A warning comes through the walkie-talkie: there are monkeys on the road ahead. Repeat: monkeys on the road ahead.
I'm sitting in the second of two low, mean black coupes, escorted front and rear by galloping gray Bentley Bentayga luxury SUVs—a high-speed convoy rolling fast through the South African hillside looking, I imagine, like corporate mercenaries coming in heavy to stomp a miner's strike. As I try to recall whether, of all the many dangers I've heard relayed over car-to-car radio—gravel, deer, cops, oil, cyclists, debris, joggers, speed cameras, bright sunlight, and once in upstate New York, hippies—monkeys have ever made an appearance (they have not) we pass a trio of vervets scampering west into tall grass. The group pulls onto a scenic overlook perched just below the clouds, the vantage point so high the vast acres of mahogany trees below appear as a fuzzing of moss on the distant valley.
Everyone gets out of the car and mills around, waiting for the gawkers to arrive.
It does not take long. Traveling in any type of convoy is conspicuous, a procession of Bentleys more so, but hiding a pair of mystery vehicles under false body panels, taped-on wheel arches, and artlessly redecorated front fascias invites a certain scrutiny. Like a superhero's costume, it's the type of disguise that demands attention.
The first observer, a local man out for a picnic with his family, wanders over. He indicates one of the camouflaged two-doors and asks if it's a Tesla.
"I hope it's a Tesla," he adds.
Cameron Patterson, Bentley's director of full-vehicle engineering and my part-time guide for the next two days, remains upbeat and friendly despite the fact that the car in question is not a Tesla. Even though, in many ways—some of them purposeful—the undercover car represents the very opposite idea of a motor vehicle than a showy, gull-winged Model X, or a minimalist electric futuremobile like the Model 3.
Patterson notes, for example, that the car has a grille, which is used to feed air to a fuel-powered engine, and that the appearance of a grille suggests the car is not, in fact, a battery-powered Tesla, none of which have any grilles whatsoever.
Another man, quiet and tall, steps forward and presents his question as a statement.
"This car," he says, "is maybe from Great Britain."
Patterson smiles and leans into his Scottish brogue: "Ah, well, this car may be from Great Britain"—a pause, a tilt of the head—"and it may
not be from Great Britain."
It's a dodge—the car is indeed from Great Britain, specifically England, more specifically Crewe, south of Manchester near the border of Wales—and it strikes me as odd. Car companies typically enjoy talking about all the new cars they have for sale. The marketing departments in those car companies spend many millions of dollars to explain, as often as possible to as many of the right people as possible, that: 1. the company has introduced a new car; 2. the new car is very special, for all the most important reasons; 3. choosing to continue to live life without said car would be a grave, foolish, indeed possibly a fatal mistake; or will at least decrease your chances of having fun or sex.
But this new vehicle is so very fresh that it is not yet fair to call it a Car—it is a Prototype, one that carries great expectations as the third iteration of Bentley's much-loved Continental model, and therefore a closely guarded Big Secret. Bentley is in South Africa to make sure everything in the next-generation grand tourer will still function even after having the hell beat out of it in the treacherous and rudely hot parts of the world.
I am along for the ride, and the ride is running at breakneck speed.
The Vehicle-Development Process: A Short Primer
January is a busy time to be in the car-testing business. If you're a European brand, like Bentley, most of your testing is done during the European winter, which provides properly frigid temperatures up north while hot-weather evaluation requires nothing more than a quick trip south of the equator, to a place like the Kruger wildlife reserve in Nelspruit, South Africa, a short flight from Johannesburg.
"The Continental GT prototypes had already bested the initial acceleration target, which have since been revised down."
This is where I'm joining a team of Bentley engineers, executives, and support staff, some of whom have been assessing the prototype Continental GTs for weeks, with escalating levels of oversight. The testing was at first the purview of a smaller corps of engineers, each responsible for a small and very specific slice of the car—powertrain or climate control or switchgear—later joined by department managers. Now, finally, well through the process, several top-level Bentley executives have arrived for their own evaluations. This includes Bentley CEO Wolfgang Dürheimer, whom I had seen just a few days earlier in Lisbon, Portugal, for the media drive of the bonkers, 209-mph Bentley Continental Supersports (making that car both the final and the fastest of the soon-to-be "old" Continentals). Dürheimer preceded me to Kruger by two days, drove the cars, gave his feedback, and set off again; the only trace of the Bentley chief executive I find when I arrive is a kind of existential "Dürheimer was here" graffiti, a tic that bubbles his name into conversation whenever the testing group talks shop. I arrive just after a major (though invisible) border has been crossed; what had been a collection of individual tests of systems and components had transformed, by the brief appearance of a tall CEO with bristly gray hair and a deep Germanic voice, into the evaluation of a car.
