The Six-Figure Steal
Who calls a $150,000 car a bargain? Anyone on the lengthy waiting list for a Bentley Continental GT.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – Stay with me here, because I'm about to employ the theory of relativity to explain why a certain automobile costing $150,000 is not actually expensive, but is in fact a tremendous value. First the car: a swooping, blunt-snouted beauty known as the 2005 Bentley Continental GT, which is perhaps the most coveted set of wheels on the market today. How coveted? The waiting time to bring home your very own GT is currently half a year.

Reasons for this ardor are plentiful, but before we get to them, let's take a moment to dissect the high-end car market. Generally speaking, any vehicle priced above $100,000 is said to fall into one of two categories, either "luxury," which covers automobiles costing about $100K, or "ultraluxury," for rides that are priced at more than $300K. Automakers know these markets well. The typical ultraluxury buyer, for instance, has a $30 million net worth and owns an average of seven vehicles. Crawling onto the luxury end of this gilded scale, let's say with a nicely equipped BMW 760, usually requires a net worth of about $1.5 million and a three-car garage. Several years ago, in the aftermath of an acquisition by Volkswagen, executives at the venerable 82-year-old company known as Bentley peered long into the yawning chasm between "luxury" and "ultraluxury" and, as Nietzsche once observed, detected something peeking back at them: a person with a net worth of $3 million and five automobiles, heretofore known as the "exclusive luxury" buyer. Having thus identified a woefully underserviced market segment, Bentley proceeded to pitch it a vehicle. The Continental GT debuted in 2004. It took off like a rocket.

Which is understandable, given that Bentley equipped the GT with a 6.0-liter, 552-horsepower, twin-turbocharged W-12 and a Quattro all-wheel-drive system borrowed from corporate sibling Audi. (The VW umbrella covers Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, and Volkswagen.) Thus, unlike similarly powered rear-wheel-drive luxe sedans, the AWD Bentley accelerates with unbelievable assuredness. Imagine driving a maglev train and you'll get the idea. In fact, to pilot the Bentley at any high speed is a heady experience. Before releasing the car into the wild, Bentley reportedly tested the GT by racing it at 175 mph for 18,500 miles, the equivalent of driving between New York and Los Angeles six times, with a final jaunt to New Orleans for good measure. Despite the long hours, it's doubtful the testers tired of the experience. The GT is not an oversnug flit wagon meant to zip around like a Ferrari. Rather, this is a car to which you surrender: relax into the leather buckets, press the gas, and hold on. Though at 5,300 pounds it weighs as much as a Chevy Suburban, the GT can hit 60 in 4.7 seconds, during which time the car will deploy its spoiler to keep the beautifully beefy tail planted. The computer-controlled suspension eases the car nearer the road once it reaches 100 mph, and by the time you're pushing 150 the GT is loping along so solidly that you feel as if you are doing perhaps half that. All sensation of speed is suspended, in a way unmatched by any car on the market, or at least any car that I've ever been lucky enough to drive.

Meanwhile, as you're shredding all manner of state and local ordinances, the GT cradles you within an interior rivaled only by ultraluxury showboats Rolls-Royce and Maybach. Let's return for a moment to that notion of value: Every Bentley GT is built by hand, an Old World bit of automaking requiring 160 hours per vehicle. Craftsmen spend 18 hours simply stitching the perfectly joined leather of the GT's steering wheel, almost as long as it takes to assemble an entire VW Golf. The results are impressive: Dash and doors are mirrored with walnut veneer, floor pedals are carved from aluminum, window and seat toggles are cut from actual metal rather than plastic, and every air vent is perfectly chromed, then operated with Bentley's signature "eyeball" pull (which looks approximately as you might imagine, though far less creepy). The sum of all this is a fitted cabin that approximates that of a $300,000 vehicle, matched to an engine the equal of a $200,000 automobile, within a car that has brilliantly incorporated Audi's formidable technological sophistication. As I said, the GT is a bargain. So much so, in fact, that Bentley has a dilemma on its hands. In 2003, the year prior to the GT's introduction, the company sold 415 cars in the United States. Last year it sold 2,479. This year it's likely to sell more than 8,000--and would sell even more if it could produce them. Desperate buyers are offering dealers $50,000 over sticker, and such is the intoxicating appeal of the car that some weeks ago a Washington teenager allegedly staged the theft of his BMW M3, intending to use the insurance money as a down payment on a Continental GT. The boy was arrested and then released to his mother pending charges. One suspects he'll plead temporary insanity.

Hoping to take advantage of such infatuation, lawless though it may occasionally be, Bentley is introducing a four-door version of the Continental and is debating a convertible as well. All permutations will retain the GT's signature look: long nose, muscular shoulder lines, low roofline, and bold sculptural shape. It's an arresting design. Strangers encircled my GT in parking lots, flashed thumbs-up on the highway, beeped their horns at stoplights. The reactions, however, were less envious than aspirational--everyone wanted one. And so back to relativity theory, for the final time. Two years ago, Gallup conducted a poll and determined that 31 percent of all Americans believed that, relatively speaking, they would eventually become rich, with a net worth exceeding $1 million. Among younger Americans, that portion rose to 51 percent. Among people who approached me as I was getting out of the Bentley, it was nearly 100 percent. Thus, when informed of the car's price, these strangers inevitably replied, "I might be able to swing that one day." Place your order soon, I suggested.