The tide started to really turn about four years ago. Luxury car manufacturers, fed up with being seen as the bad boys who were entirely responsible for killing the planet, started to fight back with claims that they would, in no time at all, be producing cars that offered all the performance with much less of the poison. And for a company like Bentley to be saying this sort of thing, it had to be serious.
Back in 2008, Bentley's top brass stated that, within four years, it would be making cars that pollute 40 per cent less than the crop at that time. That was quite some claim from a manufacturer steeped in the tradition of building massive, extremely heavy cars with almost comically enormous engines. How could they achieve this huge reduction while retaining all the characteristic Bentley hallmarks? Was the answer in biofuel technology like it showcased in the Continental Supersports? No, as it turned out, the answer was in the car you're looking at here: the Continental GT V8.
The Continental GT has always been the consummate grand tourer. With a cabin resplendent in leather, wood, wool and proper bits of metal, with room for four adults to sit in total comfort, combined with truly effortless and staggering performance from its twin-turbo, 6.0L W12 engine, it was the car that put Bentley back on the map after too many decades in the shadow of Rolls-Royce. To tinker around with that winning formula in any way whatsoever must have been a brave step.
What we now know is that, behind the scenes, Bentley joined forces with Volkswagen stablemate Audi to develop an engine with four fewer cylinders, which could be used in either the Continental or Audiís upcoming S8. It had to offer tremendous levels of torque, huge top-end speed and sip 50 per cent less fuel than the W12. The result is nothing short of extraordinary and, after just five minutes behind the wheel of the new Bentley, I canít understand why anyone would want the full-fat W12 instead of this. This is easily the best driverís Bentley there has ever been.
Iím in northern Spain and itís been snowing. But this is a four-wheel-drive car bristling with the finest combination of British craftsmanship and German technical might, so the road conditions arenít causing me too much grief. But Iím not on the road; Iím piloting this monster around a race track, and the fact that thereís 25kg less weight over the front axle (thanks to the smaller engine) means the handling is more sprightly than ever before. It actually feels like theyíve reduced the weight by 10 times that amount. This thing is alive.
On the straights, the deep bass boom of the V8 is almost Nascar-esque, and the power delivery is breathtaking. But itís the twisting sections of undulating tarmac where the big Conti makes the most lasting impression. For even the Supersports, which I also drove on a race track, didnít feel like this. There was no disguising that carís weight and it felt like I was throwing an ocean liner into the bends. This V8, though, really handles. Itís still extremely heavy, donít get me wrong, but it just doesnít feel it. After just a few minutes I pull into the pit lane to have a chat with some of the people responsible for this transformation.
Brian Gush is Bentleyís chief development engineer and he shows me round the exterior changes first. Thereís a new, sharper front bumper treatment; a new, more upright and black-painted grille; new 21-inch wheel designs; a new rear valance; new ďfigure eightĒ exhaust tips and, if all that wasnít enough, the Bentley badges have red centres instead of black. These subtle differences all combine to make the Conti V8 actually more attractive than its W12 brother, so why would anyone buy the more expensive car, especially when this one drives so well?
ďWe think thereís still a market for the W12,Ē says Gush. ďThe two cars have very different personalities and there will always be a base of customers for whom only the biggest and most expensive will do.Ē Still, Iím not convinced, because the technology under this familiar skin is incredibly impressive.
The all-new, aluminium, quad-cam 4.0L engine is slightly different from the unit Audi has fitted in its S8. Tuned to produce more torque but less top-end power (itís still 500hp), it feels unburstable and gives away very little in feel or performance to the old W12. But hereís the really clever bit: at low engine speeds it isnít a V8 at all, itís actually a V4. All eight cylinders operate at idle but it shuts off the end cylinders of one bank and the middle two of the other when being driven sedately. The seamless change between eight pots and four takes just 40 milliseconds and, to remove the potential problems of extra noise and vibration in V4 mode, there are ďswitchableĒ hydraulic engine mounts and the sound produced by the induction and exhaust systems has been carefully tuned.
Thereís also a new eight-speed automatic transmission, in which the oil is heated during engine warm-up, as well as a variety of other energy-saving advancements, which combine to ensure Bentley kept the promise it made in 2008. The suspension has been tuned for a more sporting ride but itís still extremely comfortable and refined, as youíd expect. All in all, even though the V8 is priced at just 10 per cent less than the W12, it seems like a bit of a bargain, while the W12 just seems pointless now.
In the UAE, obviously weíre less concerned (rightly or wrongly) about exhaust emissions or the cost of fuelling a car like this. So I mull over this problem with Gush, wondering how the company will market it to customers who perhaps wonít appreciate the many benefits it offers. And then it suddenly hits me: the V8 feels better than the W12, sounds better, goes just as well and, hereís the kicker, drinks 50 per cent less fuel. Which means spending 50 per cent less time queuing up at the pumps because the range from its tank is so much more increased. He smiles, ďyes, thatís it!Ē
After speeding around the circuit a few more times, night starts to fall and I head back to the frankly mental Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal hotel, which is in the heart of the Rioja region, looking like a molten spacecraft has crash landed in the middle of a huge vineyard. Like the Bentley, itís a fusion of cutting-edge materials and old world luxury, and if you ever get the opportunity to experience it, you must.
The following morning sees almost blizzard conditions as we set off on a route of roughly 300km, but the interior is as welcoming as ever. Living in Dubai, itís weird using car heaters again, but the cabin is soon toasty and enveloping me in feel-good sensations Ė I feel secure in here. Itís safe through the slush and standing water on the roads and even the occasional patch of ice isnít enough to upset progress as I power on, revelling in the almighty punch it delivers every time I floor the throttle.
Every component seems to be finely honed for each specific job, everything working together in complete harmony to make sure the experience for driver and passenger alike is beyond compare. Itís a truly superb car and no, even if I had enough money to buy and run a W12 and had no environmental awareness whatsoever, I would still plump for the V8. It feels like a sports car on a track but you can still travel huge distances in it without feeling the slightest bit flustered.
With a CO2 output rating of 275g/km, itís heartening to note that this Bentley can still drive, look and sound like a Bentley should, and that when the car company bosses say theyíre serious about changing the way their products harm the planet, they actually back up their claims. The GT V8, at first, sounded like a bad idea, like it would ruin the recipe. In reality, itís the best thing Bentley has ever built, and thatís really saying something.