2014 Bentley Continental GT V8 S

Bentley still appeals to those with an appreciation for strong, Old World traditionalism. Cars wearing the storied Flying B have been discussed in wood-paneled drawing rooms by men wearing earthy tweeds and corduroy through clouds of fragrant cigar and pipe smoke, for decades. It is a company that has spent nearly 100 years building cost-no-object automobiles, for rich drivers who require a tremendous way to waft above the Sturm und Drang of mortal motoring.

The Bentley Continental GT, while unmistakably a party to that legacy of wooly privilege, has always seemed better suited to the nouveau riche than the landed gentry. The Mulsanne and the Continental Flying Spur still carry forward the brand's heritage of unfathomably fast, gargantuan sedans, while the GT has been busy inveigling an entirely new class of buyer with its lottery-win good looks.

A microsecond version of that analysis was all I had time for as I careened around another heroic left-hand sweeper in this Ice (white) 2014 Bentley Continental GT V8 S. For a car with roots in rainy England and German-engineering genes, the V8 S felt remarkably at home while crushing the desert-strewn distance between San Diego and Palm Springs – almost the epicenter of the New World's Golden West.

This is grand touring of not just distance, then, but time and tradition as well.

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"Beluga" gloss black on the mirrors, side skirts and rear diffuser are telltales of that which lurks inside.

Of course the Conti GT has been updating the Bentley idiom since 2003, with this, the second generation of the car, already pushing three years on the market. And while the W12-powered GT Speed still lords atop the line, the V8 model that was introduced last year has become company's new volume seller. Fully 51 percent of Continental GT's sold have the V8 engine option, and that split is expected to be even more dramatic when deliveries of this V8 S version start to roll out over the next few months.

When they do start to make their way into public hands, it'll take a fairly keen eye to spot the V8 S from distance (especially considering the rarity of a Bentley sighting at all). Model-specific badges are the obvious giveaway, and "Beluga" gloss black on the mirrors, side skirts and rear diffuser are the other telltales of that which lurks inside.

I hardly need to mention that the Continental GT's interior compartment is lush – tastefully decorated with materials that feel substantial and refined. Metal and leather touch points are impeccable; the duo-tone leather-trimmed seats a rare amalgamation of cushiony and supportive. The V8 S trim makes itself known from other Conti GT's by way of a contrasting center stripe on the header that matches whichever of the 17 hues of hide you've selected as your main. Kick plates reading "V8 S" are another easy hint. The less said about the 'vintage Volkswagen' feel of the navigation/infotainment system the better, I suppose, but that really is the lone dim spot in an otherwise brilliantly executed coupe cabin. It seems implausible that an interior can feel 'worth' $200,000-plus, but Bentley gets away with it here.

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The difference of one letter in a model designation makes a healthy difference in the Bentley catalog.

As is the case so often in the motoring world, the difference of one letter in a model designation makes a healthy difference in the Bentley catalog. Here, the "S" following the engine configuration represents output figures of 521 horsepower and 502 pound-feet of torque from the twin-turbo 4.0-liter mill; up meaningfully from the 500 hp and 487 lb-ft of the base V8 model. Connected to an aggressively sporting eight-speed automatic transmission, that also means the V8 S coupe's 0-60 time drops to 4.3 seconds (down from the V8's 4.6 seconds), while top speed climbs to 192 mph (versus 188 mph). Impressively, the added power from the S engine doesn't affect overall fuel economy, with ratings of 15 miles per gallon city and 24 highway holding steady. Not that gas mileage is a pressing concern in this rarified space.

The preceding paragraph comes off as almost rather hollow after having driven the V8 S, as that bloodless list of statistics has about as much in common with the character of the engine as a Sex Ed. does with sex. Keep reading and you'll understand that the Continental GT V8 S is a flawed machine, but you should know up front that none of that has anything to do with this new motor.

My driving partner (the inimitable Bengt Halvorson) was game for a few full-throttle launches, so I can write the following with confidence: the turbo'd V8 has virtually no punch under 1,500 rpm from a standing start. That lag was no bad thing however, as it gave me a fraction of a second to gulp some air before the Bentley engine sucked the remaining oxygen out of the immediate vicinity. A doubly helpful breath as the resultant explosion forward threatened to collapse my lungs in my chest. This is a quick car.

2014 Bentley Continental GT V8 S

Power delivery from the engine's 1,700-rpm torque peak thru the 6,000-rpm horsepower peak is simply colossal. Routed continuously to all four wheels – with a 40/60 front/rear torque split – the thrust from the engine far outlasted my willingness to explore the higher reaches of its three-digit zones. The Bentley also offers up a complex and genuinely spirited soundtrack to accompany the powerplant. At a full-go, this V8 sings a rising, strident note through the exhaust system (the optional sport exhaust in this case), while subtle wastegate gulps accompany every fevered upshift.

A near-200-mph car that weights as much or more as a Ford F-150. I'll take the biggest brakes you have, thanks.