New Bentley vehicles don't come into existence often. Once, a couple decades ago or longer, when Bentley was just a niche luxury manufacturer, this was part of their charm; now the brand is owned by Volkswagen Group, one of the largest automotive manufacturers in the world, which kept Bentley's quaint ancestral factory operating, albeit heavily modernized and inside a $700M facility built around it, partly to ensure new Bentley vehicles would not remain so rare. But creating a new car is never easy or quick. The timeline, broadly, goes like this: First, a digital concept, then simulator phase wherein new systems are placed into existing vehicles. This is followed by a prototype phase of prototypes, which are refined through various prototype stages. Finally, a shakedown phase that tests build quality, reliability, drivability—moving the vehicle from prototype to something that can be perfectly replicated, manufactured, and sold through dealerships. All told, according to company engineers, the entire process for a new Bentley can take up to four years—then, at last, a new car is born. Typically, it's unveiled at one of the big international auto shows like Geneva or New York or Frankfurt.
I'm joining Bentley more than three years into evelopment, during the late-prototype refinement phase, called VFF testing (the acronym makes sense in German) with around 285,000 test miles already complete through the first several stages. Between building the vehicles and rounds of hot- and cold-weather testing—part of the Continental's cold-weather testing takes place in like Finland, where temperatures just a few weeks prior had hit -15 degrees Fahrenheit—the VFF phase alone will require four months.
Each car is equipped with a massive, 60-gigabyte solid-state data recorder into which evaluators from five departments—the four main departments of powertrain, chassis, body, and electrical, plus a de facto fifth department, "full vehicle," which is overseen by Patterson and incorporates the other four—enter feedback on a dashboard-mounted input unit that transmits daily to an offsite server.
Each vehicle also has an iPad for assigning scores for various department-specific evaluations, ranked from one to 10. On that scale, according Rolf Frech, Bentley board member for engineering, a 10 ranks as "absolute perfection," while a six is considered "on the limit" of acceptability—a six signifies that "a sensitive customer might notice this problem," Frech says.
Any debilitating mechanical issues will be addressed as they arise by a traveling team of support mechanics, but as much as possible, the prototypes will stay as-is during the length VFF testing.
The point of this stage is to put the cars under acute duress in extreme environments to induce a sort of rapid aging. This not helps engineers identify early-failure points, and also to begin figuring out what the final car is supposed to feel like—it's character. These engineers have been spending up to seven hours a day in the cars for weeks on end, adjusting the variables of suspension damping and steering quickness and throttle response settings, trying to solve for the equation of the new Continental GT's soul.
This part of Africa is green and hilly and full of wildlife, and typically quite sunny during this time of year, which explains why Bentley, like many automakers, has long conducted dry- and hot-weather testing for new vehicles in SA. But since the Bentley team had arrived in Kruger the weather had been so full of rain and fog that the British-born team members had taken to referring to the area as "Scotland, with monkeys."
The sun and I arrived at the same time.
The choice of Kruger was based on the recommendation of one engineer who had previously worked for Porsche; that company likes the region's open, high-speed roads and relative anonymity for its development programs. Bentley and Porsche are corporate cousins under the massive Volkswagen Group umbrella, and the decision to test the new Continental in Kruger was not the only Bentley-Porsche connection: the new Continental GT is underpinned by a shortened version of the MSB chassis first introduced on the newest Porsche Panamera sedan earlier in 2017. The 2019 Continental GT marks not only the first time a Bentley will have been built on a Porsche platform, but the first time Porsche has shared a chassis with another brand, ever. (Patterson admits the unfamiliar, intra-group collaboration arrangement had "quite a few teething problems.")
Rolf Frech says the British brand did not simply repurpose a finished platform from its Germanic counterpart, but was part of the chassis-development process during the early stages—making sure, for example, that certain sections were stiff enough for future use in a heavy, ultra-luxury grand tourer. Frech went so far as to claim the chassis was "designed by Porsche and Bentley," which seems a stretch, but his point was clear: even though Porsche is the relative volume brand between the two, meaning it carries more water within the corporate power structure, Volkswagen Group understands the importance of distinction between Porsche products and Bentley products, and gave the latter enough input within the development process to be able to create an authentic Bentley vehicle.
Frech insists the collaboration "made the platform better for Porsche, too."
As part of the deal, the new Continental will also use Porsche's incredibly quick and durable—and, it was noted, imposingly wide—PDK double-clutch transmission. There was early concern over whether the system could be made refined enough for a Bentley customer's tastes, which run toward smoothness, silence, and "lots of performance, but not quite so dynamic compared to a Porsche," according to Patterson. Those concerns were quickly allayed.
"This is a fresh, thrilling, thoroughly modern Bentley grand tourer—full stop, as the Brits say."
While sitting shotgun in car VFF1, I ask Patterson about his expectations for the new grand tourer. He says this car doesn't have the requisite low-speed drivability, and the powertrain and gearbox calibration will also need tweaking.
