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The ultra-luxury end of the automotive market was long an exclusive club, with a select few manufacturers competing for a limited and extraordinarily affluent clientele. But despite the recent explosion of offerings, including DaimlerChrysler’s Maybach and Volkswagen’s Bugatti, buyers have largely responded with a yawn.
The notable exception has been Bentley, which scored a home run several years back, with the launch of its strikingly sleek Continental GT. Buoyed by the success of the coupe, the VW division’s sales have been setting successive all-time records, with buyers queuing up on long waiting lists.
Demand soared last year when Bentley introduced the first Continental spin-off. Stretched a full 20 inches, the Continental Flying Spur added a positively cavernous back seat to what was functionally little more than a two-seater, yet by using some nifty tricks to minimize added weight, the Spur retained the coupe’s thrilling acceleration and nimble handling.
On a recent trip to Northern California, TheCarConnection.com had the opportunity to test the latest Continental variant, the GTC. That’s “C” as in the long-rumored Cabriolet, a logical addition to the British marque’s expanding lineup — though more than a few observers were surprised by Bentley’s decision to forego the newest trend towards retractable hardtops and stick with conventional cloth.
Anything but conventional
Fabric, yes, but as we found out during a long wander through redwood country, the GTC is anything but a conventional convertible.
2007 Bentley Continental GT
With the top up, the GTC maintains the smooth, curvaceous lines of the original coupe, though 51 percent of the body panels are unique to the convertible. Adding several extra struts under the cloth, explained Uli Eichorn, Bentley’s director of engineering, “prevented what the British call the ‘starving cow look.’”
There are, in fact, six layers of cloth and the result is quite astounding. Starting out on a brisk, Napa Valley morning, we kept the top up for the first 50 miles of our drive. The cabin was so quiet that had we gotten into the car blindfolded, we probably wouldn’t have even known we were riding inside a convertible.
But as the sun rose and temperatures warmed on that crisp, late summer morning, we tapped a button and, in just 25 seconds, the top rolled back and neatly tucked itself away. The system is designed to operate even while the cabriolet is moving — at speeds up to 25 mph.
The standard-issue wind blocker proved surprisingly effective so, even at highway speeds, there was never too much wind blowing through the cabin. Even at 70 mph, on the Interstate, it was possible to hold a pleasant conversation without shouting.
The original GT earned a reputation for its stiff, solid body, which translated into a sporty and predictable ride. To maintain that rigidity and handling, Bentley has taken several critical steps to stiffen such things as the rocker panels and trunk wall, while adding stiffeners in a number of other key places.
2007 Bentley Continental GT
For added protection, there’s high-strength steel in the A-pillar, as well as spring-loaded rollover bars in the rear. There’s also a Rollover Protection System designed to keep the car stabile and prevent you from flipping over.
What’s impressive is that the GTC still comes in only about 220 pounds heavier than the standard-issue GT — though the coupe itself is an admittedly hefty machine, at 5320 lb.
You feel that heft a bit while driving any of the Continental models. There’s no hiding this is a heavy automobile, yet the GTC is, in particular, among the most lively and dexterous sports cabrios we’ve ever driven. During several hours of driving through the dense redwood forests near the Oregon border, we were consistently amazed by the convertible’s surefootedness.
The car’s steering is precise and predictable, requiring just enough muscle to keep you in touch with the road.
Like the other Continental models, the GTC features a four-link suspension at the front and a trapezoidal multi-link rear axle with computer-controlled air springs and fully variable, electronically controlled shock absorbers. For the Cabriolet, though, the damper has been lowered by about eight inches, and is now mounted to a brand-new lower trapezoidal link.
Of course, it helps to have the GTC’s twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter W-12 engine mated to an all-wheel-drive powertrain that could readily distribute power where it is needed most at any particular moment. Pumping out a hefty 552 horsepower, it moves the cabriolet’s mass effortlessly, launching from 0-60 in just 4.8 seconds. We’ll have to take Bentley’s word that top speed is 195 mph with the top up and 190 with it down.
Kudos, also, to the well-placed paddle shifters placed within easy reach of the steering wheel. They work intuitively and quickly, and the Bentley system doesn’t require you to push the main gear selector into manual mode. Just tap the paddles and you can shift as you wish. Wait a few seconds and you return to fully automatic mode.
2007 Bentley Continental GT
Here’s your justification
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The new GTC carries a bit of a premium, at $196,285 — which includes a $3700 gas-guzzler tax and $2595 in destination charges.
What justifies that price tag? Well, to aficionados, there’s that big “B” logo on the hood and wheels. The styling is an absolute eye-catcher. We were constantly getting thumbs-up and smiles, and heads spun as we’d drive by pedestrians.
The GTC, like the rest of the Continental lineup, also boasts one of the most handsome interiors of any car on the road. Bentley has contrasted a mix of classic luxury cues, starting with the sumptuous leather and burr walnut veneer on our test car, with more modern, touches, such as the machined aluminum gearshift.
The seats are sporty yet sumptuous. They’re extraordinarily comfortable on a long drive, yet cradle you firmly during hard acceleration and while negotiating tight turns.
Of course you wouldn’t want to pack two adults in the back seat of this 2+2 for any extended travel. As a lawyer friend likes to call them, these are “insurance seats,” designed as much as anything to meet rules that favor four-seaters in determining insurance rates.
We were pleased to see that Bentley has finally caught up on technology. The original GT boasted some impressive features, but did lag behind in some areas, such as the CD-based navigation system, which required a collection of discs to travel from state-to-state. Now, there’s a DVD navi that covers the entire country.
2007 Bentley Continental GT
There’s also a new Bluetooth system to pair with a cellphone. We found it effective, but not always willing to sync up with all phones.
As with the original GT, the central control system — which operates everything from climate control to navi — is far easier to learn than competitive systems, such as the maligned BMW iDrive. But if there’s any valid complaint, it’s that Bentley’s controller has been lifted from the far less expensive Volkswagen Phaeton. Then again, considering how few folks ever saw or drove the VW luxury sedan, maybe that doesn’t matter.
It’s hard to argue with success, and there’s little doubt that Bentley has done an impressive job with all three Continental models. For those who want their luxury in topless form, the GTC is all but certain to connect. Its stratospheric price tag puts it well beyond the reach of mere mortals, but for those who can climb this high, this Cabriolet comes in a package that’s hard to resist.
2007 Bentley Continental GTC
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 189.1 x 82.7 x 55.0 in
Wheelbase: 108.1 in
Curb weight: 5320 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 11/18 mpg
Safety features: Anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control; front, side, and curtain airbags
Major standard features: Power front driver’s and passenger’s seats; dual-zone climate control; CD changer; power tilt/telescoping leather and wood steering wheel; DVD navigation system; electro-hydraulic power roof; keyless entry and ignition; power-lift trunk; Bluetooth hands-free phone system; bi-xenon headlamps
Warranty: Three years/unlimited mileage