I have a friend who once told me that he would never buy the cheapest version of anything. I pressed him about cars and figured he was backed into a corner when I mentioned Bentley. With only the Continental series of cars – GT coupe, GTC convertible, Flying Spur four-door – and Mulsanne sedan on offer, surely this friend of mine would go for something like the Continental GT coupe over the larger, much more expensive Mulsanne. While their base prices are separated by over $100,000, the Continental GT's starting price of $212,600 should still command enough respect from my friend's imaginary – and judgmental – group of country club acquaintances.
"No way, it's the entry-level Bentley."
Ouch, though on some level he's correct. Any automaker who offers more than one model technically has an entry-level option. The Continental GT coupe is that car for Bentley, the least expensive ticket that gains you access to the Flying B's party and all the pampering, personalization and performance that entails.
Well, friend, have I got a car that's not for you. The 2013 Bentley Continental GT V8 is the new entry entry-level Bentley that offers less of everything: less weight, lower emissions, fewer horsepower and a smaller price. Indeed, my friend might say that by subtracting four cylinders, Bentley is taking its Continental range downmarket to the point where aspirational millionaires can now rub elbows with self-made billionaires. Oh, the humanity.
In fact, this isn't what Bentley is doing at all. While lesser luxury marques like Mercedes-Benz and BMW offer a range of automobiles that begin around the average price of a new car and reach well into six figures, Bentley has no interest in courting buyers who might cross-shop one of its cars with a loaded Camry. The proof is in the pricing, as this new V8-powered Continental GT comes with a base MSRP of $174,000 – only about 10 percent shy of the starting figure for the twelve-cylinder W12 model. At that price, the competition for Bentley's new entry-level model remains the very best offerings from those other brands, cars like the Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG and BMW M6. Buying even this base Bentley still keeps you a status level above those German bahn-stormers, and there's virtually no way a Continental customer will escape a Bentley dealership without having optioned up and customized his car for tens of thousands of dollars extra.
Bentley has no interest in courting buyers who might cross-shop one of its cars with a loaded Camry.
Our test car certainly didn't exit the factory as a "base" Continental GT V8, arriving at our doorstep with an as-tested price of $215,880. Most expensive among its optional extras was the carbon ceramic brakes with black calipers, which ring in at $13,600. The next most costly option was our car's Mulliner Driving Specification with Color Specification package for $12,230. Believe it or not, all that one gets you are those lovely 21-inch "tuning fork" wheels with black finish and an assortment of interior filigree like embroidered Bentley wings on the seatbacks, quilted leather, drilled pedals and a wider assortment of interior colors, veneers and finishes. It didn't even include our exterior color choice, Sunburst Gold, which added another $4,305 to the bottom line.
Indeed, most of the options on our tester were ornamental, which makes sense considering nearly all the good things in life are standard equipment on a vehicle like this. All that's left is to express your taste by throwing money at the personalization process, and Bentley's skilled team of craftsmen and colorists are only too happy to oblige.
Despite the $36,000 worth of options that makes this Continental GT V8 unique, it still shares the same basic shape of the current generation Continental GT. Redesigned for the 2011 model year, it's a classically handsome form we find no fault with. We thought, however, that Bentley would work to retain the status position of the W12 model by visually differentiating the GT V8 in a more obvious way. But in fact, at first glance we couldn't find any obvious cues that hinted at what lies underhood. No "V8" badges and nothing missing from the exterior suggested that one could masquerade undetected in this car as a card-carrying W12 driver.
Alas, 'tis not so, as Bentley did leave a few clues for those paying attention. The two most obvious tip-offs are the Continental GT V8's black grille with its chrome frame and vertical center bar, and the Bentley badges that feature a red enamel background instead of green. If you're passed by a GT V8, you'll also notice its unique lower rear valence that frames a pair of new figure eight-shaped exhaust outlets. That, however, is all that visually separates the two Continental GTs.
The sound of the V8 is deeper, richer and altogether more athletic than the W12.
There is another identifying trait that works just as well to differentiate the two coupes, but your eyes are not required. Tune your ears to the sound of the exhaust and you will hear a banquet of delicious tones coming from this new V8 engine. As our Executive Editor Chris Paukert noted in his First Drive, "It simply sounds much more engaging than the W12." Indeed, the sound of this new twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 co-developed with Audi (versions of which are also available in the S8, S7 and S6) is deeper, richer and altogether more athletic than the more powerful and heavier W12, so much so that we found ourselves stabbing the throttle around town just to hear it speak.
