Oct. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Driving the new V-8 version of Bentley’s best-selling Continental GT, I could think of only one thing: It’s about time.
The Continental coupe is the “small,” more modern Bentley, and over the years I’ve tested all of its variations: the GTC convertibles, the peppier Speed versions and the Supersports model (which has a $270,000 base sticker price).
They were all powered by versions of the W-12 engine, a big, heavy lump weighing down the front nose.
This new one runs on a 4.0-liter V-8 and, for a Bentley, it feels like a flyweight. It’s as if the world has just fallen from its shoulders and the car is ready for a WeightWatchers sponsorship deal. This is a lighter, freer machine.
And cheaper? Sort of. The V-8 still starts at a boggling $174,000. And my test car came to a wallet-singeing $211,300. Perhaps this is a car meant for medium-worth moguls, not mega ones.
The W-12 engine, both noble and unusual, is central to the company’s character. Bentley proudly proclaims that its Crewe, England-based factory is the largest producer of 12 cylinders in the world. Abandoning the W-12 entirely would be like McDonald’s forgoing its Golden Arches.
To be sure, the W-12 delivers power in a very particular way: Smoothly and surely, with a subtle burr of refined sound.
With cylinders arranged in a W formation, it isn’t explosive or bone rattling, but it does deliver more than 600 horsepower from the most potent, twin-turbocharged version. Almost the stiff-upper-lip version of a powerful motor -- keep calm and carry on.
I fully understand and respect owners who adore the engineering and history behind a 12 cylinder. They’re the ones who understand the complicated features on their chronometer watches, and whose suit-sleeve buttons actually work.
Still, most drivers prefer a car that feels better balanced, turns more easily and requires fewer stops at the gas station.
With national miles-per-gallon regulations getting ever tighter, automakers are in a race to make smaller, more efficient engines. Mercedes-Benz and BMW are both offering four-cylinder motors for the first time in more than a decade.
Efficiency is especially crucial to smaller companies like Bentley (owned by the Volkswagen Group), which only offers a few models. To survive, it has to get those Environmental Protection Agency mileage numbers down across its fleet.
The EPA rates the new Continental V-8 at 15 miles per gallon city, 24 highway. That gives it a possible driving range of some 500 miles. Nice for road trips. The 6.0-liter W-12 gets only 12 and 19.
To keep things in perspective, we’re still talking about a hefty V-8, with 500 horses and 487 pound-feet of torque. It is direct injected and turbocharged. And it gives a roaring good drive. More anima, more attitude.
Rolling around New York City, the car is all poise and polish. It slips easily down Park Avenue, nearly silent until I encounter a wave of yellow taxis trying to cut me off. The car bounds forward when I shove down the gas pedal, erupting in a grunt of low-end torque. Like an extremely well-bred muscle car.
The lighter front end is most noticeable on roads uncurling through rolling hills, where you get the rather un-Bentley sense that the tires are actually connected to the road. It turns crisply. Grip is helped by the all-wheel-drive system, which sends 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels.
My model was outfitted with carbon-ceramic brakes, a bit of technological overkill, especially considering the additional $13,600 price. But they sure brought the car to a sound halt.
The V-8 model looks more youthful, too. The regular Continental GT and the convertible GTC both got recent design overhauls. The changes were incremental but pleasing, with a gentle refashioning of the exterior shapes.
The V-8 model builds on those re-designs, with athletic alterations to the grill (here the mesh is glossy and black), and the rear bumper.
The leather bucket seats on my test car had a bespoke-looking cross-hatch pattern, and were quite comfortable. The rear seats are fine for storage, but I wouldn’t want to actually clamber back there.
One of the biggest issues with Bentleys has been the utter uselessness of the infotainment and navigation systems. You wouldn’t, or simply couldn’t, program in an address and expect to arrive there.
This new version gets a new system with a touch screen, a detail which excited me beyond measure. Finally, this luxury coupe should be able to do the same things as, say, a fully loaded Honda Accord.
The map worked well enough, and I could find satellite radio stations with ease. My happiness ended when my passenger tried to program in a destination. The system would freeze for 10 or more seconds at a time -- calling for repeated finger taps.
The problem may have been only with my test car, I’m not sure. But we were halfway to our destination before the correct address was inputted.
It proves that the Continental is still a machine in progress. Without doubt it is improving with age. As for the elegant and refined W-12, I salute you. But the simpler, lighter and meaner V-8 is the Bentley I’d want.
The 2013 Bentley Continental GT V-8 at a Glance
Engine: Turbo-charged V-8 with 500 horsepower and 487
pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 15 city, 24 highway.
Price as tested: $211,300.
Best features: Feels better balanced, lighter and turns in
Worst feature: That touch screen still isn’t up to snuff.
Target buyer: The more youthful Bentley buyer.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on opera and Lance Esplund on art.
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
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