Bentley Continental Driving Experience
A Bentley Continental Test Drive
Driving a Bentley Continental on public roads can sometimes be a frustrating experience. It's not a fault of the car, it's just that the car is that good. The Continental GT and Flying Spur have the potential to drive at speeds that would put many aircraft to shame. Even at the national speed limit, the car is barely ticking over. This massive reserve of power and braking ability makes it an extremely safe car, and as our day at Millbrook Proving Grounds unfolded, we were left even more in awe of the car's prowess and technical ability.
Millbrook Proving Grounds
Millbrook is a private testing facility in the town of Millbrook, Bedfordshire. It consists of a 2 mile long, multi-lane banked track that motor manufacturers use to test the high speed performance and endurance of their new vehicles. In addition to this there are: handling circuits, a hill route — which was formed from the excavations of the high speed bowl. This boasts the highest ( or second highest, depending who you speak to!) altitude of anywhere in Bedfordshire, and at certain points commands an amazing view of the county.
There are also off-road tracks and engine testing facilities, and pretty much every single kind of test facility available to put cars, trucks and even tanks through their paces.
The High Speed Bowl
Our day started with our instructor driving us onto the High Speed Bowl in a Bentley Continental GT. Easing out across the lanes, easily and comfortably we found ourselves in the fast lane at 130 mph. Because we were not wearing crash helmets, we were told that the regulations of the track forbid us from going any faster. Even at this speed, the car was purring along, he explained that the car can drop down a gear at 170mph — this is a serious car.
We then had a chance to drive round the bowl, and all felt comfortable at speeds that if achieved on public roads would put our licences in jeopardy.
The instructor then took us for a stomach churning ride through the tight and twisty handling circuit. Even for such a large and heavy car. It's handling was more akin to a Kart in it's ability to change direction quickly and precisely.
Drag racing in the Continental
Next, we did a standing start on the start of a mile long straight. As the accelerator was pressed firmly to the floor, we were similarly pushed firmly back into our seats. The g force produced by the all-wheel drive system is quite extraordinary. At the ¾ of a mile point we reached over 150 mph, then with a firm press of the brake pedal, we slowed comfortably and with no drama.
Then it was my turn. I launched the car from the same spot, and hit 150mph before breaking to a speed that would stop the GT taking off on the banked corner at the end of the straight. Again no fuss, no drama, no feeling of the car going light and twitchy as it transcends from it's forward momentum to massive de-acceleration. Our instructor then explained just why the Continentals are so good; "Look at the skid marks at the end of the straight. The marks left on the track by the Bentleys are all perfectly straight, with even marks from both sets of wheels. "
Other cars are not so perfect. Many cars pitch the car left or right, many have left uneven tire marks on the track, with one side of wheels out performing the other side. The Bentley was the only car that left perfectly straight skid marks, even at the hands of novices like myself. Even the Aston Martins, that were also blasting down the track couldn't compare to the Continental. They sound fantastic, but the Bentleys composure and class really shine, even at it's limits.
Pulling the hand-brake at 150mph
The car has the most powerful brakes of any car on the road. My father has done many miles in his Flying Spur, but even he learnt something about it as he approached the drag strip. The instructor gave us a master class on the Continental's hand brake system. He explained that with a flick of switch even the passenger of the vehicle can stop the car safely, and quickly. Which is a great safety feature, if for example the driver had a heart attack. Most cars, even if they could reach 150mph would lose control and probably take off if you pulled the hand-brake at such a speed. The hand-brake works just like the pedal brake, with braking on all four wheels, not just the rear set.
Joy-riders have flippantly demonstrated their hand-brake turn abilities on ring roads, and estates all over the country. If all cars had the Bentley hand-brake, then the art of the hand-brake turn would then be reserved for the professionals, rally drivers. The Bentley is not a rally car, so I can't see how this is any sort of disadvantage.
The hand-brake will hit 0.7 of a g in de-acceleration, which is the maximum allowed. Working on all four wheels, the instructor explained that it is a good idea to apply it whenever the car is at a standstill. For example, at a T junction, turning right, with the hand-brake applied if someone crashed into the back of the car, the car would not be pushed into the main road. Apparently most people will take their foot off the brake when their car is hit from behind, causing unnecessary damage to any vehicles in front, and in the case of the T junction example, put the passengers in great danger. Applying the hand-brake is a no-brainer in the Bentley. Even when it is applied, with just gentle pressure on the accelerator pedal, it will automatically disengage the hand-brake, and the car will move away as smoothly as Bentleys are renowned for. The only exception is if you were not wearing a seat belt, the car will remain at a standstill. No flashing lights, or emergency warning sounds like in other cars, just a gentle reminder. It is a Bentley after-all.