We leave the commuter streets around the hotel for twisting, climbing logging roads, passing trucks stacked with freshly-felled trunks like gargantuan toothpicks. As our speed increases, Patterson's feedback becomes more detailed.
"The Panamera's steering is full of raw feel, and this has some of that, but it needs to be a bit plush," he says, noting that the Continental GT's steering will be lighter than the Panamera's—precise without being too direct, which Patterson says helps create a more luxurious feel. The new car will sit lower than the current GT, with a longer wheelbase, a shorter overhang, and the engine positioned 50mm further back for a better 48/52 front-to-rear weight distribution, and a lighter nose.
Patterson says the MSB platform will make for a sportier overall product than the VW Phaeton platform on which most Bentleys are based, while bigger, wider tires at the rear means "loads more grip."
Patterson steps on the throttle and the engine claps through the cabin under hard acceleration.
"A bit boomy for me," he says.
I wonder aloud just how fast the car will be.
"It's fucking quick," Patterson says. He won't disclose a top figure.
The new Continental GT will debut with Bentley's enduring twin-turbo W-12 engine; other engine options, including a V8, will be available down the line. Patterson says the VFF prototypes had already bested the initial acceleration target, but denies requests for specific power numbers and performance specs. Instead, I'm told the car will have the same torque as the Bentayga—meaning 664 pound-feet—and a better helping than that vehicle's 600 horsepower.
As the convoy pulls into another rest area for a driver change, Patterson instructs me to ask Rolf Frech about the Dynamic Ride system. "He's quite proud of that system," he says.
"These days, electronics engineers rule the world," Patterson says as we climb out of the car. Patterson comes from that world himself, and stresses software's importance to (and integration within) every aspect of a modern car—even an ultra-luxury grand tourer with a huge, archaic gas-burning engine—can't be quantified, and is only growing.
"It's no longer about building the cars, but getting more than 100 engine control units working with each other," he said.
The night's dinner is a subdued affair of more than a dozen executives, engineers, vehicle support, and PR staff sitting around a large table, drinking local wine, ribbing one another and making jokes in a vein of comedy I was unaware until that moment existed: car-development humor. (At the sight of a chateaubriand set alight: "A Bentley never catches on fire," an engineer announces to the table, "there is only a 'thermal incident' or a 'rapid corrosion event.'") One of the engineers, a young Welsh guy, mentions that he he's been at home in Crewe for a total of two days so far this year. I check the date on my phone; it's February 18th. He had been with the cars in Finland, and now South Africa, and after this will follow the cars to Sweden and start the process again.
The vehicle-support crew, too, often works these extended testing sessions back-to-back-to-back, spending weeks on end together trailing the convoy, eating meals, figuring out how to spend free time—a jog, a trip to a local attraction—and cleaning and working on the prototypes. I hear it referred to as "the circus" more than once.
And yet when the videographer's laptop appears on the dinner table and begins issuing familiar barks and squeals and growls, everyone at the table gathers around; there's a lot of pointing at the screen and grinning and nudging. Even after an entire day of logging data and tapping iPads and radioing road conditions—and today being just one of many such days, stretching back weeks, adding up to months filled with motel pillows and morning briefings in unfamiliar conference rooms and standing in various lines (coming through customs; checking into hotels; waiting for the buffet or the port-o-john) and long hours sitting in a car seat until your ass is sore and you can pick your teammates' farts out of a lineup—the whole team leaves the meal to stare at a small computer screen and watch images of these vehicles, which had already defined their recent lives for too many hours to count, tearing around the same bend over and over and over. They are all grinning.
The second day—for me, anyway—of the exotic and top-secret Bentley prototype test program begins with misplaced car keys.
"Key discipline among the engineers is always a problem," Cameron Patterson explains as Rolf Frech and I idle in prototype VFF8, the sibling to yesterday's test vehicle but featuring a different front suspension set-up. The delay gives me a chance to inspect the car's interior—still a work in progress given that the finer details of fitment would not be hashed out until a later phase. But a Bentley's interior is its true showroom, an individualized exhibit where the brand's masterful wood- and metal- and leatherwork is put on display, and arguably the area in which the badge most earns its price tags, which otherwise could be spent on admirably nice houses.
Despite repeated evidence of hard living and counterfeit trim panels—both common to prototypes used for mechanical and electronics development—broad design takeaways are apparent. Most noticeable is the new Continental GT's cleaner layout. This car will finally ditch the winged dual-cockpit formation that has been a Bentley calling card since the first Continental GT, in 2003; that towering expanse of wood and leather, with its pendulous overhang of a center console, has been slimmed and smoothed and canted forward in a way that brings to mind a modern Scandinavian yacht more than a staid British touring saloon. It's a modernized aesthetic that feels richer for its clean lines and exacting edit.