Retarding this force-of-nature power is quite a substantial set of brakes – thank God. Even the standard GT V8 S brakes are massive: nearly 16-inch (405-mm) ventilated steel discs in the front and 13.2-inch (335-mm) units out back. My GT coupe was equipped with those 'base' stoppers, and they still grabbed with confidence after 170-plus miles of hard driving. Should you require yet more restraining force, Bentley will also be happy to sell you a braking system with cross-drilled carbon silicon carbide discs that are larger still. In fact, Bentley told us that the 16.5-inch (420-mm) carbon brakes are amongst the largest diameter discs on any production car in the world. As a $13,875 option, they'd better be.

Bentley engineers aren't simply hunting superlatives by specifying such giant brakes; they know that it takes an awful lot of power to reliably haul down a car this heavy from silly speeds. The company lists a dry curb weight of 5,060 pounds for the V8 S coupe (that number jumps to a gobsmacking 5,445 lbs for the convertible), which doesn't include any fluids or account for the weight of a driver. Add in all system fluids, a 24-gallon tank full of gasoline and a couple of extra-tall car writers, and you're talking about a near-200-mph car that weights as much or more as a Ford F-150. I'll take the biggest brakes you have, thanks.

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The S car is lower, firmer and stiffer, thanks to beefed up antiroll bars and starchier bushings.

All that bulk has an obvious impact on the GT's handling, as well, though the V8 S has some advantages on that front. The fundaments of the chassis are the same here as with the base V8 – aluminum double wishbone suspension up front, trapezoidal multi-link suspension in back, with a self-leveling air bag setup that offers continuous, infinitely variable damping. However, the S car is lower, firmer and stiffer, thanks to beefed up antiroll bars and starchier bushings. Bentley has also retuned the steering system, the damping control and the stability control in an effort to give the V8 S added capacity for really aggressive driving.

With the five-way air suspension control selecting the very firmest Sport mode, the net result of the chassis tuning is a car that occasionally pulls one over on physics.There were dozens of versions of the same gracefully arcing, fantastically long turns on the route I took through the desert, all of which showed off the Continental GT in its very best light. Its AWD system afforded supreme grip on high-speed corners, and the firmed-up underpinnings betrayed precious little evidence of strain or squirm. Put a thousand quarter-mile sweepers in front of this GT, and it'll dispatch the last one while the driver asks politely a thousand more. On any open road, be it a desert-crossing two-lane or an autobahn, the V8 S' combination of civility and athleticism creates a near ideal environment.

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Trick air suspension and stiffer chassis ... couldn't really hide the Bentley's bulk on twisting mountain passes.

Our route into Palm Springs (the halfway point of our day of driving) took me up and over the mountains that surround the Coachella Valley. Usually mountain roads make up the most entertaining section of any test drive, but this set showed the dynamic weaknesses of the V8 S in stark contrast to meandering section I'd just completed. The trick air suspension and stiffer chassis may perform near-miracles in many driving environments, but even they couldn't really hide the Bentley's bulk on the twisting mountain passes. Moving too quickly through switchbacks made the stately prow push wide if I entered a tight corner with too much speed, and, despite clever turn-in, the faint-feedback steering proved an awkward thing for diving from corner to corner.

What's more, it was on the tightly wound roads that I first started lamenting the difficult to reach paddle shifters – presented uncooperatively on long stalks that originate on the steering column. Truth be told, the titanic torque of the engine would have allowed me to drive these sections of winding road in second or third gear if I'd wanted, but any joy of switching up and down was damped by the badly designed paddles. Luckily, the knurled chrome gearshift lever, though clunkier than a good set of flappy paddles, felt so good under hand that I blithely ignored the stalks for the rest of the trip. (That is, when I wasn't mistaking them for the turn signal...)

2014 Bentley Continental GT V8 S

The coupe I tested wore an as-tested price of $231,690 ... it might as well carry an MSRP of "If you have to ask..."

It shouldn't surprise anyone that this latest Continental GT isn't exactly a dancer on backroads – it shouldn't matter much in terms of sales volume, either. Not only will the machine offer great composure on most typical North American roads, it will flatter its driver with technologically derived poise while doing so. That mode of operation, along with fabulous materials, build quality, and lovely design, make the V8 S a very special car even if it isn't a razor-like driver's tool.

Depending on where you grew up, where you went to school, how many accountants you employ, your personal garage-door count and other mitigating factors; cars wearing the Bentley B have either multitudes of competitors or none at all. The coupe I tested wore an as-tested price of $231,690 over a base of $196,500, which means it might as well carry an MSRP of "If you have to ask..." Of course, there are cars of similar capability that cost far less money – the BMW M6 and Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG both seem like screaming bargains in contrast. But vehicles of this ilk make their way not on comparative data, but on the propulsion of lust, or the ineffable qualities that only a long history and Englishness can bestow. If you can have one, and want it, somehow nothing else will do.

Objectively, even from my perspective clouded by a sensible upbringing and paycheck, I see the Continental GT V8 S as the perfect fulfillment of the goals set out for it by Bentley. It's truly a grand car when driven on a grand scale.