The car that defined Bentley’s modern era moves the brand definitively into the future.
A warning came through the walkie-talkie: there were monkeys on the road ahead.
Repeat: monkeys on the road ahead.
I was sitting in the second of two low, mean-looking black coupes escorted front and rear by galloping gray Bentley Bentayga luxury SUVs, a high-speed convoy rolling fast through the South African hillside looking, I imagined, like some corporate mercenaries coming in heavy to stomp a miner’s strike. As I tried to recall whether, of all the many dangers and potential obstructions I’d heard relayed over car-to-car radio—traffic, gravel, deer, cops, spilled oil, bicyclists, debris, joggers, speed cameras, bright sunlight and blind crests—monkeys had ever made an appearance (they had not) we passed the trio of vervets scampering west into tall grass. The group pulled onto a scenic overlook perched just below the clouds, the vantage point so high that the vast acres of mahogany trees covering the distant valley looked like a fuzzing of moss, and waited for the gawkers to arrive.
It did not take long. Traveling in any type of convoy is conspicuous, and a procession of Bentleys exponentially more so, but including an imposing pair of mystery vehicles, the true contours of which are hidden under false body panels, taped-on wheel arches, illustrated headlights, and artlessly redecorated front fascias invites a direct kind of scrutiny. Like a superhero’s costume, it’s a disguise that demands attention.
The first observer, a local man out for a picnic with his family, wandered over. He indicated one of the camouflaged two-doors and asked if it was a Tesla.
“I hope it’s a Tesla,” he added.
Cameron Patterson, director of full-vehicle engineering, my part-time guide for the next two days, remained upbeat and friendly despite the fact that the car in question was not a Tesla—even though in many ways, some of them purposeful, the undercover car represented the very opposite idea of a motor vehicle than a showy, gull-winged Model X or an all-electric futuremobile like the Model 3.
Patterson pointed out that the car had a grille, which served to feed air to an engine, which therefore negated the possibility that the car was a battery-powered Tesla.
Another man, tall and soft-spoken, stepped forward and presented his question as a statement: “This car,” he said, “is maybe from Great Britain.”
Patterson smiled and seemed to lean into his Scottish brogue when he replied, “Well, this car may be from Great Britain,”—a pause, a tilt of the head—”and it may not be from Great Britain.”
The dodge struck me as an odd response, because car companies usually cannot stop talking about its newest cars. In fact, marketing departments are tasked with spending loads of money, sometimes millions of dollars, to explain to as many of the right people, as often as possible, that: 1.) the company has introduced a new car; 2.) the new car is very special, for all the most important reasons; 3.) choosing to continue to live life without said car would be a grave, foolish, indeed possibly fatal mistake.
Then again, this new, third-generation Bentley Continental GT, carrying the great expectations of an upcoming replacement for the brand’s stalwart, now-iconic 14-year-old volume model, was so very fresh that it was not yet fair to even call it a car. It was a prototype, and therefore a closely guarded Big Secret, and Bentley was in South Africa to make sure everything in the car would still function even after beating the hell out of it in the aggressively, rudely hot parts of the world. I was along for the ride, and the ride was running at breakneck speed.
The Vehicle-Development Process: A Short Primer
January is a busy time to be in the car-testing business. If you’re a European brand, like Bentley, most of your testing is done during the European winter, which provides properly frigid temperatures up north while hot-weather evaluation can still take place with a short jaunt south of the equator, to a place like the Kruger wildlife reserve in Nelspruit, South Africa, a short flight from Johannesburg.
“The Continental GT prototypes had already bested the initial acceleration target, which had since been revised down.”
This is where I joined a team of Bentley engineers, executives, and support staff, some of whom had been assessing the prototype Continental GTs for weeks, with escalating levels of oversight. The testing was at first the purview of a smaller corps of engineers, each responsible for a small and very specific slice of the car—powertrain or climate control or switchgear—later joined by department managers, then finally making room for top-level Bentley executives. This included Bentley CEO Wolfgang Dürheimer, whom I had seen just a few days earlier in Lisbon, Portugal, for the media drive of the bonkers, 209-mph Bentley Continental Supersports—making that car both the final and the fastest of the soon-to-be previous-generation Continentals—and who had preceded me to Kruger by two days, driven the cars, given his feedback, and set off again for some other far-flung destination. The only trace of the Bentley chief executive I found when I arrived in South Africa was a pervasive “Dürheimer was here” imprint, like conversational graffiti, whenever the testing group talked shop. His presence marked the crossing of an unseen line: what had been a test of many individual systems had become, if for a short time, an evaluation of the vehicle in its entirety, by the big boss man—one step closer, in other words, to being a real new car.