The new architecture was no doubt blueprinted around the expansive, VW Group-sourced multimedia interface that integrates fluently into the cockpit. It's a bright, hi-def touchscreen that runs across the top of the center stack, will reportedly be able to sync up to three phones at the same time, and can hopefully end the Bentley infotainment system's long-running and brutal war against modernity and usability. (Though these prototypes lack the functionality, I'm told the infotainment screen will include of a neat bit of spy-theater in the form of a three-sided, mechanically rotating "toblerone" that offers three different dashboard looks, cycling between the MMI screen, a horizontal trio of analog gauges, and a sleek continuation of the interior's wood and brightwork.) There are other welcome modern touches, like a handsome frameless rearview mirror and a scrollable electronic driver's display with the first digital gauges ever fitted to a Bentley. These digital gauges may not make the leap to every Bentley model—the Mulsanne saloon begs for beautiful analog versions—but Frech says they make sense for the younger Continental GT customer base.
But technology Frech is most excited about is the chassis sorcery called electro-mechanical active roll-stabilization—eAWS—powered by a 48-volt electrical subsystem packaged in the rear, with actuators fore and aft. This, in corporate-speak, is Dynamic Ride; it's what Patterson told me to ask Frech about, because his hair was on fire about it. It was not an overstatement. The system was ported over from the Bentayga SUV, where it mostly helped deliver a certain level of ride comfort; but in the new Continental GT, Frech describes it with the wonder of metaphysics, talking about engineers finding "another dimension for tuning the car."
Frech's example was this: Say you want to keep the cabin flat during hard cornering. Normally, engineers would have to increase the spring rate, which decreases ride comfort. But with an eAWS system, the engineers can tune the spring rate nearly independent of how the cabin is designed to behave during cornering, because that part is addressed in real time by Dynamic Ride. It's apparently no small thing as far as corporate priorities go: within its chassis group, Bentley now runs a stand-alone department dedicated solely to eAWS.
The new GTs will feature adjustable ride height thanks to an air suspension, giving the car the ability to squat at higher speeds for better aerodynamics, or raise itself above speed bumps, or for better in-and-out. Even from the passenger seat (I am not be given driver's seat time, despite repeated requests) the car feels more vital, grippier, and nimbler than the last-generation Continental GT, even the monstrously fast Supersports variant, or the track-inspired GT3-R model. Even in prototype form it is immediately apparent this new generation Continental GT will drive more modern and dynamic than anything currently in the stable—a leap so far forward it might wipe clean Bentley's reputation for charming and sometimes deliberate anachronism (or so they hope). Disguise panels aside, this is already a fresh, thrilling, thoroughly modern Bentley grand tourer—full stop, as the Brits say.
Frech is mostly pleased—the chassis tuning is "already there," and power delivery and linear acceleration are working well in prototype VFF8—but engine note differentiation between driving modes needs work.
"It's not just noise, but character," Frech says. "I want to hear all 12 cylinders."
I ask about active noise cancelling, which uses reverse-phase audio signals to effectively erase low-frequency noise and is becoming big news in the luxury car space. It's a fraught subject for Frech, who insinuates it's a sort of cheat—a band-aid to cover noise, vibration, and harshness issues, like having an expensive stereo to disguise the fact you live next to an airport.
"It's like electronic stability control," Frech says. "I tell my engineers to start chassis-tuning with ESC off, because a car needs to be balanced without ESC first, as a proper baseline."
Bentley vehicles are supremely quiet by design, which requires no small amount of engineering ingenuity when considering the car's large engines are powered by exploding petroleum, and the insinuation is that while noise-cancelling technology might provide other brands a way to match or exceed a Bentley core competency, the method lacks a certain level of luxury craftsmanship.
"Rolf hates anything inauthentic," Cameron Patterson says, but adds that Bentley will "probably get to cancellation before we get to generation"—by which he means electric vehicles, which are silent by nature and to which noise must be added for pedestrian safety or we'll all be waist-deep in dead pedestrians.
The seemingly inevitable transition to battery power is another fraught subject for the Bentley team, despite the fact that many key attributes of electric vehicles are already what the Bentley customer expects: lots of torque for smooth, powerful acceleration; a quiet ride; and a planted feel on the road. I hear the typical hedging about delivering "what the customer expects," but also the sense that Bentley remains a legacy brand enamored with the old-fashioned alchemy it's perfected over the course of nearly a century—the ability to transform big, heavy gas-burning engines and yards of leather and wood and chrome into a powerful, thrilling, thoroughly civilized means of conveyance.
But talk of batteries and sonic counter-programming is for later. Here, now, as the sun sets on God's Window in the towering Lebombo mountains, a low, mean black prototype disappears down the road, steaming as fast as it can to that fuzzy, imprecise point when it becomes not just a car, but a Bentley.