Cars: When less is more for the 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on July 3, 2019.

The 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8 is the new version of Bentley’s bestselling coupe. Photos by Bloomberg

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ALONG the Pacific Ocean just west of Napa, California, the US, a section of Skaggs Springs Road is known for fog-shrouded curves perfect for uncorking your stress and shaking down new cars. It was there that I realised why Bentley is so darn confident about its new V8 Continental GT.

The US$198,500 (RM821,790) beast (US$218,350 for the convertible version) is just as devastatingly handsome as its W12 predecessor, with chiselled sides and a latticework grille and four round headlights so brash they look like they are spoiling for a fight.

But more importantly, as you round corners and hit the gas, it feels as if you have harnessed a linebacker with the footwork of Roger Federer. The 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8 is power and agility blended into a cocktail you will want to pour down your throat.   

With a new engine, light[er]-weight aluminium body and double-clutch gearbox (more on those later), Bentley has given the V8 enough juice to make anyone question why you would buy the more expensive, gas-hungrier W12.

In fact, I am convinced that those lucky ducks who purchase one of the new V8s will feel downright giddy with their choice. There will be many of them, proportionately speaking. Bentley has delivered more than 70,000 Continental GTs worldwide; it is the bestselling Bentley ever. In the US, they make up half of all Bentleys sold, Bentley North America president Christoph Georges told me at dinner the evening after my test drive. Most critically, nearly 80% of the Continental GTs sold in the US will be V8s, rather than W12s, saving their owners US$16,100 in pocket change (inconsequential to them) while providing grander engine notes and edgier handling under duress.

A small core of traditionalists will remain loyal to the W12, Bentley’s most historic engine configuration; for the rest of us, the V8 will be the happy go-to.

 

Leaner, meaner

Let us get this right out of the way: With 542bhp and 568 pound-feet of torque, the car has 84bhp fewer than the W12. But that is on paper. I would bet good money you would never know the difference driving it; unlike the W12, this all-wheel drive V8 is heavily rear-wheel drive-biased, especially in Sport mode. It feels like a “real” sports car, which any track enthusiast will tell you must be rear-wheel-driven, no? Plus, it is 200 pounds (90.72kg) or so lighter than the W12, so that is a wash if you ask me. And this is an all-new engine, updated since the first V8 Bentley made in 2012. The coupe will go to 60mph (96.56kph) in 3.9 seconds (four seconds for the convertible). It has a top speed of 198mph.

The part about the engine that really blew me away, though, was not its starting-line sprint speed. It was what it did between third and fourth gears.

Stretching out on an uphill grade, blasting towards Highway 1, the GT went from 65mph to 91mph in the same time it took for me to glance from the excellent heads-up display to the passenger seat and back. That was 91mph — uphill. For a 4,773-pound car to be able to gather itself so seamlessly and quickly from an already fresh clip was shocking. Heck, for a car of any weight to be able to glide like that was shocking. Note to self: Buy a police radar detector immediately because there would be no way I could self-regulate this level of tantalising power.

Credit a brand-new, eight-speed transmission in the GT for such finesse. The Continental GT V8 is the first Bentley ever to have a double-clutch gearbox.

“We did it because we wanted to stretch the limit of performance,” Bentley product line director Peter Guest told me over breakfast in Napa that morning. “There are limits to how fast you can shift without a double clutch.”

Noted.

 

Smooth and fast

The new Continuous Damping Control system also helped this effect. It optimises comfort and handling by smoothing things as you drive, constantly dampening — or not — in response to the surface of the road, how the car is moving and the driver’s input. It does this by monitoring the car’s speed and the distance between the wheels and the body of the car at each curve.

Plus, the thing stops great, solidly prompt and firm without the nasty bite that some rawer sports cars possess, and which can lead me towards slight nausea and an overall green feeling on tight, twisty, up-and-down roads. Bentley has used the same iron brakes on the V8 as it did for the W12 to great effect.

A point on that aforementioned engine sound: It has been engineered to be louder than the W12, yes, with a deep guttural growl as you push it to accelerate. (The bark, as it were, matches the bite, and both are potent.) But this car remains a civilised assassin, not a vigilante. Where the BMW 8 Series and Jaguar Project 8 clamour like alley cats at every turn, especially as you downshift, the Bentley Continental GT keeps you within the realm of likability for those neighbours who are not as enthralled by car sounds as we are.

 

A paradise inside

The interior of the Bentley Continental GT V8 is the knockout punch that proves this car is the complete package, as suitable for 1,000 miles (1,609km) driving up the Pacific coast as it would be on a date at the opera or tearing down two-lane roads on a joy ride. None of these scenarios would prove fatiguing to your nerves — the car is sealed for quiet inside like a vault — or to your back, with those newly plush and supportive 20-way adjustable seats. Or to your wardrobe: The gaping trunk here easily fits two large, hard weekend cases, two backpacks or duffels, and assorted hats and coats. Even the convertible version allows this, which is more than I can say for any other sport convertible on the market.

I also appreciate how Bentley has been honest about how its previous interiors felt dated (no USBs anywhere) and has acted accordingly with its new issue.

“The new interior has really taken us from a little bit behind to absolute state of the art,” Guest said at breakfast, noting such things as the three-point rotating 12.3-inch (31.24cm) touchscreen that turns with the press of a button. (If you want, you can rotate it so that you are only dealing with analogue displays or even just a flat veneer surface.) He was right. There are enough cupholders for a long road trip, and the back seat is far bigger than what you would get in an Aston Martin or Porsche coupe. It is usable even for adults! And I loved that the Naim sound system packs 12 speakers and a whopping 2,200 watts. I used it to crank up Hole, Willie Nelson and Led Zeppelin. It is expensive — US$8,800 — but it is almost as good as being down in the dirt at a Willie concert.

I do have some nitpicks: Sometimes, when the car was going fast on a steep, tight turn, the front pillar to the left of the steering wheel blocked my line of sight as I looked down the road towards my next turn. It was annoying, but probably unavoidable, for a car that looks that good. It would be nice if the Bluetooth would sync when the car is moving. When I asked Guest about this, he said it is a regulatory issue, though other automakers do not seem to have this problem. It would also be nice if the footwells are slightly wider and longer; for those of us approaching six feet (183cm), they can feel confining.

But unlike some brands with the tendency to try to do too much (Mercedes, sometimes), Bentley has exhibited that famously endearing British restraint. Thank goodness.

“We know that luxury is not just about stuff,” Guest said. “Luxury is about simplicity. If you don’t want it, you can take it off.” That moving touchscreen in the back can also be plain wood veneer if you like. (But you can choose from a range of woods for that veneer, naturally.)

To that end: Omit the purchase of the US$610 Bentley bat light that illuminates the ground at night when you get inside the car for all to see; skip the US$1,990 diamond knurling on the organ stops that control the vents and on the clock bezel; and forgo the US$1,630 pinstripe chrome veneer inside. You will probably want the 22-inch wheels, heated steering wheel and new heated armrests. (Among Bentley, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, these are really becoming a thing, which I love.)

You would not miss the rest of the extras. The 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8 perfectly embodies the concept of less is more. Let the engine and design do the talking. The car speaks for itself just fine. It will arrive in showrooms this fall. — Bloomberg