First Drive: 2011 Bentley Continental Supersports Convertible delivers the goods
As we see it, there's one major problem with the 2011 Bentley Continental Supersports Convertible. No, not the $280,000 asking price, or even the give-us-a-break curb weight of 5,269 pounds. We also aren't talking about the fact that this basic chassis has been around since 2003. Nor are we concerned that there exist very few places on earth where you can even maybe-kinda-sorta properly experience the thrust of the Supersport's twin-turbo 6.0-liter W12's profligate output. Get this: 621 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 590 pound-feet of torque available between 2,000-4,500 rpm. Did we mention this one's a convertible?
Furthermore, the topless Supersports' problem does not involve the fact that there are very, very few people in its target demographic. You know, the guy that wants to take three members of his family for a ride at 197 mph with the top down (Bentley would like us to point out that with the top up, the Supersports Convertible will hit 202 mph). Thing is, out of the earth's 6.7 billion inhabitants, there will surely be around 400 folks that fit the bill, coincidentally about the same number of these topless Supersports Bentley intends to build. No, the problem with the Bentley Supersports Convertible is that the preposterously humongous carbon-ceramic brakes feel a bit squishy coming down from 165 mph. Mind you, at 130 mph, the stoppers work like anchors.
The new-for-2011 Bentley Supersports Convertible is the latest and perhaps final iteration of the Continental lineup. As it stands, and for those of you not keeping track, Bentley will happily sell you no less than eight variants based on this platform, the Volkswagen Group's D1 chassis shared with the ignoble but brilliant Volkswagen Phaeton. Quickly now, you can have the regular flavor Continental, the GTC (that's the convertible), the Continental Speed (more power), the GTC Speed, the Flying Spur (four-door), Flying Spur Speed, the hardtop Supersports and now the Supersports Convertible. That's, of course, here in America. Special editions pop up around the globe, with most of 'em surfacing in China. And don't act all shocked if a Flying Spur Supersports somehow shows up at your local Bentley dealer.
As you may have guessed, with each new vehicle comes not only more capability, but a higher price tag, too. We already mentioned that the Supersports Convertible stickers for $280,400. What we didn't mention are the $2,595 transportation fee, the $3,700 gas guzzler tax or the $7,100 for the 1,100-watt Naim sound system – a must-have option says us. That said, if you can even afford to consider buying Bentley's fastest ever convertible, we have zero sympathy for any perceived nickle and diming. Besides, if you can't afford the essentially three hundred grand that the Supersports Convertible will set you back, might we suggest the gentleman have a gander at the less muscular 600 hp, 553 lb-ft of torque GTC Speed, which starts at a more modest $230,000?
Speaking of the world's fastest convertible, the Supersports is close, but not quite. First and foremost, you have the 253 mph Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport, plus a couple of Italian exotics that can probably go a mile or two per hour faster than the Supersports Convertible with the top stowed. However, this car is without question the world's fastest four passenger convertible. The world's most powerful, too. So potent in fact, that it was referred to as a "baby Grand Sport" more than once. Second fastest four-seater drop top honors belong to the Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet, which can shamefully only hit 194 mph sans its roof. We're being sarcastic if you're wondering. To illustrate just how far (and insane) open top motoring has come, consider that twenty short years ago, the fastest four-seat convertible was the BMW E30 M3 Cabriolet, sporting 215 hp and a top speed on par with a modern day Nissan Altima, and the Germans didn't even have the decency to offer that model in the States. Even if there was a faster headless four-seater (like say the Jaguar XJS Convertible) we're talking maybe 145 mph flat out. The Bentley is cracking 200 mph. Just to underline the obvious, the Supersports droptop is a certified freak.
But it's a freak on paper. In reality, the 621 horsepower terror is one of the most elegant cars we've ever driven. The engine's massive power comes on like a wave, surging a bit once it hits 4,000 rpm. But it's never harsh, never undignified. Just smooth and mighty. Here's an example: the large-yet-lithe land yacht is capable of hitting 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds. For some perspective, a 1967 Shelby Cobra 427 requires 4.5 seconds and a 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 takes 4.2 seconds. Are there quicker cars? Of course, dozens – there's even a faster Bentley, the hardtop Continental Supersports that does the deed in 3.7 seconds. But this topless Bentley has them all beat in terms of stately elegance. It's safe to say, that those 3.9 seconds to 60 mph will be the most pleasant supercar-like accelerative moments of your life.
