Mighty Aphrodite

Sensible people might well ask what car could possibly be worth $150,000.

This is why I never invite sensible people to parties.

The 2004 Bentley Continental GT -- the first all-new Bentley since Volkswagen's takeover of the brand in 1998 -- is an astonishing vehicle, from its wind-sculpted skin to its soul, where resides a 6.0-liter, twin-turbocharged W-12 producing 552 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque.

Bored by numbers? Then conjure this: From a standing start, the 2 1/2-ton C-GT requires only 60 seconds to be three miles away, at which point it will be communing at a top speed of 200 mph or so, depending on the weather. At the drag strip, this regal and elegant, expressive and exclusive grand touring coupe eats Porsches like Emeril eats shrimp.

For the record, the all-wheel-drive C-GT has the fastest top speed of any production four-seater in the world, but its stunning pace seems almost incidental to its rich, enveloping excellence, which begins to unhinge your brain and pry open your wallet the moment you clap eyes on the car.

In its glowing silver paint, the C-GT has a kind of energy that is at once gestural and electrical, as if it were sketched in the empty air of a darkroom with a white-hot filament. Its proportions are just about perfect: long hood, short metal overhangs front and rear, a low, back-swept roofline and big wheels and tires (19 inches), upon which it sits low and flexed.

The thing looks as if it's going to bolt for the horizon at any second, with you or without you.

The redesigned Bentley cheese-grater grille flows back into a slightly raised hood cowl, creating the illusion of coach-styled front fenders. The rear quarters are likewise contoured to suggest "wings" -- what the British call fenders. The effect is classic and aristocratic.

In November the C-GT received a special design award from the Milan, Italy-based jury of the "Most Beautiful Car in the World" awards, recognizing the car's achievement in capturing the essence of the Bentley marque. Bentley's chief designer, Dirk Van Braeckel, took as his inspiration the 1952 R-Type Continental coachwork. The C-GT is a brilliant formulation of classic lines and proportions in a modern vernacular.

Brightwork is kept to a minimum, with polished metal around the pillar-less cabin glass, along the sill, the grille and the dual exhaust outlets. The C-GT is a car for grown-ups, and the more you know about cars, the more you appreciate it.

Typically, in a car capable of such ridiculously high speeds, the body contouring screams "wind tunnel," which is to say that rational aerodynamic concerns -- high-speed lift, wind noise, drag -- put the squeeze on expressive and irrational styling. The Ferrari Enzo, for example, is a supremely functional piece of machinery, but no one I know would argue it was Ferrari's most beautiful car.

The Bentley, on the other hand, manages to be artful and rational at once. If you ladled molten metal from a great height, the solidified result might look something like this.

Bentley still had to keep the thing from flying off the road, however. Cleverly concealed in the trailing edge of the rear glass is an active aero spoiler that kicks up at speeds above 65 mph. The underside of the car is designed to channel air in such a way as to prevent high-speed lift.

In one of Ian Fleming's Bond books -- I forget just now which one -- 007 refers to his Bentley as his "locomotive" (British Intelligence actually made him switch to an Aston Martin), and the C-GT certainly lives up to that legend, thanks to the rolling thunder under the hood. The W-12 engine -- that's right, W -- is essentially two sets of narrow-angle V-6 cylinder banks interlaced like the fingers of clasped hands. Both banks of cylinders are fed with their own high-boost turbocharger, and the turbo boost, fuel injection and cam timing are computer-tuned, or mapped, to produce maximum torque (472 pound-feet) at a mere 1,600 rpm, and the torque curve stays flat all the way to the redline.

What's that mean? The engine wakes with a metallic cough and settles at once into one of the most reverberant idle notes this side of a 1972 Buick Riviera. Unlike the polished metronomy of the $80,000 VW Phaeton's W-12 -- the basic structure of which the Bentley shares -- the C-GT rumbles with a dual-exhaust basso profundo you hear warming up in the bracket-racing lanes of the local drag strip.

This is not Pierce Brosnan at the baccarat tables. This is Sean Connery with a hangover, a warm gun barrel and a fresh clip. Duck and cover!

Toe the throttle and lots of interesting things happen at once. Just off idle, all the engine twist is summoned and channeled first through the ZF six-speed automatic -- which can be shifted manually by way of paddles attached to the steering wheel or with the gear lever in a separate gate, Tiptronic style. The power then is routed to a torque-sensing center differential that divvies it up 50-50 to the front and rear axles.

The all-wheel-drive system is derived from the Audi Quattro system found in the A8L and -- apart from excellent all-weather traction -- the AWD system means the C-GT hooks up like P. Diddy at the Playboy mansion. The Pirelli P-Zeros gain instant purchase on the asphalt and then -- whoa, Nellie. Zero to 60 goes by in 4.7 seconds, according to the factory. By my seat-of-the-pants reckoning it's quicker.

In any event, if you keep the throttle buried in the lush wool carpeting, the engine snarling in as it runs through the gears, you'll be illegal in the time it takes to say "Nolo contendere." With six forward gears and essentially inexhaustible torque, the C-GT doesn't have a weak point anywhere from zero to 200 mph. There is no gear-shift shock, no straining at the margins -- just mind-blowing, linear thrust.

