From time to time, even the most well-heeled car manufacturers need to seek out the next generation of customers. After all, those people with enough disposable income to afford, say, a Bentley Continental GT are, generally speaking, not in their 20s.
What’s more, all automobile manufacturers, the exotics included, also need to pay more attention to such mundane matters as fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions these days. Thus, we have the arrival of the Bentley Continental GT V8.
The GT V8 is armed with, you guessed it, a V8 petrol engine — twin-turbocharged, no less. This engine joins the twin-turbo W12 that has been fitted to every Bentley Continental since the debut of the original back in 2003.
While it may seem an affront that this Bentley should be fitted with a mere eight cylinders, it’s worth remembering that the latest Mulsanne, the biggest car in the company fleet, also employs a twin-turbo V8.
But there’s yet another opportunity for dissenting opinion: the Mulsanne has its own bespoke 6.75-litre V8, but the new Continental features a 4.0-litre unit that was developed in partnership with Audi, which uses a variation of this same engine for the new S8 saloon.
For the drive experience, track time was arranged at the Circuito de Navarra in northern Spain, followed by a road test through the region’s picturesque surroundings. The order of things is important here because I ended up having one key criticism of the car, something that might have seemed far less important if the agenda had been reversed.
This criticism is not with the engine.
The twin-turbo V8 (373kW; 660Nm) is almost a match for the twin-turbo W12 in standard spec (412kW; 650Nm) and not far off the output of the W12 Speed models (449kW; 750Nm). Sure, the V8 is a slightly more relaxed engine from a standing start — 4.8 seconds for the sprint to 100km/h versus 4.6 seconds for the W12 — and the car’s top speed is a “measly” 303km/h (318 for the W12), but in the grand scheme of things, this difference is negligible.
It’s even more negligible when you consider that the GT V8 boasts a stunning 40 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency compared with the W12. This tasty bit of engineering has been achieved through a number of means.
First, the V8 features cylinder-deactivation technology, as first used by Bentley on the Mulsanne, which allows the engine to run at just half-capacity when it isn’t under significant load. The engine has also been calibrated for optimum efficiency, thermal management of engine heat has been improved, and a variable power steering pump has been brought on board to reduce load on the engine.
The Bentley also benefits from an overall reduction in weight, low rolling resistance tyres, an energy recuperation system that charges the battery under deceleration, and an 8-speed automatic transmission. This final feature is the lightning rod mentioned earlier.
While it’s certainly a benefit over the 6-speed automatic found on the W12 in terms of fuel conservation, it also certainly falls short of providing a rewarding experience behind the wheel.
On track, the transmission proved to be, in a word, frustrating. Even in manual mode, the cogs would switch of their own accord rather than waiting for the driver to take action. A truly sporting vehicle would at least have one drive mode that kept the engine bouncing off the rev limiter until the driver made a move.
The car was also a real stickler when it came to downshifting; approaching a corner at speed always took more care than expected because the engine would, for example, refuse to go from third gear to second at 80 m/h, but was happy to respond at 79km/h.
To make matters worse, in the heat of the action, there was no indication that a lower gear had not been engaged — no warning beep, as one finds on other cars. So, on a number of occasions, I attempted to put the power down coming out of a slow corner only to discover that I was in too high a gear. Grrr.
The fully automatic mode proved to take some strain off the brain, but the 8-speed was clearly not calibrated to hold maximum revs before shifting.
Call me a contrarian, but I think a brand like Bentley, born on the racetracks of Europe, should respond on the racetracks of Europe. A single-clutch automatic transmission that takes all the decisions out of the hands of the driver does not mesh well with the brand image.
Of course, close to 100 per cent of the car's drivers will toss it into full automatic mode and let the transmission do all the work — every time. But even some of those drivers would want to know that there's some race-inspired thinking in there somewhere. Or maybe I'm wrong. Out on public roads, it was very much a completely different story. When put under less pressure to be in the proper gear in an instant, the combination of the V8 engine and the 8-speed performed beautifully the entire time, even in manual mode.
Free from the distractions created by the transmission, the on-road experience afforded the chance to appreciate the dynamics of the all-wheel-drive super-coupe with its 40/60 rear-biased torque split and a traction control system that has been recalibrated for less intrusive behaviour.
Also worth mentioning: despite four fewer cylinders, the exhaust note of the GT V8 is downright nasty and it rivals the W12 for sheer, blood-curdling appeal. The thing has three different sounds: one for start-up, another for the mid-range, and a third that chimes in at the top end.
In terms of exterior visual cues, the Continental GT V8 features a lower front bumper, gloss black front grille, figure-8 tailpipe treatment and robust red badges with the flying B logo. Inside, the new Continental sports a few differences, some seemingly made in the name of cost savings: a cloth headliner, shortened centre console, single front armrest and rear bench seat.
Of course, as per Bentley policy, the GT V8 will be available with any number of bespoke touches that would then send the price skyrocketing once again.
All told, despite the disappointing transmission choices, the new Bentley Continental V8 GT is an inspired premium sports coupe. The slight hit in performance is easily offset by the gains in efficiency.
Not only that, this version of the Continental will be 10-15 per cent less expensive than the W12 – which costs from $405,719 in Australia. Nice.