Why are we saying "supercar-like" as opposed to just plain old supercar? Well, anyone can make a heinously quick car – it's just a matter of power versus weight plus traction. But it takes a certain X factor, a je ne sais quoi, a mysterious layer of something special, to make such a powerful automobile so refined, so recherché, so sumptuous, so preposterously well-bred and civilized. The term gran turismo has sadly been over-marketed to death recently, with the very marrow of the expression nearly boiled from its bones. The Bentley Supersports Convertible, however, is a proper grand tourer, a real GT. The kind of machine you dream about road tripping in, the sort that gobbles slabs of asphalt as if it were carpaccio. yet it remains so dignified we doubt it breaks a sweat. Then there's the fact that the three-layer roof (which is nearly as quiet as a coupe when up) takes a leisurely twenty-five seconds to fold. Thing is, sitting there as the horizon opens up over your head, nothing could matter less than a fast top. In fact, owners will learn to savor those twenty-five seconds.
Please don't think we're in anyway saying this Supersports is soft. True, unlike the Coupe, the roadster has a back seat and weighs a little more (5,269 pounds for the Convertible as opposed to 4,939 for the hard top). Like in all convertibles, part of the weight gain is attributable to strengthening the chassis so as to make up for the loss of the roof's rigidity. Of course, if you compare the Supersports Convertible to the GTC Speed, you will notice that Bentley managed to scrape away an unnecessary 198 pounds from the former. All the more impressive when you realize that they added more subframe-reinforcing to the Supersports. How strong are we talking? Lead Supersports engineer Paul Jones claims that if you were able to bolt a bare, body-in-white Supersports Convertible frame to a wall by the front of the chassis, you could hang a fully built car off the rear-end with only one degree of body flex. Somebody call Cialis, Bentley just came up with their next ad campaign.
Erectile dysfunction jokes notwithstanding, all that stiffness coupled to such a fiend of an engine wouldn't amount to much if the Supersports was unable to put it all together. Thankfully for the few hundred well-heeled dudes that will own one, the ultimate Bentley convertible handles extremely well. With – in the classic German tradition – an engine hanging in front of the axle, we kept waiting for the ample brute to understeer, but it never did. Granted, given a large enough roadcourse, we're sure we could invoke some push. But across Colorado's glorious San Juan Skyway and Million Dollar Highway, bad manners were nowhere to be found. In fact, as you lay into the throttle, the Supersports Convertible's reflexes seem to sharpen up. Like all great cars, it gets better as you go faster. While the car's weight should be an issue, it simply isn't. In fact, in terms of smoothness and composure, we'd argue that the Supersport Convertible's girth is an asset. Sacrilege, we know.
On the suspension side of things, here's what Bentley did to make the Supersports more of a stud than the already impressive GTC Speed: The front end features a 10 mm lower stance, an 8 percent stiffer roll bar and 35 percent stiffer bushings. The steering has also been retuned for more directness. In the rear, the stance is 15 percent lower, the rollbar is stiffer (Bentley doesn't say how much), the software controlling the dampers has been retuned for more sportiness and the track has been widened by nearly two inches. Bentley's also done their best to banish as much unsprung weight as possible. The blackish alloy wheels are 5.5 pounds lighter a pop, for an unsprung weight savings of 22 pounds. More impressively, the crash cymbal-sized carbon ceramic brakes save eleven pounds per wheels, for another 44 pounds off. That's 16.5 pounds off per corner and the difference in composure and compliance shows. One side note – the front rotors on either Supersports, coupe or convertible, are the largest brakes on any passenger car in the world. We're talking 16.54-inch diameter pieces in the front clamped by eight-piston calipers. The rear brakes also aren't too shabby at 14-inches wide with two-piston calipers. In the interest of journalism we tried several repeated stops from 100 mph down to zero. While we did get a little play in the front wheels, we'll put our hand on top of whatever you like and swear that the stopping distances got shorter.
Where were we? Right, the Supersports Convertible has superb handling. How would it do on a track? Totally not the point. The point of this leviathan's fuss-free road manners are taking it down curvaceous stretches of mountain road while smling. It simply excels at the task. Even though you're issuing the orders, you'll find yourself shocked at how quickly and confidently the Supersports is able to catch the car in front of you. Then you have the redistributed torque-split, where 60 percent of the power is fed to the rear wheels, with the remaining 40 percent heading up front. The resulting rear-wheel bias is not only noticeable, but allows for some pretty sweet-feeling transitions as you muscle the SS around a bend. It's as if the Bentley is not only on a different playing field (which, let's be honest, it is), but is playing by different rules. Once you catch whatever happens to be in front of you, a simple flick or two of the left paddle shifter (the reprogrammed ZF six-speed auto allows two gears to be dropped at once) and you elegantly rocket by them, resisting the urge to disparagingly mutter "peasant" as you pass. Now's probably the point where we mention that with the top dropped at 110 mph, you can carry on a normal, inside voices conversation with your passenger.
