Perfecting ride and handling is one of the most complex and difficult areas of car design. For the Continental GT designers this job has been doubly tough for few cars, if any, have been brought to market with a greater expectation of excellence in both areas.
Even so, by starting with well defined and extremely ambitious targets and then applying clear thinking and the skills of a 25-strong chassis engineering team to realise them, the Continental GT has been equipped with a chassis that should appeal to sybarites and thrill-seekers equally. The result is a car with firm rather than harsh suspension, impressive resistance to roll, pitch and heave yet compliant enough to ride poorly surfaced roads with absolute equanimity.
The basis of the Continental GT’s chassis strategy is an extremely stiff body, without which, even the most sophisticated of suspension systems can be undermined. To this was applied the very latest in suspension technology featuring an innovative double wishbone arrangement at the front – designed to minimise torque reactions through the steered wheels – and multi-link rear axle behind. Extensive use of aluminium has been made, notably in the control arms, to lower unsprung mass while the entire front subframe of the car is fashioned from stainless steel.
Air springs are used at each corner in place of conventional coils, each one containing its own infinitely adjustable electronic damper. The application of pressure to an air spring (best thought of as bellows contained within a metal tube) is uniform while coil springs are subject to side forces that, in turn, lead to damper friction, the bane of any chassis engineer’s life. Also the bellows can move through different shapes as they expand and compress, effectively allowing variable spring rates to be used.
Two more advantages of air springs are that they can be smaller and therefore easier to package than conventional coil systems and secondly, they allow a car to maintain its static ride height, regardless of load, so the car does not suddenly become spongy to drive when fully laden.
The electronic dampers fitted to the Continental GT do more than offer a few different settings for the driver to play with. Within their set parameters they are, in fact, capable of adjusting themselves infinitely and continuously without the driver ever being aware of it.
A central computer processes information fed to it from sensors around the car and instructs the dampers accordingly, each damper is capable of adjusting its damping control many times during a single event, such as a wheel moving up and down over a bump. The key is for the computer to analyse both the car’s body and wheel movements to ensure both remain in harmony with each other.
Naturally both traction control and the latest Bosch Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) are fitted though they can be disabled at the discretion of the driver. The secret to understanding their function is to see them as additional to the Continental GT’s exceptionally well-mannered dynamic behaviour, rather than as an essential ingredient in keeping a car of these capabilities safe. Bentley knows that many of its customers will want to turn the electronics off from time to time and they need to be certain that even without these aids, the Continental GT’s handling remains supremely secure and capable.
Most of the time, however, the ESP will be enabled, but inactive; should it be required by the driving conditions though, it will be deployed automatically but unobtrusively, so as not to intrude on the Bentley driving experience.
The Continental GT is capable of monitoring a whole range of dynamic attitudes such as lateral acceleration, individual wheel speeds, throttle position and brake pressure. No car can defy the laws of physics and there are certain extreme conditions that even ESP will be unable to guard against, but as an extra line of defence for the unfortunate driver caught out by unexpected circumstances, its safety value is real and evident.
That said, as the most sporting road-going Bentley since the R-Type Continental, the Continental GT is a driver’s car through and through and Bentley’s chassis engineers – enthusiasts all – have been acutely aware that not only must the chassis have the raw ability to match perfectly the engine’s phenomenal output, it must provide it in a way that indulges and engrosses its driver.
To this end, a huge amount of work has been done analysing spring, damper and anti-roll bar rates to ensure the car has the right sporting stance on the road. Exhaustive testing of different steering geometries has then been undertaken to eliminate unwanted torque reactions, and also to provide the appropriate amount of ‘feel’ in the chassis. In particular, the Servotronic rack and pinion steering has been evaluated to ensure it delivers the right response in terms of steering, but also feedback to the driver.
Wheel and tyre choice is, of course, crucial to the development of any chassis, and while work continues apace in this area, the Continental GT will come with 19in wheels as standard.
Braking will be provided by all new, ventilated disc brakes at each corner featuring the latest Bosch anti-lock system with Brake Assist and Emergency Brake Force Distribution.
Once all the specification of the chassis had been determined, the Continental GT was put through the most rigorous real world evaluation programme of any Bentley in history, a process that continues to this day. From race tracks such as the famed original Nurburgring to mountain passes and sinuous switchbacks all over the world, the Continental GT is being tested and re-tested to fine tune its exceptionally promising chassis specification to provide ride and handling standards that don’t merely rise above the class standard but define it.
The Continental GT is equipped with the full suite of passive safety equipment. As well as possessing exceptional front, side and rear deformation characteristics on impact, there are two front airbags, four side airbags and two side curtain bags that, unusually for a coupé, each run along the full length of the cabin. Seat belt pretensioners are used for all four seats.
Of course prevention is better than cure and avoiding the accident in the first place has to be preferable. To this end the Continental GT is specified like few others in the market. All-wheel drive, when correctly exploited, has colossal safety advantages in adverse conditions, while the latest traction, stability and brake control systems offer further opportunities for drivers to extricate themselves from danger. And of course there is the not small issue of the powerful engine and its ability to keep time spent on the wrong side of the road during overtaking to an absolute minimum; and should you ever have to accelerate away from trouble, few will do so more quickly than this.
