The new Bentley Continental GT and Aston Martin Virage may look familiar, but they both promise a fresh take on luxury GT motoring.
Britain produces a surprising number of generously cylindered, sleekly styled, sumptuously upholstered and rather rapid blue-blood coupes. At the lower end of this high-end group sit the Jaguar XK and Aston Martin Vantage; on the periphery are Morgan’s imminent Eva GT and, assuming its successful resuscitation, Bristol’s Blenheim and Fighter, while Aston also fields the DB9, DBS and the new 149,995 GBP Virage seen here. At the pinnacle of this cluster of temptingly indulgent coupes is Aston’s soon-to-be-delivered One-77, pitched at a lung-stunning 1.2 million GBP, and beneath this comes Rolls-Royce’s Phantom coupe, yours for a bargain 313,200 GBP. This pair make the Bentley Continental GT that is the other half of our comparison appear something of a steal at 135,760 GBP. And as you will have noticed, that’s usefully less than Aston asks for its new Virage.
Ne? The badge is new to what has become the generic Aston Martin shape (Cygnet aside), but the man on the street would struggle to distinguish this latest Gaydon product from a DB9, the DBS and, at a distance, the Vantage, too. It’s hard to know how much longer Aston can produce mild variations on the same idea and claim them as new, but the Virage is here, it’s undeniably beautiful, albeit in a familiar way and, equally undeniably, it’s a better car than the DB9 that it surely ought to replace.
Still, the Virage is in good company, because it faces a car that is newer still in terms of virgin component count, although again you’ll to need to turn up the wick on your automobile-identifying antennae to separate this 2011 Continental GT from those that came before. And while the biggest complaint one can level at the Aston is that it’s too familiar, it’s not obvious that the Conti’s aesthetics have usefully improved. The more emphatic character-line creasings in its flanks, the more protuberant grille and bootlid and some slightly heavy-handed detailing are a disappointment, though not as much of one as the fact tha Bentley appears to have been bereft of a new idea for the impressive bloodline of Continental-badged motor cars.
But let’s forget about the doppelganger characteristics of this nevertheless delectable pair and examine the hardware that propels them. Under the Aston’s black bonnet sits a 6.0-litre, 489bhp V12, which drives the rear wheels via a six-speed, paddle-shift ZF torque converter automatic handling 420lb ft of torque. Steel-sprung double wishbones structure, which is one major reason why the Virage weighs 1740kg to the steel-carcassed Bentley’s 2320kg.
Beneath the Continental’s blood-red bonnet lies a 6.0-litre, 567bhp V12 that also drives ZF’s six-speed auto, its torque arriving at all four wheels rather than a pair. For this generation of GT, some 60 per cent of its mighty 616lb ft is apportioned to the back axle, rather than 50 per cent. The Bentley is air-suspended by wishbones up front and a multi-link system at the rear, these bearing a longer, taller body that provides a decidedly more convincing quartet of seats compared with the nominally four-perch Aston.
The Virage at least provides plenty of space for a pair of up-front occupants, who, if they’ve ever spent time in a DBS, will be disappointed with its near-identical dashboard. Tru, the broad, sweeping sculpture of the main assembly remains attractive, the brushed aluminium faces of the too small, too sparse instruments at least look expensive, and the generous surfacings of double-stitched leather upholstery feel appropriately luxurious.
But the effect is undermined by too many cheap detail finishes such as the seat lumbar adjustment switches, the column stalks, the crude casing of new sat-nav screen, the air vents and the lower sections of the centre console. More than anything, though, it’s undermined by the fact that although this is a new model, its interior is not new at all.
The same trouble afflicts the new Continental GT, if not to quite the same extent. This car mostly is all new, even if it doesn’t look it, and so is the sizeably extravagant dashboard, which looks busier and more sophisticated but retains the same sculptural theme in which the upper surfac resembles a pair of wings with a fuselage formed by a centre console. You sit in some pomp amid your circumstances, experiencing a higher, more upright seating position than the Aston provides, reinforcing the entirely accurate impression that this is a much bigger car.
But that does not result in a shortfall of thrust. The Bentley’s twin-turbo V12 turns a 0-62mph time of 4.6sec and will strike 198mph. And as you’d hope of a car whose ultra-fat torque curve crests at 1700rpm, effortlessly deployed urge at any speed is this powertrain’s forte. That said, it doesn’t appear as rampantly unstoppable as the old car when you prod the throttle, and the engine sounds faintly strained when asked to reciprocate at high crank speeds, too. Selecting Sport certainly compensates, however, with the exhaust issuing an accompaniment of potently throaty warblings.
The Conti’s six-ratio auto seems a bit mean in these days of eight-speeders, but more noticeable are its occasionally slow reactions. For the most part it anticipates well, however, and its beautifully wrought metal paddle-shifters, though small, are at least a pleasure to pluck.