The timeline for creating a new car goes, very broadly, like this: a digital concept phase moves to a simulator phase wherein new systems are placed into existing vehicles, which then moves to a prototype phase of new-build cars, which then moves to refinement phase on later-prototype cars, which then moves to a final shakedown where, hopefully, all of the parts being tested are production-tooled. All told, according to Bentley engineers, the entire process can take up to four years. Then, at last, a new car is born, and typically unveiled at one of the big international auto shows like Geneva or New York or Frankfurt.
I joined Bentley during the late-prototype refinement phase, called VFF testing (the acronym makes sense in German) more than three years into development, with around 285,000 test miles already complete through the first several stages. Between building the vehicles and testing both in hot weather—in this case, in South Africa—and cold, in places like Finland, where temperatures just a few weeks prior had hit -15 degrees Fahrenheit, the VFF phase would require about four full months. Each car was equipped with a massive, 60-gigabyte solid-state data recorder into which evaluators from four main departments—powertrain, chassis, body, and electrical—plus the de facto fifth department, “full vehicle,” overseen by Patterson and incorporating the other four, entered feedback on a dashboard-mounted input unit that each day transmitted to an offsite server. Each vehicle also came with an iPad, for entering various ratings from one to 10. On that scale, according Rolf Frech, Bentley board member for engineering, 10 ranks as “absolute perfection,” while a six is considered “on the limit” of acceptability, where “a sensitive customer might notice this problem.” Any debilitating mechanical issues would be resolved as they arose, but for the most part the prototypes would stay as-is during the length of each development phase.
The point of the VFF stage is to put the cars into extreme environments and under acute duress, to induce a sort of rapid aging. This not only helps the engineers, who spend up to seven hours per day in the cars, to identify early-failure points, but also to begin to determine how the car should feel. Through damping settings and low-speed drivability feel and the quickness of the steering rack and the engine note’s particular composition, the team was starting to assemble the complex equation that would solve for the new Continental GT’s soul.
This part of Africa is green and hilly and full of wildlife. Before I arrived, the weather had been so full of rain and fog the British-born team members had taken to referring to the area as “Scotland, with monkeys.” But, finally, the sun had broken through and the weather became the type of hot that qualified for hot-weather testing.
Bentley, like many automakers, has long conducted dry- and hot-weather testing for new vehicles in South Africa, though the choice of Kruger was new and based on the recommendation of a former Porsche engineer; that company has in the past utilized the region’s open, high-speed roads and relative anonymity for its own development programs. The British and the German manufacturers are corporate cousins under the massive Volkswagen Group umbrella, and the decision to test the new Continental in Kruger was not the only Bentley-Porsche connection: the new Continental GT is underpinned by a shortened version of the MSB chassis first introduced on the newest Porsche Panamera sedan, earlier in 2017. This car marks not only the first time a Bentley will have been built on a Porsche platform, but the first time Porsche has shared a chassis with another brand, ever. (Patterson admits the unfamiliar, intra-group collaboration arrangement had “quite a few teething problems.”) But Rolf Frech, Bentley board member for engineering, made clear that the British brand did not simply repurpose a finished Porsche platform but was part of the chassis-development process during the early stage—making sure, for example, that certain sections were stiff enough for future use in a heavy ultra-luxury saloon. The MSB chassis, according to Frech, was in fact “designed by Porsche and Bentley.”
“It made the platform better for Porsche, too,” Frech said.
As part of the deal, the new Continental will also use Porsche’s incredibly fast and durable—and, it was noted, imposingly wide—PDK double-clutch transmission. There was early concern over whether the system could be made refined enough for a Bentley customer’s taste, which runs toward smoothness, silence, and “lots of performance, but not quite so dynamic compared to a Porsche,” according to Patterson. Those concerns were quickly allayed.
“This was a fresh, thrilling, thoroughly modern grand tourer—full stop, as the Brits say.”
While sitting shotgun in car VFF1, I discussed with Patterson his own expectations for the new grand tourer. The car we were riding in did not have the requisite level of low-speed drivability, he said; the powertrain and gearbox calibration would also need tweaking. We left behind the commuter streets around the hotel for twisting, climbing logging roads, passing trucks stacked with freshly-felled trunks like giant toothpicks. As our speed increased, Patterson’s feedback became more detailed.
“The Panamera’s steering is full of raw feel, and this has some of that, but it needs to be a bit plush,” he said, noting that the Continental GT’s steering will be lighter than the Panamera’s—precise without being too direct, which Patterson said helps create a more luxurious feel. The new car will sit lower than the current GT, with a longer wheelbase, a shorter overhang, and the engine positioned 50mm further back for a better 48/52 front-to-rear weight distribution and a lighter nose. The MSB platform provides a more modern chassis set-up and will make for a sportier overall product than the VW Phaeton platform on which most Bentleys are based, Patterson said—the requisite, anecdote-worthy levels of luxury can be added in later—while bigger, wider tires at the rear means “loads more grip.”
