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First Look: Bliss

Two Yankee colonists on a lark infiltrate the lush green heart of English snobbery in the latest Rolls and Bentley--and never want to leave.

Sam Hill
Oct 26, 2004 SHARE
0412_Rollsandbentley_01z+Rolls_Royce_Phantom_VI_And_Bentley_Continental_GT+Front_View Photo 1/30   |   First Look: Bliss

Bear with me if I wax poetic. You'll understand.

It was unbelievable luck. Five full days in England in May and the weather was sent from heaven; 75*F and sun with perfectly spaced cotton-puffball clouds. There was one rain squall west of Oxford on Day Three that lasted an hour or so, but it just made the two cars look incredible and that much more in their element. The raindrops on the long hoods vibrated with the engine revs and leaned as we steered through the gusting winds.

A True Grey Poupon Moment.

Brought to you by the Rolls-Royce Phantom VI and Bentley Continental GT you see here. We didn't put them together out of any stretch in our imaginations that might legitimately compare them. It's just that Bentley and Rolls-Royce are the two quintessential British marques and will forever be mentioned in the same breath with kings, queens, sultans, sheiks and maharajahs. And driving these two side-by-side from the right front seat over hill and dale in the place where they mean the most is something we all should have a chance to do in our lives.

But even driving these cars under these conditions isn't the whole story. On Day One we drove them both to the still spanking new (June 2002) Rolls-Royce headquarters on the south English coast, then on Day Two we headed north to Bentley HQ in the hallowed Crewe stomping grounds. Full tours of each facility ensued. By Day Three we were comfortable driving on the wrong side of the road and we had a more complete sense of how important these two magic rides are to their country of origin and their respective companies. Our driving styles even altered into a statelier mode and every curve was to be carved, not cut.

Now go ahead. Go ahead and laugh at me and tell me that both Rolls and Bentley are owned and run by Germans--the former by BMW and the latter by Volkswagen. Bathe me in your cackling skepticism, pointing out that the Continental GT uses a modified version of the VW Phaeton architecture and W12 engine and drivetrain. Bronx-cheer me all you want as you tell me that almost every single part on the Phantom VI is sent to the south English coast courtesy of BMW in Bavaria.

Who cares? The truth of the matter is that in most every respect both Bentley and Rolls-Royce are far better global companies in the hands of German management and the quality of the assembly (still done absolutely by Brits and just a few key robots in both cases) is greatly improved thanks to high German standards. I loved these companies when both were in Crewe and jumped at any chance to drive one or the other. Now my faith has paid off and both marques are getting back their distinct British mojo thanks to major German faith.

Did We Cost God His Job?

The timing was certainly uncanny, anyway. We interviewed the Rolls-Royce chairman-CEO in his lair on the South Downs on the Wednesday before his surprise resignation at the start of the following week.

"Gott" in German means God and I'm certain that many a German speaker called Tony "Herr Gott", or Mr. God, when addressing him. Gott was the last #1 man when both companies were still united in Crewe and has always been one of the least self-obsessed executives in the car business. He will be missed. His replacement at Rolls, Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, has been involved in managing the Rolls-Royce rekindling from the start and will make a fine complement to Bentley's Franz-Josef Paefgen (and Aston Martin's Ulrich Bez).

Rolling Into Chichester

The front gate to the $90-million new Rolls-Royce facility on the Goodwood Estate in Westhampnett near Chichester is just there all by itself on the south side of a brand new roundabout. We drove up and over the rise on The Drive and peered down upon the expansive front carport surrounded by a glass palace. Dreamy stuff and any employee building cars anywhere else might rightly feel pangs of envy. Landscaping is all new and most of the trees are saplings held up by thick wires against the nearly constant wind off the ocean.

Hell of a contrast to the Phantom VI the place crafts at a rate approaching six a day. There isn't a wind made that can knock over a 5,489-lb Phantom.

I hadn't personally seen the facility, not even in pictures, until this visit. From what I'd read everywhere I was expecting a factory totally covered in heaps of local sod to create a manmade hillock, cattle grazing peacefully above the assembly line, lighting supplied by solar-powered chandeliers, beer kept naturally chilled by the constant underground climate and the like.

In reality, the design by Sir Nicolas Grimshaw is all airy glass, metal and wood with large solar-activated sunshades all around, discreet sedum groundcover planted over the entire low-lying roof and manmade lakes that act as heat exchangers for the air conditioning. Lord March's Goodwood Estate is prime National Trust material and the chief demand made on the design was that it be seen as little as humanly possible. Grimshaw tackled this chiefly by bulldozing dirt to form a surrounding rise that almost meets the height of the facility, very much like a Bronze Age earthen defense. In other words, this ain't Buick City.

