THERE are just not that many cars in the world that blow up my finely tailored skirt, but the Bentley Continental GT is one. I like to think of myself as a man of environmental principle, so it would be ethically inconsistent for me to own Bentley’s 12-cylinder, 552-hp, 2 3/4 -ton siege engine of class warfare, a car that vaporizes premium petrochemicals to the tune of 15 miles per gallon and wafts its own muggy microclimate of greenhouse gases behind. Never mind the fuel economy -- the monster tires alone probably represent a barrel of oil each.
And yet, even along Wilshire Boulevard -- where the cars now are as common as taxis -- every sighting of the long, prow-intensive fastback is a cardiac event, an aching reminder of the Bentley-shaped hole in my heart. The silent thunder of its approach, the shimmering grille of mithril, the perfect rhythms and symmetry of the body contours streaming back like the folded wings of Valkyries. The Bentley’s presence seems to funnel the cosmos until all you see is that car.
In the face of this suffused wonderfulness, all I can think is: Now, where did I put my knickers?
None of these feelings gave me the slightest optimism about the Continental GTC -- the inevitable convertible version of the grandest grand tourer out there. To lop off that top, with its long sleek rear glass, seemed at the outset to put a miserable thumb on the scales of the car’s balance. Other rakish cars attempting to create a smooth visual transition from the canvas top to the rear deck lid have resorted to some ugly chicanery: The BMW 6-series convertible deploys odd little motorized buttresses; the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky twins use the same technique but require the driver to go to both sides of the car and shove the buttresses down into their catches. (This gets old faster than brie left on the counter.)
With the GTC, Bentley set itself a monumental task: to make the convertible every bit as beautiful as the coupe, to which I say: Mission accomplished, in a close-enough-for-hand-grenades sort of way. With the top up, the GTC has a slightly whittled appearance, as if it were the victim of a hatcheting haircut. With the top down -- quelle surprise -- the car looks fantastic.
Among the reasons Bentley didn’t resort to a retractable hardtop -- a la Volvo C70 -- is that these devices tend to leave the rear deck lid puzzle-pieced with shut lines and seams (not to mention that engineers wanted to save weight and space in a car that had little of either to spare). When the Bentley’s top is down, there’s only a single continuous shut line, which is hardly noticeable next to the beautiful icy bow of chrome that encircles the rear compartment. The long and gracious rear deck lid and leather tonneau seem swiped from the back of a Kennebunkport motor launch.
This was no easy install. The top, supplied by Karmann, is an electro-hydraulic mechanism that, when up, forms a Tupperware-like seal on the rear deck lid (no exterior latches). Considering the car has a top speed of 195 mph, this compression seal has to be under enormous pressure to resist being pried up by aero forces -- valets, watch your fingers.
You just don’t throw a spindly bumbershoot over the cabin of the world’s favorite Bentley. To keep the top profile tautly elegant, Bentley used seven transverse aluminum bows. Also, Bentley engineers were tasked to see that the interior noise in the GTC was no greater than that of the coupe. Thus the top’s three layers of canvas, rubber-deadened acoustic insulation, and plush inner lining.
During a cold morning’s test drive in Napa Valley, I was frankly amazed. The top-up convertible offers not only the same muted decibel level as the coupe, but the same enchanted timbre, of velvet-cushioned machinery gently de-feathering goslings in a grandly upholstered salon of Louis Quatorze. Or whatever.
The top has a heated rear glass window and also an interior dome light, which is pretty cute. Every inch of the top’s jointed steel armature is hidden under fabric and chrome trim. The top can be raised or lowered while the car is moving up to 20 mph, which is a keen feature in Brentwood, if you get caught dropping the top when the light changes.
Stashed discreetly behind the rear headrests are hydraulically actuated roll hoops that will, if the car senses an incipient rollover, burst through their composite covers to help protect occupants from a drastic hair-restyling event.
If that seems like a lot of gear to crowd into the withers of the Continental, it is, and packaging it all into a relatively small space required a serious re-engineering of the car’s rear suspension. In the GT, the large cylindrical air damper sits on top of the trapezoidal multi-link. In the GTC, the air damper has been moved so that it sits between the upper and lower links, freeing up 8 inches of vertical space to accommodate the top mechanism. Meanwhile, the trunk space is virtually unchanged.
Not so curb weight. Typically, coupes that undergo a topectomy become a little less stiff, and with the Bentley GT, beloved for its bronze-bell gestalt, a little less stiff would certainly not do. Steel reinforcements were engineered into the sill and transverse cross braces, resulting in a body-in-white (the steel unit-body) with a torsional stiffness of 30 Hz -- for those not enrolled in an auto engineering program, that’s very, very stiff.
Thanks to the mitigating use of composites and aluminum body panels, the overall weight gain of the GTC is only 242 pounds over the GT.
While the chassis engineers were fiddling with this and that, they also decided to delete the elastic connections between the frame and front suspension subframe, which is supposed to sharpen the car’s steering.
I guess. It’s hard to tell, since the Bentley GT is one stupendously great handling automobile to begin with. Nothing this heavy should handle like this -- no car weighing 2.75 tons ought to be half this happy sliding around corners. Under the thrusting hood is the same 6.0-liter, twin-turbocharged W12 mega-motor, connected to the same ZF six-speed transmission that spins the almighty cogs of the Torsen differential and all-wheel drive system. Max torque of 479 pound-feet comes on at a mere 1,600 rpm and doesn’t dwindle until 6,000 rpm, effectively rendering the phrase “torque curve” obsolete. How about torque tsunami?
Acceleration is still, well, obscene: 0-60 mph in 4.8 seconds. The car is then merely gaining its feet. It’s a surreally smooth ride up to triple digits and it’s fair to say if this car isn’t fast enough for you, you should definitely join the Royal Air Force. Speaking of obscene, get a load of those ventilated front brake discs: 16 inches in diameter, the biggest in any production car.
How fast is it with the top down? According to Ulrich Eichhorn, Bentley board member in charge of engineering, the top-down top speed is 190 mph, and he even volunteered to sit in the back seat while the car made its top-speed test run. “It wasn’t as tempestuous as you might think,” the charming Eichhorn reports. “The wind wasn’t that bad.”
And yet, when the car is released this fall, I’m sure it will blow a few skirts up.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
2006 Bentley Continental GTC
Base price: $189,990
Price, as tested: $196,285
Powertrain: 6.0-liter, twin-turbocharged, SOHC W12 engine, 48-valve with variable-valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission with manual paddle shift; all-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 552 at 6,100 rpm.
Torque: 479 pound-feet at 1,600-6,000 rpm
Curb weight: 5,500 pounds
0-60 mph: 4.8 seconds
Wheelbase: 108.07 inches
Overall length: 189.13 inches
EPA fuel economy: 12 mpg city, 18 mpg highway
Final thoughts: When the sky’s the limit.