The engine clapped loud through the cabin under hard acceleration. “A bit boomy for me,” Patterson said.
Some people like boomy, I thought. Then I wondered aloud just how fast the car will be.
“It’s fucking quick,” Patterson said. The new Continental GT will debut with Bentley’s enduring, twin-turbo W-12 engine, with other engine options—a V-8 is a sure bet, but don’t put money on a diesel—available down the line. Patterson told me the VFF prototypes had already bested the initial acceleration target, which had since been revised down. I requested specific power numbers and performance specs; I was denied. Instead, I was told the car will have the same torque as the Bentayga—meaning 664 pound-feet—and a serving size more than that vehicle’s 600 horsepower.
As the convoy pulled into another rest area for a driver change, Patterson instructed me, whenever I had a chance to drive with Rolf Frech, to ask him about the Dynamic Ride system on the new Continental GT. Frech was quite proud of that system, he said.
“These days, electronics engineers rule the world,” added Patterson, who comes from that world himself, explaining the importance of software to every aspect of a modern luxury car—even a grand tourer with an engine that, even as far as gas-burners go, is in both size and configuration pointedly venerable.
“It’s no longer about building the cars, but getting more than 100 ECUs working with each other,” he said.
That night’s dinner was a subdued affair of more than a dozen executives, engineers, vehicle-support and PR staff sitting around a large table, drinking good local wine and ribbing one another and making jokes in a vein of comedy I was unaware until that moment existed: car-development humor. (For example, at the sight of a chateaubriand set alight: “A Bentley never catches on fire; there is only a ‘thermal incident’ or a ‘rapid corrosion event.’“) One of the engineers, a young Welsh guy, mentioned that he had been at home in Crewe, England, for a total of two days so far in the year; it was February 18th. He had been with the cars in Finland, and now South Africa, and after this portion of the development drive was finished he would follow the cars to Sweden and start the process again.
The vehicle-support crew, too, will often to these extended testing sessions back-to-back-to-back, spending literally weeks on end together: trailing the convoy in a support vehicle, eating meals, figuring out how to spend free time—a jog, a trip to a local attraction—and cleaning and working on the prototypes. I heard it referred to as “the circus” more than once.
And when the videographer’s laptop appeared on the dinner table and began issuing familiar barks and squeals, the support crew along with everyone at the table gathered around the screen and pointed and smiled and nudged one another in recognition. Even after an entire day of logging data and tapping iPads and radioing road conditions, and that being just one of many such days stretching back weeks that were filled with morning briefings and motel pillows and honing the ability to pick your teammates’ farts out of a lineup and standing in various lines—coming through customs, checking into hotels, standing turn for the port-o-john—and, sometimes, with monkeys on the road, the team stood enraptured by the sight of boxy, black, camouflaged two-seat sports car prototypes tearing around a bend over and over and over, and they couldn’t get enough.
The second day—for me, anyway—of the exotic and top-secret Bentley prototype test program began with that most mundane of car-related bungles: misplaced car keys.
“Key discipline among the engineers is always a problem,” Cameron Patterson explained, as Rolf Frech and I idled in prototype VFF8, the sibling to yesterday’s test vehicle but featuring a different front suspension set-up for the purposes of comparison. The delay gave me a chance to inspect the car’s interior, still a work in progress given that the finer details of fitment would not be hashed out until a later phase. But a Bentley’s interior is its true showroom, an individualized exhibit where the brand’s masterful wood- and metal- and leatherwork is put on display, and arguably the area in which the badge most earns the types of price tags that can start at several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite repeated evidence of hard living and counterfeit trim panels—both common to prototypes used for mechanical and electronics development—some broad design takeaways could be sussed.
Most noticeable was the new 2018 Continental GT’s cleaner layout up front. This car will finally ditch the “winged” dual-cockpit formation that has been a Bentley calling card since the first Continental GTs, in 2003; the winged dashboard’s towering expanse of wood and leather, with its pendulous overhang of a center console, has been slimmed and smoothed and canted forward in a way that brings to mind a modern Scandinavian yacht rather than a staid British touring saloon. It’s a stylishly polished aesthetic that feels more luxurious, not less, thanks to its clean lines and exacting edit.