And heard as little as possible. Deliveries are forbidden between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. With all heavy manufacturing of Phantom parts happening elsewhere, Goodwood is almost strictly an assembly zone which certainly helps noise levels as well. Within the BMW Group family, Rolls-Royce is the arbiter of bespoke luxury and a major ingredient in this is the interiors of leather and wood. Being near the boat-building capitol of Southampton, there were many local craftspeople eager to join the Rolls staff and ply their trades away from the scent of fish. Other than painting the cars on-site, wood and leather are the only two areas in which actual manufacturing occurs and, again, high-decibel levels don't come into play. The hides provided by Hewa in Germany are all from bulls (cowhides often suffer during the dying processes) and all are beef cattle.

The famed "Spirit of Ecstasy" hood ornament--also called "The Flying Lady," sometimes "The Silver Lady," even nicknamed "Emily" by some--comes in batches of six from Polycast in Southampton. To prevent hood ornament thievery while parked at the local Circle K and to satisfy some international pedestrian-impact laws, she can duck down out of site at the press of a button in the glove compartment, or you can make her do this automatically every time the engine stops.

It was amazing to see around 60 Phantom VI bodies in white (a chalky sage green really) from the Dingolfing, Germany, factory in various states of assembly. The aluminum space frame architecture is tank-like in its construction, certainly helping make this Rolls over twice as stiff as any previous Rolls when it comes to on-road twisting stresses.

Each Phantom VI takes roughly 250 man hours to complete, compared to 25 hours for a New MINI at the plant up the road in Oxford. A total of 500 people work on the site. The early goal is still 1,000 cars per year, but the operation could expand a little in the future and add a second shift if it wanted in order to deliver up to 2,000 annually.

2Live Crewe

Where as the all-new Rolls-Royce plant was cracked open in 2002, Bentley's heavily revamped facility in Crewe started life in 1938 as a factory for building Rolls-Royce Merlin Aero engines for warplanes like the Spitfire. At my last visit here in 2000, the place pretty much still looked like it was supplying the Allied war effort to beat those dirty Axis nations.

After the $750 million that VW Group poured into upgrading the classic structure on Pyms Lane, I was having difficulty believing my eyes. Whereas before it was a noble yet stuffy and ageing place, now things are industrial-modern-habitat slick. It's still very much the legendary brick factory on the outside--spit-shined--but the conditions inside are lab-coat modern and clean like never before. Efficiency screams from every corner. What's most amazing is that pretty much all 2,200 or so people working here in 2000 are working here today along with 1,500 new colleagues. But the mood has shifted 180 degrees so far as I can see. It's a feel-good fest and it infected me as we walked around.

One thing very funny happened right at our arrival. In the olden, pre-gazillion-dollar-improvement days you could just park what you brung in front of the main entrance and stroll in. There were no cars out front now, but we felt sort of entitled to place our two rides there even if only for old time's sake. Nothing doing, Jack. Everyone at Bentley has worked so many hours separating the two brands that used to live here that Crewe in particular is sensitive to anyone getting the perception that Rolls-Royce might still be here.

They asked us to move the Phantom off the entrance way.

After just two days in the seat of these special cars, I felt they were my babies to stand up for. Basically, after I whined and pleaded enough, some phone calls were made to various time zones and we were granted special dispensation. So feast your eyes on these exclusive photos as they may never be allowed again.

Bentley has also whittled down its product range in order to focus on an entirely repositioned image. See, the Phantom VI is awesomeness itself and a worthy continuer of the Rolls-Royce tradition. It cost a lot more to polish up Bentley because more actual production at greater volumes happens in Crewe. Also, it costs much more to update an old facility to glorious modern standards in a populated area than it does building exactly what you want out in a field from scratch. Thirdly, the Rolls-Royce image is intact and has an immediate awareness that has stayed mostly consistent since 1904, but the Bentley brand needs mucho definition as it has, since after WWII, lived in the hand-me-down shadows of Rolls-Royce and quality, image and brand distinction had a spotty history.

With a current production aim of 5,000 Continental GTs and less than 1,000 all together of the recently freshened Arnage R, T and RL, Crewe is actually only at about 60% capacity. This could easily reach 10,000 units if world demand for these masterpieces increases and stays there.

Painted aluminum CGT bodies arrive ready for assembly from the VW plant in Mosel, Germany. The modified steel architecture and the lion's share of all other parts structural and mechanical come from Germany as well. But the aluminum W12 bi-turbo engines are completely assembled to Bentley spec in Crewe.

