Bentley Continental GT V8: Less Power, Money and Weight; More Fun
British automaker bills the V8 variant as the 'green' option, but it's much more than that.
We got the chance to take the V8 around the Circuito de Navarra, a new 2.4-mile track in Logroño, Spain. As jet-lagged journos filled out requisite track paperwork and loaded up on espresso (at least, I was loading up on espresso) Bentley PR head honcho Graeme Russell made the rounds, checking in with writers and all the while discreetly cracking open the track-facing windows. Clever man, that Russell: Save for some subtle visual changes such as a blacked-out gloss mesh grille, darker rear valance and figure-eight exhaust pipes, the V8 Conti GT looks very much like the model powered by Bentley's iconic W12; better, then, that the vehicles announce themselves with a throaty 8-cylinder growl bellowing up through the observation deck as the Bentley drive team blasted three models through warm-up laps.
While we also had the chance to take a drop-top version on the open road through Logroño (more on that later), it's on the track that the difference between the W12 and V8 versions was most pronounced. After suffering through several clumsy attempts by yours truly to take full advantage of the 500 horsepower and 487 lb-ft of torque from the 4.0-liter twin 2-scroll turbo V8 -- almost identical to the engine in the Audi S8 -- my patient drive instructor shifted me to the passenger seat and unleashed a few howling laps. It should be noted that the V8 version shaves 55 pounds from the heftier 12-cylinder model, but the dropped weight is less important than the reworked weight distribution, which reduces the mass over the front wheels and now runs 51/49 front-to-back as opposed to 54/46. The effect on understeer feels more significant than that, probably because Bentley completely revamped the suspension for the new model. Handling is demonstrably crisper, and with the right skill set you can toss the 5,000-pound all-wheel-drive grand tourer around corners with 21-inch tires dirtying the asphalt, tail wagging.
On the road, you may or may not miss the 67 fewer horsepower and 29 less lb-ft on tap from the W12 (as expected, acceleration lags slightly; the zero-to-60 mph time, at 4.6 seconds, is 0.2 second slower): put your foot down on the gas pretty much anywhere along the speedo and there's pull to spare. (What you definitely won't notice is the cylinder deactivation technology that takes four cylinders off the table when driving conditions allow. What those specific conditions are I couldn't say, as the system really was so invisible as to prompt half-jokes as to whether it was actually functioning.) The ZF-sourced 8-speed automatic gearbox, familiar to a number of other luxury models, adds two cogs to what's currently offered in the W12, and is seamless. And unlike a number of super high-sticker rides that put max emphasis on performance, the GT still manages to impress while inching through narrow European city streets -- if something in the interior isn't hand-finished wood veneer, leather or polished metal, it's probably your luggage.
For the driver, the V8 Continental GT is a more visceral, more sonorous and more engaging model. But what is the vehicle to Bentley?
Back to the Porsche-ification thing. The Continental lineup already includes the GT, GTC, GT Speed, Flying Spur, Flying Spur Speed, Supersports and Supersports convertible. Add V8 options for the first two, which could arguably be considered separate models aimed at a distinct demographic, and suddenly you're looking at nine variants of the same vehicle. The brand is also reported to be close to releasing its first-ever SUV -- a sport-ute greenlighted by Wolfgang Dürheimer, former executive vice president of Porsche, now CEO of Bentley (both are owned by VW). Is this starting to sound familiar?
Stepping back, the refrain at Bentley from engineers to woodworkers is that VW's massive investment and stewardship has revitalized the company. Before the Volkswagen takeover, the badge was planning quarter-to-quarter; now, thanks to ultraefficient German management and a new production infrastructure to match, strategy is laid out for the next decade. Thanks to China -- still Bentley's second-largest market behind the U.S., but fast approaching -- and other pockets of explosive growth, a new class of new money is popping up. Bentley, it seems, is looking both to reclaim some of the brand's sporting identity (the genesis of the brand under W.O. Bentley, after all, was built in part on speed records, motorsports victories and the high-profile Bentley Boys racers) and get the badge back in the media spotlight and on younger buyers' radars.
That means an ultraluxury saloon, the $290,000 Mulsanne, that still keeps up with the Roller in the Jones' driveway as well as a something-for-everyone Continental lineup that seems more poised to compete with Aston Martin's stable, running the price gamut from $175,000 (projected) for the V8 all the way to $267,000 and up for the Supersports. For Bentley, it's quite a long way from its years languishing as a barely differentiated sub-brand under Rolls-Royce as the "Beverly Hills taxi" -- and it's working. Global sales were up 37 percent in 2011, with Europe jumping 53 percent and China skyrocketing by 95 percent. Add in an ultraluxury SUV that could both create and corner that market (Quick: If you wanted to upgrade from a Porsche Cayenne, where could you go?) and Bentley may start toying with the type of reinvestment money that lends itself to real experimentation and risk-taking. (Think of how Porsche used money from explosive Cayenne sales to fund the development of the ridiculous 918.)
It can seem odd to take any sort of emotional stance on a car you'll likely never afford -- especially one that isn't wholly about pushing the outer road-legal limits of top speed, acceleration or handling -- but I appreciate brands with history and products with soul, and the modern iteration of Bentley has both. It's exciting to think where the badge could go, whether it can deliver on W.O.'s original promise of delivering, simply put, the very best car available ... if for no other reason than Bentley's idea of what that car should be is so far away from a Ferrari or a Lamborghini or a Pagani. The true question now is how well Bentley can communicate its very particular idea of motoring to a younger new-money market that seems more impressed by pure supercar speed.
(Just for fun: This is Christophe Georges, Bentley Motors' president and chief operating officer, tackling a driving simulator specifically set up for the Circuito de Navarra and the Bentley V8 Continental GT. Georges and project engineer Richard Haycox spent hours -- literally, hours -- trying to one-up each other by shaving a few tenths of second off their respective times. It was very competitive -- so competitive, in fact, that in deference to Georges I won't even mention that Haycox was slightly in the lead when we left.)
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