New Bentley is a drive in the wrong direction

The Continental GT is certainly fast, admits Brian Sewell, but this gadget-laden beast is a little too daunting

Walter Owen Bentley. It is a name that men of my age hold in awe. The first car bearing it left a factory in Cricklewood, north London, in September 1921; in June 1931 that factory was closed, the name bought by Rolls-Royce with WO (as he was affectionately known) as an unwanted employee, and all subsequent Bentleys were little more than badge-engineered cars from the parts bins of Henry Royce and his successors.

Walter Owen Bentley. It is a name that men of my age hold in awe. The first car bearing it left a factory in Cricklewood, north London, in September 1921; in June 1931 that factory was closed, the name bought by Rolls-Royce with WO (as he was affectionately known) as an unwanted employee, and all subsequent Bentleys were little more than badge-engineered cars from the parts bins of Henry Royce and his successors.

In his decade as a manufacturer, Bentley's cars had won the Le Mans 24-hour Race five times and their drivers, the Bentley Boys, were unblemished heroes to be emulated. On weekend passes from Mons Officer Cadet School, would-be subalterns by the dozen, corduroy-capped and cavalry-twilled, drove 3-litre Bentleys flat out from Aldershot to Eaton Square as though the fates of Queen and country were at stake. No other short-lived marque engendered such affection.

Bentley left Rolls-Royce in 1935 to design the 4.5-litre V-12 engine for Lagonda and the 2.5-litre six of 1946 which in the DB2 transformed the fortunes of Aston-Martin. He died in 1971, aged 83. I raise his ghost because I have driven the first Bentley since 1931 not to inherit or share a Rolls-Royce chassis, not to have an adapted Rolls-Royce engine. I have argued elsewhere that there can be no such thing as a revived Bugatti, Jensen or Lea-Francis without the bloodline link; can there then be, 73 years after WO shut up shop, such a thing as a Bentley without the Bentley touch? Has Volkswagen, new owner of Bentley, been able to ignore the seven decades of a tradition that from 1934, when the first "Rolls-Bentleys'' were sold, belongs essentially to Rolls-Royce, and evoke the spirit of the real original?

"The fastest lorries on the road,'' said Ettore Bugatti of cars built by WO -- a spiteful judgement from a man whose greatest car, the juggernaut Royale, was as unmanageable as a tank. The new Bentley Continental GT has an exhaust audible enough to make the driver think that he is driving it, but nothing to recall the raucous racket of a lorry. Fast it most certainly is, but fastest? I'm no Jeremy Clarkson, so am unable to confirm the makers' claim of more than 190mph. Subjectively it seems not usefully to out-perform my old Mercedes 560 SEC, though the official figures are that it can reach 60mph in 4.7 seconds and, from that standing start, be three miles away within one minute. And so it should with a 6-litre engine boosted by twin turbos, producing 550bhp (four times the power of a family saloon) from 12 cylinders put together as though two narrow-angle V-6 engines (like Lancia used to make) had been siamesed together side by side, sharing a much shorter crankshaft than any previous V-12. With constant four-wheel drive it must, I imagine, be thrilling over ancient Alpine passes.

WO would certainly have approved, for his cars were intended to go fast and nothing angered him more than the customer who bought a chassis and then lumbered it with the heavy coach-built body of a limousine. Anyone emerging from this Bentley might well, however, sigh for the space offered by a Nissan Micra, let alone a limousine. At 5ft 7in I could not, even with thousands of adjustments possible, make the driver's seat comfortable and still have enough forward visibility to be at ease in heavy traffic, but at least there was room for my legs; in the rear, where these appendages become superfluous, they are best removed. Under no circumstances would I ride in the back of this car; from it one can see nothing forward, behind or to the side, only a prison glimpse of the outside world. The car's catalogue may tell the buyer that this "is the only four-seat coupé to accommodate four people'', but the figure four is an exaggeration.

The boot space is catalogued as large enough for four sets of skis, but mine would require the attention of Procrustes. Only two inches longer than a golf umbrella, the boot will, however, accommodate all 35 volumes of the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. Had I designed this car, it would have had two a seats and a hatch, not the pretence of four seats and a boot.

Now it may be a matter of age and Luddism, but for me this car has too many distractions. It has a six-speed automatic gearbox, but the driver can override it with dinky paddles either side of the steering-wheel or by shifting the gear-selector as though it were connected to a synchromesh box - but if the Bentley decides that you, the driver, are in error in your gear-selection, it will ignore you. It will, indeed, ignore almost anything you do - in this car there can be no sins of omission or commission.

It has television, radio, CD-player, telephone, computer and so many buttons and levers that an automatic pilot is required while the driver studies for his GCSEs in Bentley management, ergonomic confusion and counter-intuition. I imagine a significant number of Bentley drivers will run out of petrol or crash while desperately fiddling with the dashboard computer to find how little fuel is left. Some aberration on my part with the "Keyless Access'' procedure found me in Charlie Chaplin mode with burglar alarm beeping, all four windows going up and down and the doors openable only by the inside latches; when to Gordon Ramsay's favourite word and its derivatives the car at last responded, I locked it and went off in my own car.

To be blunt, I disliked the Bentley. It is too gadget-ridden. With massive screen pillars its forward visibility is not much better than a Chieftan tank, and rearward one might as well be peering through a letter-box. It is more bloated than my old Mercedes, less comfortable and from it one can see far less - hopeless, indeed, for Grand Touring, if that is still the meaning of GT. As for tinkering - under the bonnet is no place for amateurs. "Do, not,'' they said when giving me the car, "attempt to change the wheel if you have a puncture - you, and even the AA, will bugger the air suspension. Just telephone Bentley.''

The car looks well enough in a brutal way, and entirely alien to the beautiful coach-built Bentley Continentals of 1952-1966 by which the impertinent designer claims to have been inspired; they now seem not only to have belonged to another age, but to have had an altogether different purpose. Externally I quarrel only with the plastic mesh in the car's nose -- a cheap, nasty, tasteless echo of WO's functional simplicity; internally the secondary ergonomics are a mess, the faultless quality of finish betrayed by a chunk of dashboard timber that might be a slice of plastinated liver filched from Dr Gunter von Hagens.

There remains the overriding question: why build a car with capabilities in excess of possible or legal use? Why join the pointless power race with the Bentley's 550bhp second to the 612bhp of Mercedes, third to the 987bhp of the Bugatti that is also struggling? Why compete with Porsche, and Ferrari with yet another priapic absurdity? Has the car industry entirely lost its conscience and its common sense? Even VW's pastiche of their old Beetle makes better sense than this new Bentley. This is not now the way that cars should go.

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