Bentley’s R&D boss talks Continental GT, and how to unite tech and luxury

Bentley has a lot on its plate for such a small manufacturer. The famed British brand just replaced the Continental GT with a brand new model, meaning the successors to the GTC and the Flying Spur are right around the corner. At the same time, the company needs to keep up with the latest trends in the automotive industry without losing its identity – or losing ground to the competition.

We sat down with Rolf Frech, Bentley’s board member for engineering, to gain insight on what went into developing the second-generation Continental GT. He also revealed how the brand plans on uniting the timeless luxury it’s known for with cutting-edge technology.

Digital Trends: Bentley just introduced a brand-new Continental GT. Can you tell us a little bit about the design brief you gave your team?

Rolf Frech: I can trim it down to just one sentence: the new one had to be better than the old one. That’s what was driving us. But, of course, that’s just a short description of what we wanted to do.

We looked at what the last GT delivered. The refinement, the luxury, the statement it made. We also explored areas where we could improve the car. We sought out the next level of chassis systems and the next generation of engine technology. We also looked at how to apply what we learned with the Bentayga, especially the 48-volt EAWS system. Those are all elements we baked into it.

Starting early in the process, we took the chance to move the front axle forward to reduce the front overhang. This gave designers the freedom to shape a completely new car with completely different proportions. We kept the haunch, this is one of Bentley’s typical design elements, but we took inspiration from the EXP 10 Speed 6 concept. It’s much more modern than before, but it’s absolutely recognizable as a Bentley.

What is your favorite part of it?

For me? It’s the whole vehicle. It’s not just the summation of technologies. It’s a piece of art – that’s how I would describe it. It’s not that I praise my engine guy or my chassis guy, I say everybody in my team did really well. I’m really proud.

To be honest, we had an easy job. Whenever you are looking to design a new car, you have to look for the benchmark in the segment. You have to buy benchmark cars. For us it was easy: we had it, and we just wanted to build it better. A lot of the people who worked on the new car also worked on its predecessor, so they knew exactly what to do.

We have to ask about the rotating screen. The first question is, why do it? And how complicated was it to design?

It’s our interpretation of innovative technology. Since Tesla hit the market, everybody is talking about big screens. Some of the cars today look like they are driving televisions. That’s not Bentley. On the other hand, we did want to have the information available whenever it’s necessary.

Somebody came up with the idea of giving customer choices. Does he want to see the analog instrumentation? Does he only want to see the wood veneer? Or, does he need the screen? For information, or maybe for the co-driver who is looking for music or whatever. And then somebody came up with this crazy idea.

There are a lot of Swiss elements in the car, actually. The Toblerone-shaped rotating piece is one, but the mechanism is almost like what you’d find in a Swiss watch. It doesn’t just rotate; the screen has to move backwards, then it goes up, and then it rotates. The next side comes back, goes down, comes forward, and then it’s aligned.

It’s sophisticated, but it works. It gave me some of my gray hairs. But, since we unveiled the car, I don’t think we need to test it any longer. So many people who checked out the new GT at the Frankfurt show have pressed the switch!

The basic idea was driven by customer expectations. What do our customers want? We didn’t want to follow the path everybody is taking. Everyone puts in the biggest available screen, and that’s it. That’s not what we do at Bentley. I think the screen is not only a talking piece, it’s also something the customers will enjoy.

Imagine there is a doctor in a hospital. All day he performed surgeries and so on, and in the evening he’s tired. He drives home, but he knows the way. He doesn’t need the information on the screen, he just wants to enjoy the drive. So, he turns it around to the side with the dials or the veneer. This example describes exactly why we made such a sophisticated element for this car.

Changing gears for a second. Volkswagen Group boss Matthias Müller announced a widespread electrification offensive that implicates the entire business. Every single model from every single brand will be electrified by 2030. Does that change Bentley’s plans for the future?

No, we were already planning on it. By 2019 at the latest, all of our models will be available with a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) drivetrain. That time frame is for Europe, it might be a little bit later in the United States. This is the first step.

We’re already thinking about the second step. We showed it to the world in Geneva this year when we introduced the EXP 12 Speed 6E. It’s a concept car, but we wanted to prove to the world luxury doesn’t have to end where electrification starts. Look at the current cars. I don’t want to say too much, but they are not on the level you would expect from a completely new modern car. We wanted to show there is also a possibility for Bentley to get into this world.

We are working on ideas, we are working on concepts, of course. There are elements available, modules available from the group, but if we are going for it we will make a pure and proper Bentley, believe me. It will be a pure Bentley. When? The question is how fast will electro-mobility come up. It’s not about the products, the question is about the infrastructure. To get an acceptable range you have to have the latest technology, like an 800-volt charging system.

On the other side, to be honest, everybody talks about how PHEV technology is a bridge. For me, for Bentley, I think it’s not a bridge. It’s a technology which gives you all the possibilities.

You mentioned an electrified Bentley would have to be a proper Bentley. Can you define, in your words, what is a proper Bentley?

A proper Bentley for me is like one of our slogans: driving luxury performance. All of these elements have to be present in our cars. Driving, okay, luxury, okay. I think we can make an electric car that’s also luxurious, we showed it with the Speed 6E. Performance; if you drive an electric car it’s impressive because the torque is always there.

Can you adapt autonomous technology and still stay true to your slogan?

I can answer the question easily: autonomous driving is already at Bentley. A lot of our customers have chauffeurs.

To be more precise, we are working on autonomous technology. There will be situations where you are happy someone is taking over the steering wheel. In cities, for example. But there will also be other situations where our customers really want to drive the car. So, we have to make the technology available. We also need to ask ourselves, “are we building special cars for that?” Or, should we integrate these elements into existing cars so customers can choose whether to use them?