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Last week, I drove a 2012 Bentley Continental GT convertible around Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula. Or maybe the car drove me. I’ve never encountered a vehicle that accelerated so smoothly, braked so effortlessly, or smelled so good. Using its famed “wave of torque,” the Bentley GTC took tight hillside turns with incredible ease, as though it were running on a track, never veering out of its lane. Also, there was a back massager built into the driver’s chair. Other automotive writers tend to ignore this function, preferring instead to write about how the car handles. But I had my massage going the whole time. And I was driving in Croatia. It was as though I’d taken a Quantum Leap into someone else’s life.
Welcome to the strange world of high-end automotive junkets. Bentley paid my way to Europe. They flew me first-class to England and hired a charter to take me to Croatia. I stayed at a hotel, in the country outside of Manchester, where Sting and Trudy got married. The wine and appetizers never stopped. It was a fun, luxurious, and corrupt adventure. “We’re beyond spoiled,” said one of my fellow junketeers. “We’re Kobe humans. They stuff us full of food and wine all day, and then we wake up at 6 AM and start it all over again.”
There were 15 other writers on the trip with me, all of them men except for one freelancer for the Toronto Star. These were the hotshots of the circuit, the heavy-hitters. With the exception of me, doing this for the first and probably the last time, this wasn’t a trip for newbies. Many of these automotive writers spend their lives traveling from junket to junket, racking up frequent-flier miles and not paying for anything. They can be pretty jaded. As one of the writers told me, "it's kind of like going on an endless luxury vacation with people you hate."
Fairly recently, Bentley had flown the entire junket corps to a press event in the Kingdom of Oman to test-drive the non-convertible version of the GT. So these writers already knew this car. But as one of my fellow junketeers said, “When else were we ever going to get a chance to drive a Bentley in Croatia? It’s something we haven’t done before.”
My reasoning exactly.
On the first day of the trip, we went on a tour of the Bentley factory in Crewe, England. I got to witness an “engine marriage,” wherein a molded chassis is lowered onto a car engine, heard a talk about various kinds of interior wood veneer, and stood by while the assembled press corps breathlessly took photos of a woman hand-stitching a leather steering wheel, a process that one writer proclaimed as “way too cool.” The place sparkled like freshly polished silver and buzzed like a hive, as happy-looking workers went about their business with efficiency and pride. This is what car factories are like now, my fellow junketeers told me. The Ferrari factory in Italy has so many plants inside it resembles a greenhouse.
Our tour guide was a besuited fellow named Nigel, trim as a pole and bald as a billiard ball. He’d worked on the factory floor for twenty years and had been rewarded with a job in the marketing department. He was pretty forthcoming with Bentley facts both pleasant and unpleasant. The recession has cut into Bentley’s business a bit, he said. In 2007, they sold 10,000 machines, but by 2009, they were giving their workers a five-week “furlough.” Nigel told us that this year, Bentley is attempting to move 7,000 cars.
Bentley sells all over the world, he said, but all Bentley customers have one common denominator: They’re rich. Thirty-two percent of the cars go to the U.S., with about 20 each in the U.K. and Western Europe. The biggest boom customer is China, which this year is poised to become Bentley’s largest market. “It’s a chauffeur-driven culture,” Nigel said, politically.
The average Chinese Bentley buyer is 15 years younger than his Western counterpart. As one Bentley executive told us later, “He comes into the dealership and he wants his car now. If you talk about customizing, he goes next door and buys a Ferrari. We have to respond to this.”
Different Bentley markets have their eccentricities, Nigel said on our tour. The U.K. and Europe prefer their cars silver and gray, while China and Russia like them black. In the 80s, all the white Bentleys went to the Middle East, and now most of them ship to the States. Most Bentleys have two trim colors on the interior leather, but the Chinese are now asking for a third color, “which is perhaps a step too far,” in Nigel’s opinion. “The customer isn’t always right,” he said. “But the customer is always the customer.” To that end, he shared the nauseating fact that soccer star David Beckham had his daughter Brooklyn’s name hand-stitched into his Bentley’s back passenger seat.
Nigel, like everyone else I met from the company, clearly took great pride in the craftsmanship that goes into a Bentley. “I once trimmed a set of seats for the queen,” he said. “The flutes were Scottish tartan. I took pictures home to me mum and dad, and said, ‘look, I did this.’”
The next morning, Bentley flew us on a private charter to Pula, a small town on the Istrian Peninsula, a fertile coastal region trying to market itself as the “next Tuscany.” At dinner the previous night, a Bentley executive said that the company had chosen Croatia because it’s “quite a fashionable destination, great roads, a lot of history.” Another called it “a rare undiscovered spot on the European map.” A shuttle bus took us to our extremely luxurious hotel whose construction had been funded by the Croatian tobacco industry. We had two hours to pretend we were on holiday before the evening’s program began.
This took place in a pavilion that Bentley had erected for a month of promotional events. Wave after wave of automotive and “lifestyle” journalists would descend upon Croatia to marvel at the gleaming silver Continental GT that sat in the middle of the room, its grille shining like the king’s chainmail. There were artful renderings of the GTC on the walls and banners billowing overhead. Bentley provided us with notebooks in case we’d forgotten ours.
