There's no palpable sensation of drama as I bury my right foot in the throttle of the 2005 Bentley Continental GT coupe while headed toward the National Championship Air Races & Air Show in Reno, Nevada, on a cold, gray September morning. There's no disturbance in the cabin as the 552- horsepower W-12 twin-turbo engine goes to work, no underhood grunting or sweating. There's not much of an increase in noise, nor even a sense of being pressed back in the seat. Just a smooth, progressive, turbine-like thrust forward. And that's when I glance at the speedometer and notice that somehow, in the space of just a few seconds, this 5,350-pound British behemoth has gone from 80 m.p.h. all the way to 130 m.p.h. It's that effortless and that quick.
Where many high-performance cars would be out of breath at this point, the big Bentley isn't even breaking a sweat, as its top speed is an arresting 198 m.p.h. As in, at that speed, your heartbeat likely will be arrested, and if you happen to run into any of the local constabularies, you most certainly will be, too.
Granted, top speed is only one measure of an automobile, and frankly a fairly juvenile one in many respects. Lots of cars go fast. But while the Continental puts some truly gaudy numbers on the board performance-wise—the aforementioned 198 m.p.h., zero to 60 m.p.h. in 4.4 seconds, which is half a second faster than a Porsche 911—most remarkable are its poise, elegance and effortlessness.
This happy marriage of personality traits is the by-product of the Continental's mixed lineage, the best Europe has to offer from both Great Britain and Germany. The Bentley coupe is the first new design from the venerable British marque since it was taken over by Volkswagen in 1998, and VW contributed, among other things, the block and basic mechanicals for the amazing W-12 engine, which is essentially two 15- degree V-6 engines joined together by a common crankshaft. To this motor, Bentley added its own design cylinder heads, twin turbochargers and attendant go-fast parts. Also bequeathed from the VW side of the family was the Quattro all-wheeldrive system from Volkswagen subsidiary Audi. Along with a highly sophisticated computer-controlled suspension with air springs and infinitely adjustable shock absorbers, the all-wheel drive makes the Continental light and nimble on its feet.
I pushed the Continental hard through some challenging mountain switchbacks, and it truly boggles the synapses that a car this big and this heavy corners so precisely and has such perfect balance. Wisely, Bentley/VW added huge disc brakes big enough to stop a semi on a dime. So kudos to the German side of the family for performance.
From the British side comes the Continental's elegance and comfort. The interior is a collage of fine leather, rich walnut and sumptuous wool carpeting. The clock is supplied by Swiss watchmaker Breitling, a nice touch of style. The rear seat is small, best suited for youngsters or adults on a very short trip, but even back there, the accommodations are firstrate. The 13.1-cubic-foot trunk will easily swallow a couple of golf bags, so no worries about taking this coupe to the club on the weekend.
From a design standpoint, the Bentley is handsome without being at all garish, delivering status with a whisper, not a scream. All this greatness comes at what frankly is a remarkable price: $156,990. Soon to follow will be a four-door version of the Continental GT, but this one will be hard to top because it's just about perfect as it is.
Scorecard 2005 BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT COUPE
BASE PRICE: $156,990
ENGINE: 6-liter W-12 twin turbo
MPG: 11 city/18 highway
TORQUE: 479 foot-pounds
WEIGHT: 5,350 pounds