The new architecture was no doubt blueprinted around the expansive, VW Group-sourced multimedia interface that integrates fluently into the cockpit. It was a bright, hi-def touchscreen running across the top of the center stack, which will reportedly have the ability to connect up to three mobile phones at the same time, and will hopefully end Bentley infotainment systems’ long-running war against modernity and usability. (Though the prototype in which I was seated lacked the functionality, I was told the infotainment screen will be part of a neat bit of theater: a three-sided, electronically rotating “toblerone” that swaps between displaying either the MMI screen, a horizontal trio of unspecified analog gauges, or a matched and near-seamless continuation of the car’s interior.) Other modern touches proliferated without overwhelming: a handsome frameless rearview mirror; a scrollable, all-electronic driver’s display with the first digital gauges ever fitted to a Bentley. Those digital gauges may not make the leap to every Bentley model—the Mulsanne saloon begs for beautiful analog versions—but Frech said they make sense for the Continental GT customer base, which trends younger.
But the piece of technology Frech is most excited about is a bit of chassis sorcery called electro-mechanical active roll-stabilization—eAWS—powered by a 48-volt electrical subsystem packaged in the rear, with actuators fore and aft. Called Dynamic Ride in corporate-speak, the system was ported over from the Bentayga SUV, where it mostly helped deliver a certain level of ride comfort; in the new Continental GT, however, Frech said it gives the engineers “another dimension for tuning the car.”
Say you want to keep the cabin flat during hard cornering. Normally, engineers would have to increase the spring rate, which can decrease ride comfort. But with an eAWS system the engineers can tune the spring rate as they like for comfort, nearly independent of how the cabin is designed to behave during cornering—that part being addressed by Dynamic Ride. It’s apparently no small thing: Bentley now runs a new stand-alone department within the chassis group dedicated solely to eAWS.
The new GTs will feature adjustable ride height thanks to an air suspension, giving the car the ability to squat at higher speeds for better aerodynamics, or rise above speed bumps or for better ingress and egress. Even from the passenger seat (there would be no driver’s seat time, despite repeated requests) the car felt vital, grippy and nimble in a way the last-generation Continental GT, even the monstrously fast Supersports variant or the track-inspired GT3-R model, simply did not. Despite their status as unfinished prototypes, from the time I experienced the VFF cars hustled through corners at speed it was immediately apparent that this new generation Continental GT would be more modern and dynamic than anything currently in the stable—a leap so far forward, in fact, that it might completely wipe clean Bentley’s reputation for charmingly deliberate anachronism. Disguise panels aside, this was already a fresh, thrilling, thoroughly modern grand tourer—full stop, as the Brits say.
Frech was mostly pleased with the vehicle, saying the chassis tuning for the cars was “already there.” Power delivery and linear acceleration were working well in prototype VFF8, he added, though some of the MMI design and the difference in engine noise between Bentley mode and Sport mode needed more work.
“It’s not just noise, but character,” Frech says of the engine note. “I want to hear all 12 cylinders.”
I asked about the possibility of using active noise cancelling, a type of sonic counter-programming against creeping ambient noise that can create the almost overwhelming sense of quiet found inside a sensory-deprivation tank. The technology is becoming big news in the luxury car space, but it was a fraught subject for Frech, who insinuated it was a sort of cheat, a band-aid to cover noise, vibration, and harshness issues that should have been resolved from the outset.
“It’s like electronic stability control—I tell my engineers to start chassis-tuning with ESC off,” he says. “A car needs to be balanced without ESC first, as a proper baseline.”
Bentley vehicles are supremely quiet by design, which requires no small amount of engineering ingenuity when dealing with large-displacement gas-burning engines, and there was a sense that noise-cancelling technology provided other brands with a way to match or exceed a Bentley core competency, but in a way that lacked authenticity.
“Rolf hates anything inauthentic,” Cameron Patterson tells me later. But, he says, “we’ll probably get to cancellation before we get to [noise] generation”—by which he meant electric vehicles.
The possible transition to battery power is another fraught subject for the Bentley team, despite the fact that key electric vehicle attributes—gobs of low-end torque and smooth, powerful acceleration; a quiet ride; a planted road feel thanks to a low center of gravity—overlap perfectly with what Bentley strives to deliver with every vehicle. There’s the typical hedging about delivering “what the customer expects,” of course, but there’s also the sense that this is a legacy brand still enamored with the old-school alchemy it has perfected over the course of nearly a century—the ability to transform big, heavy gas-burning engines and yards of leather and wood and chrome into a powerful, thrilling, yet thoroughly civilized means of conveyance. The 2018 Continental GT, even in disguised prototype form, even in the midst of a grueling development drive, feels like like the familiar magic of an impeccably crafted automobile brought unmistakably into the modern era.
Consider it a warning to the rest of the field: there’s a new Bentley Continental GT on the road ahead. Prepare to be surprised.