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Motoring: Extreme driving

19 November 2011

12:00 PM

19 November 2011

12:00 PM

One week, two convertibles. The first, a 40-year-old held together by rust, with doors so warped I’ve taken them off, the windscreen secured by baler twine to keep out the rain when it stands but removed when we go anywhere, no lights, free road tax, cheap insurance, and a first-time starter that does all you ask of it, eventually. Neither old enough to be interesting nor rare enough to be valuable, it is of course my tractor, a Universal, a Romanian Fiat built under licence. It belonged to my father and I paid the man who bought his farm £200 for it.

It is massively overengineered and quite wonderfully slow. On our annual tractor trundle — a three-hour procession of 60 to 80 old tractors around the parish — its low gearing ensures a long gap between me and the next ahead until we reach a hill, the steeper the better, when all that low-end torque shows its strength and up we swoop like a swallow. Well, sort of.

Torque was also a feature of the week’s second convertible, the new Bentley GTC. I had to cross the parish boundary for that and fly by private charter to Croatia; one puts up with these things. Hard to imagine, but the torque of this new model makes progress even more effortless than in the 2006 version. The 6.0-litre V12 now yields 516lb.ft of torque and 567bhp, while the six-speed Quickshift transmission offers 0–60mph in 4.5 seconds (same as another new wind-in-your hair bit of fun, the £30,000 Morgan three-wheeler). With an official top speed of 195mph, the GTC edges my tractor by about 183mph, although Bentley’s traditional caution with such figures means that real tops would be 200mph-plus.

But I fear it was the body rather than the heart that struck me. The original Continental GT was compromised by its rear. The 2006 GTC was better but still didn’t look all it should with the hood up. This does. A combination of sharpened radii, seamlessly super-formed aluminium, wider track and a longer, higher waistline convey a sculpted, sensual elegance, hood up or down. In characteristic Bentley style, it is at once understated and unmistakable. It is also, I reckon, unique.

Bentley say its market markers for this model are Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Aston Martin and upper-end Mercedes and Porsche. But that is to mistake buyers for cars. None of those manufacturers offers a proper four-seater, two-door, rag-top GT supercar. It’s not really a sports car — too big and heavy — but its performance and handling limits are so far beyond those of most drivers that you can’t really put it through its paces even on the sweeping hillside roads of Istria (too many police radar traps — though no potholes). Yet it’s also usable as an everyday commuter; Continental GTs have a good reliability record.

It is a genuine four-seater, thanks partly to slimmer seat backs. The heated front seats feature a neck-warmer, though groping for the switch to turn it off while driving had me reclining, raising, lowering, heating, hardening, reversing and all but launching my seat before I found it. The chassis is said to be the stiffest of any convertible but suspension settings give you a flexible enough ride, even on 21-inch tyres and in Sports mode. The addition of an under-tray, improved wheel arch liners, a third layer of glass and three layers of fabric roof make for impressively silent acoustics, with virtually no tyre noise (ditto my tractor but for different reasons). The all-wheel-drive system has 40–60 front-rear power distribution for the enthusiastic driver, and overall it’s shed 20k in weight. These changes make a difference: although as solid and well planted on the road as most Bentleys, with the right hands on the wheel it can move like a Croatian goat.

It’s also the model line that saved Bentley, raising production from 1,200 a year to a peak of 10,000. The recession more than halved that but now, economic gloom notwithstanding, it has sold 4,600 in the first eight months of the year and is aiming for 7,000, an increase of 40 per cent over last year. The 1,000 sold in China represent a 67 per cent increase, while the US is up 36 per cent and Europe 35 per cent (two thirds of which are in Germany). Just under half of all new sales are the GT model.

And the future? Well, the talk is diesel and a new SUV. A diesel Bentley may seem an affront to purists (as did a diesel Jaguar, remember) but Le Mans was won with one. As for the SUV, the initially unthinkable Cayenne outsells the rest of the Porsche range — and Bentley’s new top management team are ex-Porsche. Fears of brand-dilution are understandable and new models must sustain brand identity, but if the alternative in an evolving market is to do only what you’ve done before, you’re doomed. That’s how Bentley began, and why it lasted only 12 years as an independent company. It doesn’t matter if it’s new so long as it’s good. And it has to feel it will last at least as long as my tractor. 

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