I spent a day shooting the canyons above Malibu with the C-GT. Here the car is a little less happy, though it corners and brakes better than any 5,250-pound car has a right to. For one thing, if you leave the shifting duties to the ZF automatic, the gear selection tends to stay on the high side, which can make the car bog down coming out of turns. Also, the traction control is a touch aggressive, and even with so fine an engine, it takes a moment to spool up all 12 cylinders again.

Bentley's all-steel monocoque is assembled and painted at VW's plant in Mosel, Germany, and shipped to the refurbished Bentley works in Crewe, England -- is Rock of Gibraltar solid. Like the Audi A8L, the C-GT uses lightweight aluminum suspension pieces -- double A-arms in front, attached to a stainless-steel subframe, and multi-links in the rear -- to minimize unsprung mass.

The vibe of the car is what you imagine a tuning fork made of building girders would feel like.

Exquisitely calibrated, the ride is firm, sporty but never flinty. The weight of the car is carried by four-way-adjustable air springs. Body motions are nulled out with magnetorrheic dampers like those on the Audi A8L, so roll, pitch and dive are pretty much strangled before they have a chance to gather strength. Cornering is remarkably flat for so big a car. Ride height can be adjusted from the cabin, as can suspension stiffness.

The AWD system shunts power fore and aft up to a maximum split of 80%-20%, which, combined with traction and stability control and stupendous 15.9-inch front and 13.2-inch rear brake rotors (the largest on any production car), gives the C-GT effortless athleticism that would flatter a car weighing half a ton less. The steering is lively, quick and heavy.

Cabin appointments are what you might expect -- our test vehicle was lined with double-stitched aubergine and taupe hides, extravagantly contoured book-matched burled walnut and gorgeous carpeting. All the Bentley pieties are observed: the chrome organ-stop vent controls; the chrome ball-shaped vents; the knurled metal dials for the headlights, seat heaters, steering wheel adjustments, and so on, like those on a vintage Leica camera.

The power-adjustable, heated and massage-equipped seats are supremely comfortable. The driving position, on the high-pedestal seat, offers natural posture, with a good outward view.

The rear seat compartment is fully furnished with a walnut-trimmed center console, fold-down armrest, roll-top cup holder compartment and scalloped seating areas, but, alas, something in this car had to give, and it was the rear seat space. I couldn't squeeze my feet into the foot well. This is a 2+2 car in only the formal sense. On the other hand, the trunk space is surprisingly generous, and with its ski pass-through, you can make haste to the slopes with your skis inside the car.

The stereo system? The best I've ever heard on wheels.

Given all the capabilities of the car -- DVD, navigation, searchable virtual handbook, integrated phone, traffic reports and more -- the C-GT makes admirable use of its dashboard real estate. Higher-order functions, such as the navigation system, have their own buttons. The LCD screen is banked with eight option buttons, which will give you most of the functionality you might require. A central rotary knob allows you to adjust, intuitively, things like suspension stiffness -- turn right for stiffer, turn left for softer. This is a great system.

It is, in fact, the same system that appears in the VW Phaeton. If you look closely, you will see a lot of parts shared by the C-GT with its VW cousins and siblings, though obviously the Bentley has its own control caps and surfaces.

Here is the question: Is a Bentley, which its makers proclaim as the quintessential British grand touring car, less a Bentley for its German accent? I think not. First, without VW, there would in all likelihood not be a Bentley today, and the car world would be the poorer for it. Second, VW is one of the premier auto companies in the world, at the cutting edge of just about everything, and the C-GT's general excellence is the welcome consequence.

There are cars more exotically kitted out. For sheer density of technology, look to the Mercedes-Benz S600 or the BMW 760iL. The Bentley, for example, declines to have the hydraulic door and latch closers seen on these cars.

What the Bentley offers is its formidable presence. Not perfect but so very soulful.

Is it worth $150,000? Depends on who's buying. In Los Angeles, people who are spending $130,000 for a S600, I think, would gladly pony up the extra 20 large for a car so utterly distinctive and stylish. The C-GT price point -- roughly two-thirds that of the Bentley Arnage -- makes this beau ideal of British grand touring accessible to a much wider audience than Bentley has ever before entertained. The closest competitor is the Aston Martin Vanquish, which is no slouch but costs about $90,000 more.

Though grand-marque offerings such as the Rolls-Royce Phantom and the Mercedes Maybach are moving very slowly, Bentley has 2,800 U.S. orders for just 2,200 imported units scheduled to hit American dealerships this spring.

Is it worth the money? The question seems to be answering itself.


2004 Bentley Continental GT

Wheelbase: 108.1 inches

Length: 189.1 inches

Curb weight: 5,250 pounds

Powertrain: 6.0-liter twin- turbocharged W-12, six-speed automatic with manumatic shift control, all-wheel drive

Horsepower: 552 at 6,100 rpm

Torque: 479 pound-feet at 1,600 rpm

Acceleration: Zero to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds

EPA rating: Not available

Price, as tested: $149,990

Competitor: Aston Martin Vanquish

Final thoughts: The sport of kings

Source: Bentley Motor Cars

Times automotive columnist Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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