the 500bhp 4.0-litre V8, the 567bhp 6.0-litre W12 or the 616bhp W12 Speed, you'll find most of the expected features appropriate to such an expensive car. In second generation guise, these include a re-designed colour touchscreen 30GB infotainment system with an SD card reader, able to store up to 15GB of music you'll be listening to on nothing worse than an 8-speaker, 8 channel set-up. Built in is satellite navigation with dynamic route guidance, seven-digit postcode entry and Google map compatibility. Safety has been as carefully considered as you would expect, with twin front, side and curtain airbags, plus a driver's kneebag, active anti-whiplash head restraints and the usual electronic aids for braking, traction and stability control.
Bentley customers who express an interest in efficiency will be proudly pointed towards the base V8 variant, a car that improves the W12 model's thirsty 19mpg combined cycle showing by around 40% to a more manageable 25.9mpg, enough to improve the average operating range from around 330 to just over 500 miles. As for the CO2 figure, that drops from a faintly embarrassing 347g/km to a more sensible, if hardly saintly, 254g/km. The V8's parsimony comes courtesy of the fact that for large parts of the time you'll be driving it, it won't be a V8 at all but a V4, thanks to a clever system that can seamlessly and automatically deactivate four of the cylinders when they're not needed. Other reasons for the V8 model's greater efficiency include a (surprisingly slim) 25kg weight advantage over the W12 and a more efficient 8-speed automatic gearbox in place of the pokier model's older 6-speeder. But not, as you would perhaps expect, an engine start-stop system: Bentley's engineers reckon the fuel savings from adopting this would be marginal - which seems to fly in the face of worldwide engineering opinion and automotive fact. If you really want to complete your eco-credentials at the wheel of this car (why?), you'll want to run your Continental on fearsomely expensive E85 bio-ethanol fuel - if you can find a garage selling any.
This Continental GT Convertible remains a wonderful achievement. It isn't too taxing to create a supercar capable of lapping racetracks at outlandish speeds but to create something that can do almost the same while cosseting you in an atmosphere akin to an exclusive gentleman's club is a rare feat indeed. Owning one of these is like having your own private jet - in fact, it's better than that because it's so much more usable and roof-down, you can enjoy the journey so much more. This was always the world's most beautifully engineered luxury open-topped conveyance. Now, with its extra sporting brio, it's even more desirable. Is it the proper four-seater supercar convertible we were promised? Specified correctly, you could argue that. What's more important though, is that this remains a gloriously unique way to travel, in every way a true convertible. A Bentley convertible.
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