So are the Aston’s, with their leather edgings, but like the Bentley’s they’re sometimes difficult to locate in the heat of a wheel-swivelling moment. The bellow of the V12 in Sport mode mode is quite likely to induce their use, at which point the Virage truly sounds like the muscular car that it is. It serves the same 4.6sec 0-62mph fling as the Bentley, but with only two wheels delivering traction to the Bentley’s four, and with the lesser top speed of 186mph. Like the Bentley, its transmission can sometimes seem sleepy, though not as lazy as the car itself when in standard shift mode. Unless you’re ambitious with the accelerator it mimics a mammal emerging from a long, cold winter of hibernation, with a dawdling step-off making you wonder whether all 12 cylinders are reporting for duty. Jab the glass Sport button, however, and unseemly dollops of torque will have the Virage darting forward with an unbecoming squeal if you’re not super-delicate with the throttle.
Happily, the Aston’s drivetrain is much easier to control – and enjoy – on the move, even if it remains a little languid. It, too, has only six speeds, but sink that Sport button and this beast turns virile, with its rortier exhausts, more engaged transmission and that super-sensitised throttle transforming it into a truly exhilarating weapon.
And a lithe, sharp one at that. Its eager steering, firm body control, dependable grip and superb brakes – impressively, carbon-ceramic discs are standard – encourage you to drive as if you were escaping an inferno. What might slow you is a bumpier B-road, the resulting chop being not only a little uncomfortable but sometimes jarring enough that you risk abusing the car. True, the clever adaprive dampers, which continuously shuttle between five settings apiece for Sport and Normal, produce a ride calmer than you’ll enjoy in a DB9, but this feels like a suspension system that could sometimes use more wheel travel.
It’s rare that you’ll feel this sensation in the Bentley, but nor will you enjoy quite the incisive, bend-scything handling that the Aston so easily musters. The Bentley certainly feels planted – at 2.3 tonnes, how could it not? – and attacks long, fast bends with a surety to be enjoyed wet or dry, thanks to its four-wheel drive. But you wouldn’t call it sporting. There’s a bit of roll, and the steering, though wonderfully liquid, does not transmit much information from the road below. Tip the Conti into tighter bends and you’ll feel its size, even though its efforts are impressively game for one so heavy.
But that’s before you select the Sport button. True, it can’t magic away the Bentley’s heft in tight turns, but the transformation, enhanced by more musical exhausts, is pretty inspirational. Body roll appears banished, the car feels more solidly in contact with planet earth, its steering appears more convincingly connected and the Conti even feels nimble, an adjective that could only be used to describe the qualities need to exit the rear seats in the case of the previous model. Of course, it isn’t as agile as the Aston, it still feels slightly bulky in hairpins and, with this firmed suspension, it will shoot the odd jolt cabinwards over bumps and ridges, but its alacrity is quite some achievement.
If you plan to regularly exploit that alacrity, you’d do well to order the ceramic brakes, you’d do well to order the ceramic brakes, which cost a Fiesta-money 11,020 GBP. Also improved are an interior that more easily accommodates four (even if taller rear-seat adults will get intimate with the headlining), refreshed ergonomics, a new multimedia system and the Conti’s refinement, although those fat tyres sometimes roar distantly. And it is terms of refinement that the Bentley leaves the Virage well behind. The Aston’s rear seats are no more than expensively upholstered shopping bag carriers, its structure at times produces the odd creak, its switchgear remains patchily cheap, the new sat-nat is garish and its seats turn surprisingly uncomfortable over long distances.
But possibly the biggest disappointment of this pair turns on whether you think that the Continental GT’s undeniably handsome look bears repeating after the original’s eight-year run, and whether the Aston design theme established by the DB9 bears yet another variation. From where we sit, it’s hard to avoid feeling disappointed, desirable though these cars remain. Neither offers anything truly new, even if both are undoubtedly advances on what has gone before. Of the two, it’s the Bentley that offers better value, despite coming with conventional brakes. It looks like, and is, more motor car for your money, not least because there’s an extra half tonne of it. You pay for that heft at the pump, of course, but you also get a bigger and more convincingly opulent cabin, four-wheel drive, a higher top speed and a car that has more depth to its repertoire despite the dynamic limitations forced on it by its weight, a small sliver of which was shed during this makeover.
True, there’s no question that for the press-on driver the lighter Aston is more effective, and like the Bentley it has something of a dual personality that can be toggled at the touch of a switch. But being very obviously the less preactical of the two makes it a lessand convincing all-rounder than the Continental – and it’s hard to avoid the thought that for not much more than half this money, a Jaguar XKR does the same job, quite often better. The Bentley, despite being changed but the same, faces less troubling competition to win this test.