At its core, the Continental GT is the result of just three things: first a deep seated emotional desire within Bentley for over 20 years to create an all new compact coupe. Secondly there is VW’s provision of the financial wherewithal not simply to create the car, but to do so in a way that gave Bentley a design, engineering and manufacturing lead over all potential rivals. But the Continental GT still would not have been possible without a concrete business case for producing such a car and introducing the prospect of Bentley ownership to a greater number of discerning enthusiasts than ever before.
The business case is satisfyingly straightforward and hinges on what Bentley believes to be a clear gap in the upper luxury coupé market. Currently those looking to buy in this sector have a straight choice between two dramatically differing breeds of car. The first is an uncompromising sportscar with minimal or no rear seat space and miserly luggage provision. Alternatively they can choose a rather more accommodating coupé, but suffer a commensurate reduction in driving enjoyment. Those who crave true supercar performance, response and style but need the flexibility of a car that seats four, carries their luggage and can be used everyday for all purposes have not been provided for. The Continental GT Coupé is designed for these people.
Indeed although it is envisaged that most Continental GT buyers will possess a number of cars in their stable, it is also hoped that many will find it satisfies all their motoring requirements and wishes. Nevertheless even the best product needs a voice if it is to be heard particularly if, as will be the case with the Continental GT, 75 per cent of those who buy one will not be existing customers.
These new customers will largely be people who already admire Bentley and would like one of its current products, but who either cannot quite afford one or baulk at the prospect of spending over £150,000 on a car, even if they believe it to be worth the money. Current Bentley customers tend to be among the most wealthy in the world and there is a big step between them and another group of still extremely well off individuals who are not comfortable with buying cars at Bentley’s existing price points. These are the people at whom the Continental GT is squarely aimed.
The profile of the typical Continental GT buyer will also be subtly different from that of the existing Bentley customer. They will tend to be younger, with an average age of just under as opposed to just over 50 years. Men will still buy many more than women, but their majority will decrease from the overwhelming 96-99 per cent of current customers, to a slightly more balanced 85-90 per cent. They will be high achieving, hard working and more typically owners of their own business rather than directors of public companies.
And while they will share a love of high performance, quality and craftsmanship with all Bentley customers, Continental GT buyers will likely be interested also in technology and contemporary design.
The approach that will be used to inform these prospects about and attract them to the Continental GT will be highly specialised and targeted. Its expanding role in motorsport, for instance, is seen not only as exactly right for the marque, but also a key way of communicating with those people for whom the Continental GT was born. Through those who actually go to races like Le Mans and the media coverage it attracts, Bentley gains access to the mindset of an already extremely car oriented group of people. More broadly, such activities also help people understand how Bentley is changing, but also how it is more aware of the importance of its heritage than at any time since Bentley Motors was bought by Rolls-Royce in 1931.
Bentley also aims to reach its new customers through strategic alliances with other luxury non-automotive companies, organising joint activities and promotions, highly targeted direct marketing and Internet activity.
‘To achieve our aims, we need routinely to be in touch with roughly 10 times more people around the world than at present,’ says Adrian Hallmark, member of the board for sales and marketing. ‘These will be existing, lapsed and prospective customers. We will involve them in driving events, keep them informed of the company’s activities and give them an entirely different and much more personal treatment than they are accustomed to receiving for mass production luxury car manufacturers. We will be charging more for our coupé and, for us, justifying this with the provision of what we believe will be a demonstrably better car is not enough. Our customers need to see not just a better car but a better company too.’
So Bentley, despite the Continental GT heralding a considerable increase in production at Crewe, will remain small. The global dealership network that stands currently at 121 will not be expanded beyond 150 in the foreseeable future, each selling no more than a few dozen cars every year, so customers know they are part of a very small and ultra-exclusive family of Bentley cognoscenti. And it is creating a business that runs successfully at such a personal level right from the factory gates at Crewe, where customers can come and watch their car being built, all the way to their own front door that completes the environment that any Bentley driver can expect to enjoy.
In all physical senses, the changes the Continental GT has brought to Bentley have transformed the company beyond recognition. The car itself and the renewed factory in which it will be built mark the dawn of a new and thrilling era for the marque.
But in a less tangible but no less important way Bentley is actually returning to its heartland values, as defined by the founding vision of WO Bentley. The strength of any brand in this sector is the thought that created it, and while there were times in the distant past when that vision had become little more than a nostalgic fairytale, now and increasingly it resonates through the walls of the factory.
WO’s proposition is as compelling today as it was 83 years ago. He would combine cutting edge design with outrageous performance and superlative craftsmanship to create a potent, authentic and unique motoring experience. Moreover it would have a purpose that took it beyond mere recreation and turned it into something of real use and significance. And while it would offer great comfort and unquestioned luxury as it went about its daily business, so also it would possess a thinly veiled ability to turn into something very special at any moment. These are precisely the qualities the Continental GT has been engineered to provide and the result is a car of which WO Bentley would be justifiably proud.Published 26 September 2002