Though not with the back seat passengers. As the Supersports is billed as the world's fastest four seat convertible, we figured that no review would be complete without testing the rear thrones at high speeds. Here's the good news: A normal sized ( if not slightly pudgy) adult can fit in the back. With the top down, it's even fairly easy to get seated (though getting out is the least graceful aspect of the car). Once in place, it's a tight fit, but we'd imagine journeys lasting up to an hour will leave the rear-seat occupant(s) no worse for wear. Longer than that, and the lack of being able to move your legs at all will start to be bothersome. While still not harsh in anyway, some of the front seats' buttery evenness is missing in the rear. Still, our Bentley-baseball hat didn't start to fly off until about 140 mph. Meaning Bentley's got their wind-tunneling nearly down to a science. That said, the driver can't hear a word you're shouting to him over 100 mph.
As far as the front cabin goes, the single biggest weight saving measure deployed for the Supersports convertible are, in fact, the two main chairs. Instead of Bentley's typical thoroughly British smoking lounge, are two Italian Sparco carbon fiber racing thrones, each of which is 45 pounds lighter than the seat it replaces. Part of being so light and racy involves full manual seat adjustments. You mean you don't get 24-way adjustable vibro-massaging slings for $280,000? Nope, and once we had our seat adjusted (you can slide it forward/back and adjust the backrest angle) we never thought about it again. In fact, the seats are rather good looking, featuring diamond-stitched Alcantara with orange piping on the front and raw carbon fiber on the backside. They're comfy, too. And let's not forget the orange "Flying B" sewn into the headrests. Sadly, the rest of the cabin is trimmed out in carbon fiber and we have to say it's our least favorite part of the car. Bentley chose to use a 65 percent gloss finish on the carbon fiber and some of our colleagues felt it should have been shinier. Shine or no shine, there's just something tacky about carbon fiber interiors in a car like this. We would have been much happier with some nice, restrained pieces of wood. While not an official option, if you whip out a big enough checkbook, Bentley will happily chop a tree for you. Curiously, the carbon fiber interior bits are actually inlaid on top of wood veneers, which is another way of saying you can't really take the Brit out of the Bentley.
Speaking of which, looking at the Supersports Convertible, it's instantly clear that you're looking at a proper Bentley. Or at least, a modern Bentley. So important to Bentley is this shape that not only did CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen recently say that the Continental is, "Our [Porsche] 911," but we have it on very good authority that the next Continental will be instantly recognizable as such. Having said that, there's much going on to distinguish the Supersports from the "lesser" Contis. As on the hard top SS, the front air intakes have been repositioned and made larger. The two inlets below the headlights are now vertical and do much more to cool the turbochargers. Bentley claims 10 percent better cooling, which is important as the big W12 engine is dealing with 37 percent more boost. You'll also notice the twin heat extractor vents on the hood that Bentley assures us do what they look like they do (i.e. yank power-sapping heat out of the engine bay).
The sills have been tightened up for a sportier stance and the formerly fattish rear has been trimmed up nicely. You'll also notice bigger tailpipes that increase breathing, which is one reason why the Supersports has so much power. There's a spoiler to help with downforce at high speeds, and the rear fenders are all new to accommodate the widened track. You'll also notice that most of the bright work is no longer that bright. Bentley calls it "Darkened Steel," and they create it using a process called Physical Vapor Deposition (or PVD) that heats steel and paint up to 15,000 degrees centigrade, effectively bonding them. We think the results look sharp, and Bentley points out that despite its prodigious limits, the Supersports Convertible was designed with "mature drivers" in mind. Meaning that those seeking bling should look elsewhere.
We'd be derelict in our duties if we didn't mention that the Supersports Convertible is the first Bentley to be 100 percent E85 capable. They've engineered a return-less fuel system with a sensor to detect whatever you've put in the tank. As ethanol is less energy dense than gasoline, the computer simply increases the fuel pump rate (up to 30 percent) to guarantee all 621 horsepower are present and accounted for. After 100 miles of driving, Bentley topped our tanks up with E85 and we detected zero difference in performance. A neat trick for sure, though it comes across as more of a greenwashing stopgap as opposed to something born out of a true concern for the environment. After all, the Supersports Convertible is rated at 12 mpg city/19 mpg highway. Still, if you ignore how E85 is made, you can achieve 70 percent fewer CO2 emissions than on straight gas.
Only a fool would consider the Bentley Supersports Convertible because of its green cred. However, wise million- and billionaires the world over will be looking at the latest from Bentley because it's so damn splendid. They could even look at the purchase as an investment, because top-line variants like the Supersports are the cars that will be lighting up Concours around 2035. The Supersports Convertible is a dreamboat, a car that can not only wow you with potency, but sooth you with straight-up luxury. And that top goes all the way down. Did we mention the organ pulls? As we often say in these situations, man, oh man, do we wish we were rich.
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