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BEHIND THE WHEEL

For $324,500, You Get Part Royalty, Part Rhino

September 27, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1997 Bentley Continental T shows firm shadows of the past and the definite shape of things to come.

From yesterday: There's a dashboard and door panels of artistic, engine-turned aluminum. Also racetrack-inspired air dams backed by a coarse mesh for filtering incoming high-speed debris, and side skirts to manage airflow. And huge, broad 18-inch tires on five-spoke alloy wheels to better fit huge, broad wells flared wide enough for a racing Porsche.

It all speaks to the thunder of the '20s and '30s when Walter Owen Bentley was building the Speed Six alongside 8.0-liter street leviathans and winning Le Mans many years in a row.

For tomorrow: The Continental T is 4 inches shorter and correspondingly smaller inside. That's almost compact for a brand whose brochures have typically listed girth, weight and width by the yard, ton and acre.

The new, abbreviated Bentley has anti-lock brakes, a GM automatic transmission, traction controls and a Zytec engine management system.

Yet the car still resists colonial fads. Such as cup holders and telescoping steering wheels. It does not subscribe to our science of higher performance from lighter cars, smaller engines and slicker aerodynamics.

Nosireebub. The British Bentley remains an implacable brick because if a car should grow blunter or heavier, went W.O.'s wisdom, just add horsepower and bulldoze a passage through air and weight resistance.

And that is Bentley mining its contemporary resonance for majestic motor cars of enormous power and unmatched, even unnecessary quality. Then offering them--dare we say peddling them?--in small quantities at ever ascending prices.

So the Continental T will cost Jay Leno and Donald Trump, not me, $324,500. With that king's ransom created, in part, by a limited edition of 40 in the first batch.

We were privileged--hey, there is a certain sense of investiture attached to driving something worth more than your house--to intercept a Continental T after the handsome coupe made its first American appearance at last month's Concours d'Elegance at Pebble Beach.

And as a thoroughbred, as a vehicle continuing one man's original concept, this is a staggering car and most decidedly--not even arguably--the best Bentley yet. Ancient or modern. Under W.O. hisself, or, since 1931, beneath the corporate and production parentage of Rolls-Royce.

Although its all-aluminum, 6.7-liter, Garrett turbocharged V-8 puts out only 400 horsepower--not that much when moving close to 3 tons--torque is a rhino-stomping 590 lb.ft. That's actually twice the driving force of a Cadillac Seville STS, more pull than delivered by Dodge Viper's 8.0-liter V-10, and, in fact, pure power superior to any production car.

Translated to vital statistics, that's a 0-60 mph time of around six seconds and a top speed of 155.

So at any stop light, sitting high, oozing largess and loot, one might look like exiled royalty. But when the light changes, the big-muscled lad in the Mustang GT alongside shows new and wide-eyed appreciation for big toys from the land of wet summers and warm beer.

Power without handling, however, is like a weekend in Paris with an expired ATM card: No way even that destination justifies the journey. But again, here's where the Continental T detaches itself from all Bentleys before.

Despite its tonnage and elephantine torque pounding through the rear wheels, widening the rear track, lowering the car a half-inch and stiffening the suspension--migawd, actually tuning out float and whiffle from a Bentley--gives the Continental a flat set with surprising grip from those 18-inch wheels.

It is no sports car. But it takes California 33 from Ojai better than a Mercedes-Benz 500SL and in such silence you'd swear the engine is yawning under that beautiful bonnet. Then you notice the speedometer and hope nobody else has noticed you.

The interior of any Bentley is rich and peerless. Wood trim is California mahogany installed by the log. There must be 97 layers of chrome on locks, latches and air vents big and round as softballs that must have aired state rooms aboard the Queen Mary. And the Connelly hides are so flawless and expensive, the rejects are bought by Coach and other leather goods manufacturers.

*

Criticisms? Of course.

Headroom is a little sparse and salesmen will sniff if you try ordering a sunroof. There's 6 inches of travel on a turn signal stalk that needs just about half that. Seat adjustments are awkward approximations. One day, someone will decide that an air conditioner with inner workings that wheeze and whine while changing settings qualifies as a Rube Goldberg (Heath Robinson to Anglophiles) original.

And those rear seats. Well, they're tight enough for this coupe to be reclassified as a 2+2.

Clearly, touches of yesterday reintroduced with the Continental go beyond creation of a senseless retrospective. The milled aluminum, those early Fittipaldi wheels, are programmed reminders that at one period in its past, Bentley was untouchable as a racing machine.

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