New life for an old beast: Bentley's Continental GT
John McIlroy is the Deputy Editor of Auto Express and Carbuyer. The views expressed here are his own.
For any car manufacturer, introducing a new model is a risky moment.
When it's your best-selling product -- and arguably the vehicle that saved the company -- then you really take a deep gulp.
But despite the stakes, Bentley is quietly confident about its new, third-generation Continental GT, which has been unveiled online ahead of a public debut at September's Frankfurt motor show.
The "Conti" (as company insiders refer to it) is the best-selling Bentley of all time; more than 70,000 examples have been sold, which is a sizeable number when every unit can cost $150,000 or more.
It is also a constant reminder to the old-guarders in Bentley's sprawling factory site in Crewe, England, that German ownership can work.
The first Deutsche Bentley
When the Continental was launched back in 2003, it was the first new Bentley introduced under the stewardship of the mighty Volkswagen Group.
Engineers, designers and customers were worried about how traditional English craft skills in leather and fine wood veneers could marry German-influenced engineering and production techniques.
Bentley has come a long way since then; it's enjoying record sales, thanks in no small measure to the success of the Bentayga SUV. But now it's time for an all-new Continental to help maintain that momentum.
The underpinnings are unmistakably VW Group -- the chassis is heavily based on one developed by Porsche. And there's even a German in charge of design: Stefan Sielaff, a 30-year Volkswagen veteran who has also held positions at Audi and SEAT.
A tidier look
Under his guidance, Bentley's designers have crafted a clever evolution of the swoopy grand tourer lines that made the Continental such a hit first time round.
Some cues -- the four headlights at the front, the distinctive haunch over the rear wheels -- have been retained. Other elements -- most notably, the rear lighting arrangement -- have been tidied up.
The overall stance looks lower and a little more dramatic, a reflection of Bentley's desire to make the Conti a sports car as well as a grand tourer. It's a trick of the eye, though: the car is about the same length as before, and while the wings stretch a little wider, the overall width to the mirrors is the same.
It's the roofline (lower by just under a centimeter) that has the biggest effect -- that and the longer wheelbase that pushes the wheels towards each corner.
Horizontal, single-piece tail-lights complete the effect, replacing the old two-level items from the outgoing model.
'Playing with millimeters'
"We've been playing with millimeters," Sielaff acknowledges.
"This is a successful model so you don't want to reinvent it completely. But we're pleased with the end result. It's still a classic Bentley tourer, but it's more than that."
The bonnet is now a beautifully crafted single piece of aluminum that helps to do away with the previous car's shut line, just at the front end of the hood. It's a neater effect but is the sort of machining that gives the production department nightmares.
"We had some interesting discussions," admits Sielaff, before pointing out the huge side panels that stretch from the top edge of the windscreen, all the way to the rear lights. They're extraordinarily complex, formed of metal but including half a dozen creases -- some of which run across into the doors.
"They're even more of a challenge, I'm told," Sielaff says with the wry smile of a man who's had the internal arguments, and won them.
100 million lines of code
Under its skin, the new Continental is a bit of a technological marvel.
The car is being launched with its flagship twin-turbocharged W12 petrol engine, which is more powerful than before and also 16 percent more fuel efficient. On board, there are 93 processors, feeding more than a 100 million lines of code through eight kilometers of wiring.
There's likely to be a plug-in hybrid version during the car's life, too -- as soon as Bentley works out how to best 'synthesize' the engine note to maintain emotional appeal when an electric motor is doing the work.
It's inside where Bentley's quality and craftsmanship comes to the fore. You can now have two tons of veneer in the wraparound fascia, and 15 shades of hide (every Continental contains 310,675 stitches, in case you were wondering).
Or the influence of high-end watch manufacturing in the optional Cotes de Geneve turned-metal finish. And the three-sided screen that revolves, like the number plate on James Bond's Aston Martin DB5, to either show a flush piece of veneer, a Retina-resolution infotainment screen or a set of beautiful analogue dials.
Even so, Darren Day, the firm's head of interior design, admits that if the Continental really is to bring in fresh customers to the brand, they have more work to do.
"We do get customers asking for vegan-compatible cabins," he says, "so we are researching into materials that can replace leather but still give us that luxurious feel."
It's more proof, if it were needed, that this famous old British brand is adapting to customer trends.
And a reflection of the fact, surely, that to not do this would be the biggest risk of all.