As in Chichester, Crewe has also retained its famed leather and wood shops. For Rolls-Royce, the Park Ward brand for bespoke work has faded away and been replaced with a wide selection of standard personalization choices and a bespoke program. Bentley has its own vast standard personalization selection and has retained the Bentley Mulliner name for its bespoke program currently available only with the Arnage. With legendary Connolly belly-up, all Bentley hides are now provided from Austria by Boxmark.

Stats: Around 150 Continental GT bodies from Mosel are kept in a holding area at all times; it takes on the average 150 man hours to create one CGT; the complete wood veneer and metal set for the interior of the CGT takes 14 days to make ready and the all-wood set for the Arnage 17 days. Compare all this to about 20 hours to complete an entire VW Golf V in Wolfsburg.

"Wafting"

When the Phantom VI first bowed, Rolls-Royce kept pushing the word "wafting" to describe the drive sensation. After five days in one, maybe a coddled, passive passenger in the rear parlor seat might feel wafted, but up front I felt in charge, guiding my glorious gleaming $321,000 ship over green waves. Silently we trundle along, gently coaxing the brilliant black steering wheel.

The cush-o-rama lamb's wool floor mats from Rieter in Switzerland up front had me driving barefoot half the time. Hardly the image Rolls intends, but there you have it. In the past, chauffeurs were required to learn how to execute shifts without their blue-blooded cargo ever feeling a lurch or clunk. To aid this, the Phantom VI starts out in second gear. The six-speed ZF 6HP32 automatic transmission with this programming is like butter on a perfectly warm toasted bagel. You can press the silver button on the right of the steering wheel to use first gear and I tried it only once but it felt brash to be in such a hurry.

Torsional stiffness on this buff chassis with its massive magnesium bulkheads is incredible. We were having to make a little time on Day Two on our long way up to Crewe and I was pushing the Phantom pretty hard with lots of passing on two-lane primary A-roads. Though I could feel the car not really adoring this sort of treatment, it was thoroughly game. Had there been m'lady in the back, however, I would have been an out-of-work chauffeur. By Day Four on an easy drive into central Wales, I kept the long, leisurely Phantom at the speed limits and just enjoyed the sheer cruise of it all. Phantoms are not for overtaking in their heart of hearts. Better to be polite and have plenty of time, since comfort and aplomb should be your goals in this cozy rolling fortress.

The 22-in. wheels with 265x790 R540 A 111 W Michelin Pilot Primacy PAX run-flat tires add much to the ride quality quotient. You feel nothing, yet the car seems firmly planted. One tech trick to the wheels: the company "RR" badge in the center can turn independently of the wheel so that whenever it is still or at very low creeping speeds the company brand is upright and readable. A touch that goes a long way, especially if you're a photographer, and Bentley will apparently be introducing a similar feature soon. Even at over 19 feet in length and with this bodacious tire set, 11.7-ft wheelbase and 45.3-ft turning radius, the Phantom is very maneuverable in tight spots once the corners are located and you pay heed to the beeping fore and aft distance sensors.

This 453-bhp 6.8-liter V12 engine can haul the Phantom VI to 60 mph from a stop in just 5.7 sec.s, kids. Torque hits its 531-lb-ft peak at a sensible 3500 rpm. Hence my confident feeling during that day on which we needed to make time. The key is, however, to be able to reel in all that momentum and pull up in between passes with comfort and sometimes the help of really good brake platters. Huge ventilated discs--14.7-in. front and 14.6-in. rear--are perfectly matched to this big job. The feel at the pedal, too, is far less squish than I was expecting.

That gas mileage on this large a car is better than that possible in the Bentley Continental GT is a clear testament to direct injection. It's a cherry on the top of this beautiful sundae since it allowed me to drive up to 430 miles without pauses so long as I kept things civil.

There was only one item that turned both our noses completely the wrong way while driving the Phantom. The design and execution of the center console armrest compartments is heinously out of sync with the genius and detailing seen in the rest of the car. Its buttons are right where the elbow rests and so one or the other compartment is regularly opening by accident and the discomfort for the elbow is always annoying. Then the very cheap plastic used for this whole compartment section is frankly appalling. We were bowled over by this inconsistency in such a frequently touched and used part of the driving experience. Why not a sturdy wooden base and beefy lid with one button closer to where the fingers naturally fall? The plastic gas filler cap and rear removable ash trays (oh, yeah, we thoroughly nosed around) are also strictly worthy of a $15,000 car.

