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THE DAYS OF THE SEDATE, British built Bentley cruisers are gone. Over the last decade, performance-in the form of massive horsepower gains with corresponding suspension and tire upgrades- have changed the Bentley image from reserved to powerful yet refined luxury automobiles.

Carrying on this new tradition is the latest coupe- the 2012 Continental GT. Compared to last year, the exterior changes are subtle and primarily found in the front grill and headlight arena. Overall size is up slightly yet the weight has been reduced, which should add slightly to handling. But to those who are performance oriented, happily, horsepower is up to a very stout 567 units. The starting point for generating this power is a twin turbo 12-cyclinder powerplant that logs numbers reminiscent of diesel tractor-trailer torque.

Other changes include adjusting the split of power between the front and rear via an all-wheel drive system that leans heavier on the rear. To boot, the 6-speed automatic now shifts even faster than before between gears.

Aside from the technical and performance details, this coupe is simply a great looker. The distinctive grill surrounded by the unique headlights, steep slant to the roof nicely integrated into the trunk, and a wide stance is truly without peer.

In testing the Bentley, there are two crystal clear themes. First, this coupe is a genuine high performance sports car in coupe clothing. Power, particularly in the low end (with the high torque engine), is literally breathtaking. With all-wheel drive and instant turbo spoil up, there is immediate traction for instantaneous and heart-stopping launches. Adding to the thrill is a deep exhaust note when the throttle is pressed into action.

Even with the super-sized 19-inch wheels and tires, the ride and handling are first rate. Cornering is flat and almost no amount of poor road surface upsets this Bentley. Steering is light and direct.

The second aspect we found during testing was the immediate response from the public. Park the car, hover for a mere moment, and invariably someone will become your new best friend with no shortage of favorable comments and questions.

Almost every luxury feature is standard or available. Walk up to the GT with the key and the door automatically unlocks as the stereo comes on. Push the start button and you are off and running with a roar. Leather seats with various choices of hides, wood veneers and carpets greet the buyers. A large video screen handles multiple functions, including Bluetooth telephone, navigation, stereo, and vehicle information. In the dash is a smaller screen to provide not only speed and trip information, but additional data, such as the transmission gear choice.

Controls to change the suspension settings and the height of the vehicle are on the center console. An homage to the past is the familiar analog Breitling clock set in the top of the dash, alongside good old push/pull handles that change the vent air flow. It’s this contrast of extreme technology with the refinement of classic instrumentation that sets the Bentley apart from other offerings.

A console and armrest separate the two nicely contoured rear seats. The opening of the power trunk lid reveals a relatively large and nicely lined rear storage area.

With these refinements of the Continental GT, Bentley has added to its dramatic change in the automotive arena-from a sedate cruiser to a beautiful coupe with no apologies for looks or performance.