The specs of this new V8 are also surprisingly impressive compared to the twin-turbo 6.0-liter W12, especially considering the physical differences between the two amount to an entire 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. The twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 produces a solid 500 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 487 pound-feet of torque at only 1,700 rpm, numbers that fall just 67 hp and 29 lb-ft shy of the 55-lb heavier 12-cylinder. The V8 punches so far above its weight thanks to the pair of twin-scroll turbos feeding it fresh air, and premium fuel being directly injected into its cylinders.
Its numbers fall just 67 hp and 29 lb-ft shy of the 55-lb heavier 12-cylinder.
Also assisting the GT V8 is its engine's dance partner, a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission. This gearbox houses two more gears than the W12's six-speed unit and uses those cogs to great effect. For one, the transmission can "block downshift," or drop up to four ratios at once for quicker reaction times, and the tall final gear has the engine turning over at just 1,500 rpm while traveling 70 mph. The benefits are tangible both on paper and pavement: The GT V8 is just 0.2 seconds slower to 60 miles per hour at 4.6 seconds, yet returns 15/24 city/highway miles per gallon compared to the W12's estimate of 12/19 mpg. The engine also features variable displacement that cuts the number of working cylinders down to four when cruising. The truth is that the V8 doesn't feel a lick slower than the W12 in real world conditions, though an extra four miles per gallon will certainly be felt by less frequent stops for fuel – Bentley says the GT V8 can go 500 miles between pit stops.
What happens in the interim is an entirely enjoyable and adaptive driving experience. We mentioned vehicles like the CL63 AMG and M6 as potential competitors for this car, but the Bentley is nothing like those performance machines. Where they focus on amping up adrenalin, the GT V8 zeroes in on meeting its master's needs – all of them. When you want a coddling English coach, the GT V8 can be that by setting its air suspension to the softest setting and leaving the transmission in Drive. In this state, the GT V8 feels like a coddling leather-lined bank vault. But switch the suspension to its firmest of four settings, flick the stick to Sport and start tugging those paddle shifters, and you'll get something more akin to a British bulldog straining at its leash.
The lighter and better balanced GT V8 is more comfortable being thrown into a turn than the W12.
While Mr. Paukert got to play with the GT V8 on a racetrack in Spain, I was stuck with suburban Cleveland's confining grid of roadways. But even traveling stoplight to stoplight with an occasional bend encountered, it was plainly obvious that the lighter and better balanced GT V8 is more comfortable being thrown into a turn than the W12. Mind you, the GT V8 still weighs 5,060 pounds, so the rear-biased all-wheel-drive system and carbon ceramics brakes still work incredibly hard to keep this polished porker on the ground and out of trouble, but we never heard a peep of protest or experienced any system overwhelmed by the task. Again, that assessment might be different on a racetrack in Spain, but here in the real world, that level of driving isn't encountered unless you're fleeing the scene of a white-collar crime.
We did take issue with certain aspects of the GT V8, most notably the pedal feel when braking. Half of the brake pedal's travel didn't get us much stopping power, while the second half bit harder than we were expecting. We also think the sound attenuation in the car might be almost too effective for its own good. While a quiet cabin is nice when simply motoring along, we wanted more volume from the V8 when working it hard. Even at wide open throttle, the GT V8 remains incredibly vibration free and the engine sounds like its operating in a sound-proof room.
Likewise, this isn't the most practical car one can buy. The trunk is tiny in volume and not very tall, and the back seat would barely fit Richie Rich. The aforementioned Mercedes and BMW models would likely work better as everyday drivers and may even fit a golf bag in their boots, whereas your clubs would have to ride shotgun in the Bentley.
People buy a Bentley because they like what it says about them in terms of wealth, status and style.
But that's entirely missing the point. We really have no idea what considerations are made when someone buys a car that for most people would require a 30-year fixed mortgage to pay off. Trunk space and rear-seat legroom are probably low on the list (or have already been addressed by another vehicle in their 10-car underground garage). At this level, people buy a Bentley because they like what it says about them in terms of wealth, status and style. Is my friend correct that the cheapest Bentley says something extra and potentially unfavorable about its owner? Absolutely not, and in the case of the GT V8, a little less of everything makes this model not just the better car, but the better Bentley.