I’m not really sure why the term “stretching its legs” was ever applied to cars — cars don’t have legs—but, for lack of a better term, I guess, that’s what my co-driver and I were doing with the Bentley’s new 521-hp Continental GT V8 S as we bombed down a lonely California highway between the mountain town of Julian and Palm Springs. The speedometer read in kilometers per hour, so we’re not sure exactly how fast we were going (that’s the story and I’m sticking to it), but suffice it to say that speeds were deep into the triple digits. The steering had come alive and the desert furnishings were passing in a blur, yet the 5,060-lb luxo-coupe was planted to the pavement as if with a vacuum seal.
Finally, it felt like we were going fast.
So it is with modern day Bentleys. Every last one of ‘em. In a Miata, 60 miles per hour can be thrilling, but in cars this big and fast it takes a heady clip to get your heart rate up. And so we charged down this smooth, sun-drenched (and thankfully, cop-free) stretch of asphalt, savoring the true meaning of the term “grand touring.”
The $199,225 Continental GT V8 S is the fourth model in Bentley’s prolific Continental coupe and convertible range. Price-wise, the GT V8 S splits the difference between the 500-hp, “entry-level” GT V8 ($187,425) and the 576-hp, 12-cylinder GT W12 ($205,025). If you want the convertible versions of each, prepare to cough up another $19,000 or so, depending on model; the GT V8 S convertible starts at $219,925.
Topping off the Continental range are the sport-tuned GT Speed coupe ($223,625) and convertible (246,425), which bring the 621-hp W-12 engine and a host of performance tweaks, including stiffer springs and bushings, lowered suspensions, retuned steering and shock absorbers, and unique throttle and transmission calibrations.
We bring up the GT Speed because GT V8 S effectively adds all the Speed’s performance extras to the cheaper, lighter and more fuel-efficient V8 model. Sure, the Speed has an extra 100 or so hp, but otherwise the differences between the V8 S and the Speed are paltry: while the V8 S has 20-inch wheels and a quad tailpipe design, the Speed has 21-inch wheels and oval pipes, and so forth.
Alas, the way we figured as we hurtled toward Idyllwild at ridiculous velocity whilst enjoying a lumbar massage from the air conditioned seats, few folks are gonna miss the GT Speed’s extra speed. The V8 S’s twin-turbo engine is a monster in its own right, capable of getting the big two-door up to any sane speed with accelerative thrust that never sags. Back off the throttle and half the cylinders shut down to save gas, resulting in fuel economy that’s non-atrocious: 15 mpg city/24 mpg highway, with 18 mpg combined, about three mpg better than the Speed and on par with most mid-size SUVs. And it’s good enough to avoid the Speed’s $1,700—$2,600 gas-guzzler tax.
On twistier roads, where point-and-squirt driving replaces high-speed cruising, the eight-speed transmission’s fixed paddle-shifters allow quick access to the meat of the V-8’s powerband, though between the engine’s fat torque plateu (all 502 lb-ft of torque are available at just 1,700 rpm) and the tranny’s intuitive sport mode, you may not have to use them. Then there’s the sound: equipped with the optional performance exhaust, the V8 S is an aural feast, drowning you in a deep-throated V-8 bellow that 12-cylinder engines just can’t match. Incidentally, for full sound effect, the convertible is the way to go.
For all of its impressive thrust, however, the bodacious Bentley never lets you forget its mass, and if, say, you push too hard into a corner, you can expect a a fair bit of chatter from the front tires as you claw your way out. And while the steering’s heft is quite reassuring at high speeds, it makes the wide-body coupe a bit of a handful to keep between the lines on skinnier roads.
Despite its firmer suspension settings, however, V8 S remains quite supple with the suspension in Comfort setting; on the other end of the spectrum, the Sport setting communicates road texture to the driver without adding undue harshness. Also helpful is that some 50 pounds less weight sits over the nose than on the W12/Speed models, and the 40/60 front/rear torque split for the car’s all-wheel drive system helps the rear end effectively push the car around corners. This is the friskiest Continental of the foursome.
As for the rest of the car, well, every Continental is a posh ride, no matter which letters follow the name. The interior is wide but cozy, thanks to padded leather everywhere you touch. Convertibles are cozy, too, but for a different reason: while the fully insulated, seven-rib soft top opens up infinite amounts of headroom, the two rear seats shrink in turn, rendering them best for kids or very patient, bendy adults. One of the Continental’s signature features, appreciable from both inside and outside the car, are the “pillarless” side windows, which create an unbroken, full-length opening when front and rear side windows are lowered—a sexy look especially with the coupe.
Given the presence (and excellence) of the other Continental models, one could argue that the V8 S is an entirely unnecessary remix, and that most people are not fine-tuned enough so as to appreciate the differences between them. But Bentley people aren’t most people, and they can appreciate the finer points of the finer things — or at least they are expected to. On that wavelength, Bentley delivers.