Several people have lamented the face and tail on the Ian Cameron/Marek Djordjevic exterior. First, the tail with proportionately small lights and the trunk lid falling away and tapering is part of the core Phantom design history and it didn't bother us a bit. The large trunk lid that snaps up so fast when remotely activated did raise our eyebrows, though. As for the face, I have to say that, after a few days seeing it in the Bentley rear-view, it looks just fine. The headlights could be just an iota taller, but the stately grille is good stuff. And, man, has it got a great profile.

A good quirk? The "Power Reserve %" meter at the left of the instrument binnacle cracked us up. It's there to show, in lieu of a tachometer showing you revs and the 5750-rpm redline, what percentage of power is still available to you at any time. The needle rests at 100% and moves right-to-left as you utilize a higher percentage of the power. Utterly useless and better off for it, we say. If you're driving it correctly, you won't need a rev counter anyway.Now we need a new Corniche inspired heavily by the 100EX concept car and a new smaller sedan that significantly updates the Seraph.

Bentley Revisited

Everybody loved the Continental GT at first sight. The design by Dirk van Braekel really does capture what they intended it to. A luxurious and sporty honest 2+2 GT that decidedly sets the standard in the class and firmly puts the freshened Bentley identity on course. And, just as hoped, both the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti and Aston Martin DB9 have used the CGT as poster child in their efforts to balance luxury, handsomeness and performance. They'll just never match its $150,000 price tag--ha-ha-hee-hee!I love the whole packaging, too. Literally staring at the entire beast from any angle, I can find nothing about which to lament. Nice, long wheelbase of 9 ft, good wide tracks (63.9 in. and 63.3 in. f/r) and brief overhangs announce a great driving experience is about to take place.

Then I started the motor without inserting anything anywhere apart from my butt in the driver's seat. Between this twin-KKK Warner turbocharged 552-bhp 6.0-liter W12 and the 6.0-liter V12 self-breather in the Vanquish and DB9, we may have the two finest exhaust tunes at idle on the market. Under acceleration, the CGT is an absolute torque beast (479 lb-ft between 1600 and 6000 rpm) that you must grip firmly especially in dodgy passing situations on two-lanes. The surge from the turbos has a geometric effect in at-speed acceleration and slower cars ahead approach faster than you'd think. A weight-to-power ratio of 9.53 lb per horse and a 4.7-sec. 0-to-60-mph time from a super GT with a full-time Torsen all-wheel-drive differential and 198-mph top speed tell no lies. This is serious brilliance and direct-injection engines are on the way for all Bentleys shortly to make the mileage just as brilliant.

The nicest part about the Continental GT formula is that I cruised just as placidly at speed limits in it as I did with such ecstasy in the Phantom VI. Sure, it wants to get up and go like a purebred horse, but the stance lends itself to sightseeing mode very nicely. And at such dawdling speeds through walled villages the engine sound gurgles so devilishly and attracts all the children--those real and the ones tucked inside every adult. Admirers of the sound and shape of the CGT formed a long line early on Day One. Motorcyclists especially took advantage of their situation to get really close and ogle. The Phantom is imposing to behold, but everyone wants to look at the interior more than anything else, and rightly so.

At this price in this rarefied class of GT, the Continental has a very accommodating interior. The two sport bucket seats cup you just right. I was expecting a little more from the steering wheel design, something not quite so chunky, but it's a good gripper. Wind noise off the rear pillars is about at the same level as on the much higher-priced competitors and this is a constant area of GT design study in wind tunnels. This seems to improve when a four-door model happens and I can't wait to drive that near-future Bentley.

Is the Continental GT a true 2+2 for four adults? Ish, I'd say. As in both the 612 Scaglietti and DB9, those of us at around 6-ft high need to straddle the seat back. But what has decidedly improved on all these cars is the seating itself. With rear seats this comfortable, I don't mind the knee splay. I can't speak for ladies in evening wear, but I for one could stay cross-dressed back there all day without blushing.

About that geometric speed increase while ticking off slower drivers on two-lanes: the Bentley has the largest ventilated front discs on the market. 15.9 in. across while the rear goes with 13.2 in. If that's not sending a message, my lips are as those found on chickens. Slowing and stopping in this muzzer is equivalent to ceramics on a Porsche only without the grinding and just a little bit offade over time. Hold on to your teeth.

Multi-link suspension on all four corners is so lovely when it can be afforded and is properly done. Such is the case here, and the 19-in. 275/40ZR19 Pirellis all around only exacerbate the wonder of it all. Though the turning circle is a fairly usual 37.4 ft, visibility is somewhat limited and thus you need time before really knowing where your corners are in tight spots. As on the Phantom, trust in your beeps for they are your friends.

