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AUSTRIA – The Continental GT is the most successful Bentley in history ... With nearly 70 000 units of the first-generation model – launched in 2003 – and 2010's second generation sold, it's afforded the Crewe-based company the funds to develop the Mulsanne grand saloon (which sells in tiny but consistent numbers) and Bentley's first SUV, the Bentayga, the popularity of which some company insiders admitted had surprised them.

But the vehicle you see here will always be Bentley's mainstay, and it was therefore imperative to get it right. Throughout the two-day launch event taking in Austria, Italy and Germany, company executives stressed the extent to which they listened to their customers, incorporating much of their feedback on the first two generations of the Continental GT into the development of version three. The main improvements owners requested were better infotainment and connectivity systems, as well as the adoption of driver-assistance technology. Secondary considerations included increased performance, but without a fuel-consumption penalty.

So, what we have here is an all-new Continental. It may still have a W12 engine under its vast bonnet, and the visual cues are clearly evolutionary, but beneath that skin Bentley's engineers have revolutionised the big coupé. Highlights include an all-aluminium body (except for the composite bootlid, which has to house antennae); more of that light material in the superstructure; a completely reworked 6,0-litre W12 engine adopted from the Bentayga and adapted to fit into the Continental; a front axle that's been moved 135 mm forward to afford a near-50:50 mass distribution; and three-chamber air springs controlled by a new 48 V electrical system. The cabin, meanwhile, ditches the old model's clunky infotainment system for one that's class-leading.

Enough background. What's it like in the flesh?

Superbly balanced and detailed. Bentley is rightly proud of its Super-Plastic forming technology, which allows it to sculpt aluminium with incredible precision. The crisp, pronounced shoulder and rear wheelarch lines are prime examples, and that latter section is the largest super-formed panel in the motoring industry.

There are some details that don't work quite as well – the oval rear lights are, to my eyes, too small for the vast surrounding body panels – but overall the detailing is exquisite.

Wait until you get aboard, though. I haven't experienced an interior that so successfully combines a bespoke, hand-made feel (which is exactly what it is) with incredible precision. In the vehicle we drove on the launch, every panel, stitch and seam lined up perfectly, and despite traversing some rough roads on the Italian side, the cabin didn't squeak or rattle. A Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupé might feel as solidly constructed, but it doesn't have the depth and luster of the Bentley's materials.

Bentley has retained the traditional wing-design facia, but it now houses a new 12,3-inch touch display that can rotate through 120 degrees to show three supplementary dials, or rotate another 120 degrees to a blank slab of wood veneer. Because there's a chrome trim line running across the facia and through this rotating display, Bentley's engineers spent hundreds of hours refining the swivel mechanism so that the lines would always line up to a tolerance of 0,5 mm. And they do.

The seats – beautifully sculpted buckets trimmed in diamond-quilted leather that's both stitched and embroidered – offer a vast range of adjustment and finding a comfortable driving position for my 1,85-metre frame was a cinch. However, sitting as far back as I do, the thick A-pillars created substantial blind spots on the narrow, winding Austrian and Italian country roads.

Surely the W12 should have been consigned to the history books?

I thought so, too, and was a trifle disappointed to see it mentioned in Bentley's press material when the Continental was first unveiled.

However, once talking to some of the engineers involved in adapting the W12, it soon became clear this engine – 30 kg lighter than before – is nearly brand-new. Combining high-pressure direct injection for the first time in a Continental GT with the old engine's low-pressure port injection, plus cylinder deactivation and an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission with seventh and eighth gears functioning as overdrive ratios, the British carmaker claims increased refinement, lower particulate emissions and improved fuel consumption. Now developing a staggering 467 kW and 900 N.m, the W12 shoots the GT to 100 km/h in a claimed 3,7 seconds and tops out at 333 km/h.

Right, how does it drive?

Extremely well, but perhaps not quite in the way you might expect. This car is far sportier than I, or my co-pilot, had anticipated. Thanks to Bentley's active roll control system, which instantly counteracts lateral roll using actuators in the anti-roll bars that deliver up to 1 300 N.m of torque in just 0,3 seconds, plus active torque vectoring via a electronically controlled centre differential, the GT feels less like a 2,2-tonne grand tourer and more like a Porsche Panamera, itself a feat of engineering and, of course, a close relative to the Bentley. Front-end grip is especially impressive.

The steering – now electrically assisted – is linear and direct, and even weighs up in corners (where the back steps out ever so slightly when the Drive Dynamics Control [DDC] drivetrain-management system is set to the more lenient sport mode) and the new eight-speed 'box shifts cleanly and quickly. Whether more traditional Bentley owners would warm to the exhaust system's theatrics on the overrun is up for debate, but the ferociously punchy W12 is quiet and smooth in the more laid-back system modes, and indulgently growly in sport.

I do, however, have some reservations about the ride quality. When the vehicle is fired up, DDC defaults to "Bentley" mode, which is tuned to be halfway between sport and comfort. An engineer I spoke to explained this mode represents what they thought the ideal compromise is, but I suspect it's a compromise too far. Even in comfort, there's a slight pitter-patter to the ride, and it's simply amplified in the default mode. Combined with notable tyre roar and slap over expansion joints and cat's eyes, the GT is certainly sportier than its lineage may suggest.

An undoubted highlight are the brakes. At 420 mm front and 380 mm rear, the composite discs are the largest ever fitted to a series production car and negate the need for carbon-ceramics (I wouldn't rule those out for the next Supersports). They're fabulously responsive and strong.

How does the Conti compare to its rivals?

You could argue the case for a Mercedes-AMG S65 Coupé, which matches the R3,4-million Bentley on performance and price, but doesn't possess the brand cachet or an interior of such quality. An Aston Martin DB11, meanwhile, is even sportier, much more expensive and nowhere near as rounded as the GT.

All of which points to Bentley's clever positioning of this model. Yes, I'd prefer the ride a smidge softer and refinement to be even better, but that's nitpicking of what is, currently, the standard-bearer for grand tourers. The Bentayga may have stolen some of the Conti's spotlight, but it has returned to reclaim its audience.

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