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Bentley’s Continental GT V-8 1st Edition is Dazzling

But is that enough to overcome the luxury automaker’s economic challenges?

Bentley Bentley Continental GT V-8. Photo courtesy of Bentley

In 2003, the Bentley Continental GT set the luxury world on fire, sparking a historic comeback for the fabled British brand.

Now, as the company founded by W.O. Bentley celebrates its 100th anniversary, the party is being spoiled somewhat by fresh blows to the bottom line. The brand is hoping an all-new Continental GT can help power it into the black and keep its skilled craftspeople hand-building Bentleys in the UK—or whatever’s left of it by the time Brexit runs its course.  

Interior of the Bentley Continental V-8. Photo by James Lipman

The $270,000 Continental GT V-8 1st Edition I drove in New York recently was both new and familiar: A quilted-leather, wood-lined sanctuary—dark fiddleback eucalyptus in this case—that’s also an improbable force of nature. With 542 horsepower from an Audi-derived, twin-turbo, 4.0-liter V-8 (Bentley has been part of the Volkswagen Group since 1998), the Bentley V-8 can surge to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds. Keep a foot on it and the Conti will hit 198 mph. If that’s not dominant enough, an optional W-12 (yes, a “W” shaped cylinder layout, not a typical “V”) whips up 626 horsepower, good for a supercar-baiting 3.3-second launch to 60 mph, and a 205-mph terminal velocity.

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This latest Conti proved even better at confounding physics and dazzling passengers: A 48-volt anti-roll system, also found in Porsche’s latest models, helps it carve through turns with almost spooky ease for a nearly 5,000-pound Grand Tourer. Inside, the Rotating Display is the gee-whiz centerpiece, a Toblerone bar of technology that spins to display a polished dashboard veneer, a navigation/infotainment screen and, finally, a trio of traditional analog dials.

Bentley Bentayga V-8. Photo courtesy of Bentley

The GT has kept the alluringly stretched shape that drove buyers bananas at its debut, from bonus-flashing executives to NBA ballers. But the Conti’s aluminum-skinned musculature is even more defined, including those signature rear haunches that balance elegance and murderous intent like few cars. That power coupling—one part Beauty, one part Beast—helped drive Bentley’s worldwide sales to 11,298 by 2016. In a world where people buy more than 80 million new cars in a good year, that may not sound like much. But the numbers demonstrate how few people truly have the means or inclination to spend $200,000 and up on a new car. Bentley aside, no ultra-luxury brand in history—not Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Ferrari or Lamborghini—has found even 10,000 buyers in a single year. (The inevitable arrival of the ultra-luxury SUV, including the Bentley Bentayga, Lamborghini Urus and the upcoming Aston Martin DBX and Ferrari Purosangue, may lift these brands to new sales heights).

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But fortunes can change quickly at this rarefied level, with fickle buyers ever on the hunt for the Next Big Thing. Even that Bentayga SUV, which swiftly became Bentley’s best-selling model, couldn’t stem a sales decline, including a nearly 10-percent dip in 2018, to barely 9,500 cars. One of the wounds was self-inflicted: Bentley was forced to delay its critical new Continental for nine months, and also push back production of a Bentayga plug-in hybrid, because it failed to ready the models in time for Europe’s tough new WLPT emissions testing. The dithering proved “close to catastrophic,” as Adrian Hallmark, Bentley Motors chairman, told Automotive News earlier this year.

Like its British-built peers at Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin and Jaguar Land Rover, Bentley’s super-priced, superpowered machines are flying into more headwinds, including a global slowdown in auto sales and currency exchange woes. Bentley lost $156 million in the first nine months of 2018, and its impatient parent Volkswagen Group has set a strict two-year deadline for a return to profitability. Most fearsomely, a no-deal Brexit could seriously upend Bentley’s best-laid plans. Because VW and Bentley export cars to Europe and import other cars and components, new tariffs or customs roadblocks could seriously gum up the works.

“It’s Brexit that’s the killer,” Hallmark told Reuters earlier this year. “If we ended up with a hard Brexit, that would hit us this year.”

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Britain’s car industry still employs more than 850,000 people, including more than 4,000 workers at Bentley’s famous Crewe factory, which began building 12-cylinder, Rolls-Royce Merlin engines for Spitfire and Hurricane fighters in 1938. And Hallmark has vowed that deal or no deal on Brexit, Bentley will continue to build cars in the UK, rather than shift production to the Continent—or elsewhere. A Chinese-built Bentley, anyone?

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

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