But this is a decidedly new Bentley, whereas Rolls-Royce just needs to stay the course and accentuate it. Van Braekel and his squad are working on the four-door prototypes of the CGT, a convertible version of the two-door, something possibly above the Arnage and then something even smaller than the CGT. The emphasis is sportiness, hell, downright rakishness in the gentleman racer tradition. After all, all that "Bentley Boys" hype around the Audi-fed Le Mans victory in 2003 had better not just be a flash in the pan; it must influence everything the company shows us from now on.

Pried From Bleeding Fingers

0412_Rollsandbentley_30z+Rolls_Royce_Phantom_VI_Bentley_Continental_GT+Rear_View Photo 30/30   |   First Look: Bliss

And thus our five day euphoria tour came to an end. The Phantom VI was dropped off unceremoniously at Heathrow Airport and the Continental GT in downtown London.Was this work? Sure worked for us.

Both Rolls-Royce and Bentley are on respective wiser paths for the 21st century. It was nice to see this for ourselves in the perfect place in perfect weather and perfect landscapes. We had to admit, too, that both are worth the prices asked.Send money.

Rolls-Royce {{{Phantom}}} VI{{{Bentley Continental}}} Gt
   
Where BuiltPainted/assembled at Goodwood facility near Chichester, West Sussex England, UK; Panels and Components created in Germany; interiors crafted at GoodwoodAssembled at Crewe, Cheshire, England, UK; engine also fully assembled in Crewe;paintedbodies shipped from Mosel, Germany; most components created in Germany before hand;interiors crafted at crewe"
   
Yearly Build Goal1000{{{5000}}}
   
Hours To Build One250150
   
Body/Frame MaterialsAluminum & composite body with; aluminum spaceframce structure; magnesium bulkheadsAluminum body with some magnesium;
steel/cast-iron frame
   
Doors/SeatsFour/fiveTwo/four
   
EngineAluminum naturally aspirated 6749cc 48-valve quad-cam direct-injection V12Aluminum 5998cc 48-valve quad-cam bi-turbo (KKK Warner)W12 w/port fuel injection
   
Borexstroke92.0mm x 84.6mm84.0mm x {{{90}}}.2mm
   
Power453 bhp @ 5350 rpm552 bhp @ 6100 rpm
   
Torque531 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm479 lb-ft @ 1600-{{{6000}}} rpm
   
Redline5750 rpm6300 rpm
   
Compression Ratio11:019.5:1
   
Engine Oil Capacity8.98 quarts13.19 quarts
   
Curb Weight2495kg/5,489 lb2385kg/5258lb
   
Pounds per Horse12.12 lb:1 bhp9.53 lb:1 bhp
   
TransmissionShift-by-wire ZF 6HP32 six-speed auto; rwdZF six-speed sequential auto-manual w/Torsen dif; awd
   
Final-drive Ratio3.463.52
   
Length5834mm/229.7 in.4804mm/189.1 in.
   
Width1990mm/78.3 in.1918mm/75.5 in.
   
Height1632mm/64.3 in.1390mm/54.7 in.
   
Wheelbase3750mm/140.6 in.2745mm/108.1 in.
   
Track, f/r1685mm/1670mm 66.3 in./65.7 in.1623mm1607mm 63.9 in.163.3 in.
   
Turning Circle13.8m/45.3ft11.4m/37.4 ft
   
Drag Cd0.380.32
   
Mfr. 0-60mph Time5.7 sec.4.7 sec
   
Top Speed{{{240}}} kph/149mph318 kph/198 mph
   
Base Price In Us $$321,000 $149,990
   
   
Trunk Space460L/16.2 cu ft370L/13.1 cu ft
   
Wheels22-in. Michelin Pax19-in.
   
TiresMichelin PaxPirelli 275/40ZR
   
   
Brakes Ventilated discs: front, 374mm/14.7 in.;
rear, 370mm/14.6in.
Ventilated discs: front, 405mm/15.9 in;
rear,335mm/13.2 in.
   
SuspensionFront: unequal length control arms;
Rear:multilink; self-leveling airsprings
Front: four-link independent;
Rear: multilink; self-leveling airsprings
   
Fuel Capacity100L/26.42 gal.90L/23.78 gal.
   
Combined Mpg (Us)14.82 mpg14 mpg
   
Range Per Tank (Combined)391.5 miles332.9 miles
   
Designed By/WhereIan Cameron; Marek Djordjevic, Exterior Chief;
Charles Coldham, Interior Chief; In Downtown London
Dirk {{{Van}}} Braekel, Project & Exterior Chief;
Robin Page, Interior Chief; In Crewe
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By Sam Hill
3 Articles

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