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Progress Report: Bentley Continental GT (2003) vs Bentley Continental GT Speed (2023)

The car that relaunched Bentley turned 20 in 2023. But has it actually gone anywhere?

Published: 03 Jan 2024

Is the Conti GT really 20 years old?

Yes, it’s two whole decades since the two-door W12 coupe spearheaded the VW Group-bankrolled resurgence of the bewinged Crewe marque. The Mk1 version was heavily revamped in 2010 then replaced entirely in 2018, so (fun fact) the only component these two share are the motors for retracting the teeny rear side windows.

How much did the Continental revitalise Bentley?

Its effect was sensational. In 1998 Bentley sold just 414 new cars. £500m of factory investment later, and thanks to a platform which also supported VW supremo Ferdinand Piech’s Phaeton super-limo, Bentley had a £110k best-seller shifting over 7,000 examples a year by 2004.  These days one in every three Bentleys sold is a Conti, though it’s relinquished its ‘most popular family member’ title to the Bentayga cash-cow.

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Still big, heavy, and luxy: what’s changed?

The spirit of both models is identical, but what Bentley’s executed so cleverly is to integrate huge wodges of technology without cheapening or sanitising the indulgence. The 2003’s car’s primitive sat-nav and Volkswagen-ish switchgear look hopelessly off the pace now, and the latest Conti charms you with its knurled surfaces, rotating dashboard screen and ventilated multi-programme massage seats. But that sense of reassuring weight, limitless torque and being cossetted and sheltered from the outside world is a common thread in both.

Performance must’ve come on a bit, no?

Perhaps not as far as you might suspect. This 2003 example develops 550bhp and can propel you and three friends from 0-60mph in 4.8 seconds, on its imperious way to 198mph. The contemporary Speed is 100bhp better off, maxes out at 208mph and is 1.3sec faster 0-60. What you notice is how modern ECUs, four-wheel drive and a couple of extra gear ratios vastly reduce the sensation of loin-girding lag. In the old Conti, you gave notice when you wanted to accelerate. In the meantime, the current car has already arrived.

So where’s the biggest gulf between GTs old and new?

Body roll (now arrested with 48-volt active anti roll bars which would’ve been as plausible as TikTok in 2003), switchgear quality, and rolling refinement. The old-timer is good (if a touch squeaky these days) but the latest car really is an anechoic chamber of solace. Then again, it arguably has too much potency for its own good, so the gearbox is occasionally caught stammering, whereas the original’s just slurs away. And you try to ignore the fact you’re getting 12 miles to the gallon.

Did Bentley get it right first time?

Given how little the overall philosophy has changed, you’d have to say yes. In the time that Aston Martin has gone from DB7 through DB9 and DB11 to finally cracking the super-GT recipe with the DB12, Bentley’s bruiser has been a fine servant to a marque that badly needed a knight in shining armour.

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