Zero to 60 and back again
From other training courses, I have learnt that whatever car you drive, most cars will stop nearly at the same pace, but I am pretty sure that the Continental proves that this is not the case. We did another standing start, this time to 60 mph, then did an emergency stop. Sure, the car can reach 60 in less time than you can read this sentence, but it will stop even quicker. The brakes on this car, are phenomenal. It seemed like we started and stopped in less than 3 car lengths!
The Hill Route
Next we enjoyed taking a GT for a drive around the Hill Route. This course is a series of straights, hairpin bends and twisting corners with both positive and negative cambers — a drivers circuit. Top Gear often use it to get cars airborne over blind hills and it was where they recorded the scene of the latest Bond movie; where Bond barrel rolled his Aston, to avoid hitting the beautiful girl. My driving would prove to be a little more reserved.
I headed off, and the instructor told me to leave it in 3rd gear all round the circuit. Even stuck in 3rd, the Bentley consumed everything that came before it. The behemoth amounts of torque allowed the car to accelerate briskly out of the slower turns and reach some blistering speeds on the straights. It just shows how complimentary the Continental is to ones driving. It also allowed me the chance to concentrate on driving on the correct line, clipping the apexes and using all the road on the exit. As my confidence grew, I never got the feeling that I was driving a 2.5 tonne monster, it felt agile and lithe like an anorexic yoga instructor. I felt remarkably comfortable driving the car round the winding track, and my only disappointment was when my session was finally over. With every turn of the wheel you are rewarded by fantastic grip and great waves of grunt as you exit the corner. On a couple of corners I could feel a little drift, but with a mere blip of the throttle the car will drive it's way out of it, and get on with the job at hand — heading to the next bend. Again no drama, no fuss, no panic, just sheer driving pleasure.
Low profiles and top speeds
My father prefers the 19inch wheels rather than the usual 20 inch variety of the Continentals. The 19 inch wheels give the car a slightly softer ride than the larger rimmed variety. The instructor was keen to point out that my father has chosen well. All of their track Bentleys are fitted with 19inch wheels. They simply work better, he pointed out that even F1 cars don't have really low profile tyres. In the USA many Bentley Continental drivers fit 22 or even 23 inch wheels which have rubber bands as tyres. The slightest pot hole will damage them and they don't offer anything to the driving experience that the 19 inchers can.
One instructor was telling a story where they were testing the top speeds of the Continentals on a track somewhere. They kept getting held up by 911 Turbos as they were stretching their legs on the high speed straights. The Bentleys all had four passengers, and to add substance to the story he showed a picture of the speedo at 208mph! Although the official figures don't show it, the Flying Spur has a higher top speed than the GT; because of it's superior aerodynamics, and the rear diffuser helps keep the car sucked to the road. It even lowers the ride height at speeds above 150 mph.
At all times the Bentleys never faltered, coughed or spluttered. Even after several 150mph emergency stops the wheels are still cool to the touch. In any other car, you would be left with 3rd degree burns. Most manufacturers will bring along technicians and tools to help keep their cars running when put through their paces by instructors and novices. With the Bentley this is all rather unnecessary, even after a 150 mph blast to a mere 30 mph the engine doesn't miss a beat or get hot under the collar. In other cars this would not be the case.
Poise. Performance. Passion
So as we drove away from Millbrook, we both had learnt something special about these fantastic Bentleys. We know just how reliable the Continental is, they have never let us down. This is a car that can reach blistering speeds on the autobahn, or gently caress it's occupants on a leisurely chauffeur drive. It is very British, very understated, and even when the going gets tough, it's stiff upper lip will never waver. Sure it uses some fine technology from Audi, but even at 150 mph you can admire the leather stitching and relax safe in the knowledge that this car will not get into a highly strung tantrum or miss even the slightest beat. This is a car that even the great W.O Bentley would be proud to put his name on.