Kevin Hackett takes the Bentley’s Continental GT V8 S out on the roads of California.
Bentley’s Continental GT V8 S is a breathtaking beast
As far as I can work out, Bentley has sold more Continentals in the past 10 years than Aston Martin has sold cars over its entire 101-year history. And it’s easy to see why, despite my oft-misplaced love for Aston. The Bentley, while not beautiful in the traditional sense, looks brutish, elegant and distinctive, but it’s the Germanic build quality imbued from its Volkswagen family roots that has meant buyers could be assured of longevity and reliability. As an everyday mode of transport (provided that you could afford to fuel it), a Continental GT made for an exceptionally satisfying partner.
Every time that I’ve driven one, I’ve been reminded that it’s without peer as a GT car extraordinaire. It’s muscular and incredibly, devastatingly fast. Its innards are palatial and it’s the embodiment of refinement when on the move. It makes you feel that all is good in the world, nestled in traditional British luxury, behind double-laminated glass. And, as prices for early Continental GTs have dropped to the level of a new Golf GTI (that’s what happens when a luxury car sells in the tens of thousands), I am seriously considering buying one myself.
It was two years ago, however, that the Continental GT became a much-improved car by the fitment of a smaller engine. From the word go, Continentals and Flying Spurs had always been powered by colossal W12 motors that displace six litres, but Bentley needed to literally clean up its act by offering a more parsimonious engine that drank and polluted much less, while still delivering the punch in the back that the 12-pot is famous for. No easy task, that, but in conjunction with Audi, Bentley developed a new 4.0L V8 with twin turbochargers for use in the Audi S8 as well as its own cars.
And what a masterpiece of an engine it is. The Bentley V8 is quite different in character to that fitted in the S8, which allows it an individuality essential for the brand’s devotees. It thunders along with only tiny amounts of performance deficits to the W12, but it shuts down half its cylinders when cruising at low speeds and is as clean as a whistle. It puts out just 246g of CO2 per kilometre (ridiculously low for a car like this) and you can get 700km from a tankful of fuel – but, more than that, the smaller engine made the GT a hoot to drive quickly. With less weight up front, the car was sharper, more focused and easier to heft through the twisty bits. It still weighed far too much, but, at last, the Conti GT had become a car for enthusiastic drivers.
This, though, is something else altogether: the Continental GT V8 S. To be fair, you’d need to be a forensic detective to spot the visual differences between a V8 and a W12-equipped Continental, but there are subtle variances, such as the twin exhaust pipes that resemble upended figure eights and red enamel centres to the badges. Here, on the V8 S, there are further clues as to its identity.
Its suspension is ever so slightly lower, giving the S a welcome, meaner stance. A sharp front splitter, painted gloss black, sits under the nose and leads to side sills and a rear diffuser, also painted black. These seemingly insignificant updates do wonders for the Continental’s appearance and seem to shrink it somehow. New 20-inch, five-spoke wheels are delectable and behind them nestle red-painted brake calipers that up the sporting design ante. All in all, this is a seriously good-looking machine and, despite its decade-long tenure, there’s no feeling that this is a dated car. On the contrary, this could very well be Bentley’s 911 – a design that is gently tweaked over decades instead of being replaced by an all-new model.
However, it’s the changes to the engine and suspension that we’re here to investigate. Can this behemoth ever be expected to drive like a sports car? Is there even a desire for owners to have a Continental that offers sharper dynamics? Apparently there is and, while its maker’s engineers say they have retained that sacrosanct “Bentleyness”, the V8 S has stiffer springs and bushes, more power and torque, recalibrated steering and changes to the damping system. This could very well be the best Continental yet, so 650km of California’s greatest driving routes to test it out will do nicely, thanks.
This car is perfectly suited to places like California. The roads are often in appalling condition, but the routes can be utterly spectacular, carving through jagged mountains far away from the coast of the Pacific, where heavy traffic almost always conspires to remove the fun out of any journey. Inland, between San Diego and Palm Springs, however, there are roads that take the breath away for all the right reasons, and they’re beckoning me to stretch the legs of this incredibly special mode of transport.