Bentley chairman and CEO Wolfgang Dürheimer appeared, looking trim and serious in an expensive suit, like a Bond villain. He called the GTC “a striking contemporary design combined with unparalleled performance.” This car was “more muscular” than previous one, he said. We sat in comfortable wicker chairs, wearing our business casual suit jackets and drinking complimentary champagne as a mustachioed man described the GTC’s “cool-touch metals,” “deep-pile carpets,” and “slimline cobra-head front seats.” He showed us the car’s removable veneered sunglasses case.
The GTC, he said, is “the stiffest convertible in the world.” This “minimizes scuttle shake.” Its W-12 twin turbo engine has up to 567 horsepower. The car boasts 516 ft-lbs of torque, 21-inch wheels that have four-wheel drive at all times, “extremely agile, sharp, crisp turning,” and “track width increase for increased stability and grip.” It can go up to 195 mph, zero to 100 in 10.9 seconds, gets 11 mpg city and 19 mpg highway, and costs just under $213,000, base.
The next morning, we got to drive it.
On these junkets, the writers drive in pairs, alternating legs of the journey. I had the privilege of teaming up with Tim Spell, automotive editor of the Houston Chronicle, who’s been doing this for a long time. Tim drove with Team Camel in a race across South America, and once spent a week taking a Mercedes Diesel from Kazakhstan to Western China. He has nothing to prove. Tiam told me not to worry about the GTC. These are touring cars, he said, designed to go on long drives with sweeping turns and lots of beautiful scenery. “It’s a very confidence-inspiring vehicle,” he said.
It was as though I’d taken a Quantum Leap into someone else’s life. - Neal Pollack
He taught me certain rules of the game: “Never drive above your head,” don’t pass a local in a city, and don’t hotdog it past another journalist. These are “A-list” drivers, he said, and they don’t take kindly to a speeding match. He said this as he drove through towns and vineyards, taking turns with the skill and grace of a Formula One driver. He used the “clutchless manual” function, which involves manipulating mounted paddle shifters on either side of the steering column. But he encouraged me to just keep the car in automatic the whole time.
After a quick stop for toast points spread with local truffles, I got my turn. I drove through olive groves, and accelerated across a bridge that spanned a winding canal. The scenery appeared subtle until I approached the coast, curving along cliffs adjacent to a vista of glistening Adriatic bays. The car was grace and brilliance itself, water flowing into a luxury bathtub. It made subtle adjustments, and even the tightest turns felt basic. Acceleration and braking happened almost automatically. The magnificent Istrian scenery flowered in front of me. “I drive the same roads all the time, and I like it that way,” Tim said. “But every once in a while, I see someplace and think, ‘this is special.’”
We put the top up to go through a tunnel. The car, unbidden, lowered its windows slightly. Sometimes it does this to let itself breathe. This thing was unbelievable.
After eating an excessively luxurious waterfront lunch, I got behind the wheel again. This leg was mostly through small towns and windy coastal roads. There was a lot of starting and stopping, but the GTC handled everything expertly. Tim took the wheel after a half-hour or so, and we almost immediately got lost.
At our morning “driver’s briefing,” they’d told us not to take a certain route because there was bridge construction and the cars weren’t insured for dust damage. We took a wrong turn and ended up on that route anyway. So we turned around. Now we were kind of lost.
I consulted the trip book while Tim drove fast and aggressively on tight, narrow country roads. The combination of his racecar driving, my book reading, and the several ounces of marinated octopus sloshing around in my belly created problems.
“Ohhh,” I said. “I don’t feel so good.”
“Do you need me to pull over?” Tim asked.
“No,” I said.
Tim took a couple of more turns, really sharp.
“Yes,” I said.
I got out, walked a few meters, bent down, and emptied the contents of my guts onto the fertile Croatian soil. As I did so, I remembered that they’d told me at the driver’s briefing not to walk too far away from the vehicle because the Croatian countryside still contained lots of unexploded landmines. But I felt so much better when I was done barfing.
From there, it was maybe another 30 miles to Pula Airport. The Bentley PR team called. They wanted to know where we were. Everyone else had already gone through security.
“In the back of my mind, I always tell myself, ‘I will survive this,’ Tim said. ‘But I hate making other people late.’”
The Bentley hummed gently, palpably. It was a living thing that could respond to our breath and our emotions.
“We’re going 100,” Tim said.
“Kilometers?” I said.
“Oh no,” he said. “Miles. And now we’re going 120.”
“I can’t feel a thing,” I said.
We passed through a toll. Tim gave the car a burst.
“And now we’re going 140.”
A blue warning light came on. Apparently, going 140 miles per hour was bad for the Bentley’s tire pressure. We got to the airport and parked at the curb, keys in, still running.
Thirty minutes later, I was on a private charter plane back to England, taking photos of the Alps with my phone, while some other junket journalist drove that GTC around Croatia.
2012 Bentley Continental GTC Facts and Figures
| Class: ||Luxury Grand Tourer |
|Capacity: ||4-passenger luxury sports coupe|
| Configuration: || Front-engine, all-wheel drive |
| Engine: ||W-12 turbo |
| Transmission: ||6-speed automatic transmission|
| Power: ||567 hp|
| Torque: || 516 ft-lbs |
| Top speed: || 195 mph |
| Zero to 60 mph: || 4.5 seconds |
| Mileage: || 11/19 mpg |
| Base price (including destination charges): || $213,000 |
| Bottom line: || "This thing was unbelievable." |