The cabin of the V8 S is reassuringly familiar, with only the subtlest of updates carried out over the car’s lifetime. Mine is thankfully without the bird’s-eye maple veneer woodwork that the Middle East region seems obsessed with, fitted instead with beautiful “Piano Black” timber that has a flawless gloss so deep that you feel you could sink your arms into it. That’s what varnishing, sanding and revarnishing 18 times produces for each piece. You want to know where your money goes with a car like this? Traditional craftsmanship isn’t cheap, but the results speak for themselves. The leather upholstery is of a similar standard – the entire cabin reeks of luxuriant excess. It’s a heady atmosphere, just like that enjoyed by the residents of Palm Springs, where we’re headed. You can smell the money.
Immediately, the V8 S makes its voice heard. A prod of the starter button reveals a deep-chested bellow that’s every bit the equal of the W12 and, thanks to new turbocharger technology, the sound isn’t muted by the extra plumbing. Once on the move, serenity descends. The insulation afforded by the double glazing and the sheer amount of metal surrounding you means almost silent progress – and the damping is never anything but cushioning, at least at sedate suburban speeds. Driving around city roads and streets, this feels the same as it ever was and that’s just fine with me.
Once we’re clear of the traffic, the most majestic ribbon of tarmac opens up and disappears into infinity, slicing between mountains not dissimilar to those found surrounding Hatta in the UAE. It’s a wilderness – a desert of sorts – where coyotes skulk in search of easy prey and deadly snakes hide in the shadows of the scrubby vegetation that covers the empty plains. It’s not a place in which I want to spend time, despite the savage beauty caressing my eyeballs, so I press on and the Bentley simply demolishes everything in its path.
It’s when I reach a series of deliciously tight bends that the V8 S really shows its mettle. Approaching a blind left-hander far faster than I should be going, the car’s stiffer ride kicks in. Hard on the brakes, I scrub off dollops of speed in an instant and yank the wheel, hoping beyond hope that the chassis will fix the mess that I just started. And it does exactly that. Without hissy fits or histrionics, this huge and weighty car instantly hunkers down and stays true to the path I choose for it. Body roll? Forget it – if it’s there at all, I’m blissfully unaware. Instead, I’m deeply impressed with its unflappable ability to retain composure without resorting to the default understeer that most modern cars are blighted by.
This continues for two joy-filled hours, as the Bentley proves itself as the consummate grand tourer. The hideously expensive Naim audio system does a superb job of filling the cabin with luxuriant, crystal-clear sounds, but when the V8 is at full chat, I don’t want to hear them. With the optional sports exhaust attached to my car, the soundtrack is compelling and, when another driver tears past me while I’m stopped by the side of the road, I realise just how good this car looks and sounds to bystanders. It’s a brute in a suit and its status as the best there is remains intact.
As the road surfaces become ever more terrible, the stiffer suspenders and bushes (70 per cent stiffer than before, in some instances) make themselves known, but the ride remains pleasant no matter what. One can only imagine the lengths that Bentley’s engineers have gone to in order to make this car so compliant yet dynamic – there seems to be little or no trade-off and I’m left confounded by the car’s seemingly juxtaposed attributes. It’s still no Lotus, I admit, but it’s undoubtedly the most entertaining Bentley on sale today.
Eventually, like all good things, this route comes to an end. Palm Springs, the previous hometown of so many Hollywood icons, is a lush, sleepy oasis where perfectly manicured lawns and buildings that are so 1950s it hurts abound. It has a distinct, time warp charm about it, but I fear for its future, because the people who moved here decades ago, when it was a young and thrusting area, are still here. They won’t be for long and the number of plastic-surgery and hip-replacement clinics is testament to the age and the financial standing of its citizens. New blood is desperately needed if Palm Springs is to remain relevant.
The same could have been said about Bentley before the company was rescued from certain death by Volkswagen and the Continental GT reversed its ailing fortunes. This is the car that saved one of the most treasured car companies there ever was and the V8 S is easily my favourite iteration.
Palm Springs, as lovely and sleepy as you are, I’m afraid there’s a road out of here that I need to take while I still have this incredible car at my disposal. I’ll come back sometime, but it will be in something a little less enjoyable – there’s plenty to choose from.
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