The Red Badge Of Courage
When it comes to high-end automobiles, there exists a surprisingly large group of well-heeled buyers seemingly only too happy to plunk down the vast sums required to buy the most expensive model in a given range. To these shoppers, a loftier price connotes that they are buying the best of the best, all but guaranteeing that they’ll never suffer the indignity of being shown up at the valet stand. And while the notion that what is best is what’s the most expensive is often correct, that isn’t always the case.
Take this splashy Dragon Red Bentley Continental GT V8, for example. On the surface, this new model is just a cut-price coupe with four fewer cylinders and less horsepower, but make no mistake – this is the Thinking Man’s Continental, not the Miser’s.
Of course, word that the British automaker’s latest should cost around 10 percent less than its 12-cylinder counterpart is unlikely to arch any impeccably manicured brows – we’re going to go ahead and assume that the price differential won’t really be of consequence to anyone with the wherewithal to shop for a Bentley. As a result, it will likely take a bit of individuality and pluck to show up at this season’s Keeping Up With The Jones’ Charity Ball in a GT V8.
Your fellow Flying B benefactors will know you’ve opted for the V8 because it’s clearly marked out by an array of red enamel badges, along with subtle trim differences around the grille and lower fascia, along with a pair of charismatic sideways-eight-shaped exhaust pipes surrounded by a dark lower valance. And while Bentley and its Mulliner bespokery will happily customize your new purchase just about any way you want, they will resolutely deflect requests to paint the crimson badges in the dark green of your W12-driving compatriots no matter how much money you offer them, a subtle move to protect the 12-cylinder model’s exclusivity.
Previous Autoblog driving reports have told you all you need to know about the Continental GT, as it was substantially refreshed just last year. So we’ll spare you the details on the heavyweight’s exquisitely aromatic and richly appointed interior, its gracious air-suspended ride and its much-needed infotainment updates.
Instead, it’s best to focus on the heart of this car, a new 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 co-developed with Audi while sunning under the Volkswagen Group‘s immense corporate umbrella (the engine also calls the S8 home). Part of Bentley’s pledge to reduce C02 emissions by a whopping 40 percent, the V8 powertrain weighs less than the W12, a nice place to start. The difference is only about 55 pounds, but crucially, those pounds have gone missing from the front axle, imbuing the big grand tourer with better weight distribution. Bentley has also fitted the Conti V8 with the same ZF-sourced gearbox that we’ve enjoyed in countless other luxury automobiles. It’s an accomplished cogswapper that Crewe’s crew has tuned especially for duty in this model, including enabling “block downshift” electronics, which enable the gearbox to swap down as many as four ratios at once for improved responsiveness. Sporting two more cogs than the W12’s aging six-speeder, the added ratios not only help fuel economy, they keep the V8 on the balls of its feet at all times.
The 4.0-liter features de rigueur technology like twin-scroll turbos, direct-injection, improved thermal management, displacement-on-demand (the V8 can teetotal around as a V4 thanks to active motor and transmission mounts that quell untoward vibrations). Other small improvements include low rolling-resistance tires, an ‘on-demand’ power steering pump, slipperier bearings and improved tumble flow control on the air coming into the combustion chambers. Bentley North America President and CEO, Christophe Georges, tells Autoblog that start/stop technology was considered, but in order to make a self-imposed deadline of 2014, they had to take a pass.
Add it all up, and you get 500 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 487 pound feet of torque from 1,700 to 5,000 rpm. That’s just 67 horses and 29 torques shy of the much larger W12. Bentley says that the power deficit works out to a 0-60 time of 4.6 seconds – 0.2 seconds longer than that of the Conti that’s playing the dozen. Top speed also tumbles by 10 mph to 188, but out in the real world, we suspect you won’t notice a difference in performance. What you will notice, however, is the V8’s far more assertive vocals. Bentley’s W12 is many things – surprisingly compact, robust and power-packed, but it’s never been the most sonorous of engines. Bentley is positioning the V8 as a sportier alternative for new and younger buyers (where have we heard that before?), and it should deliver – it simply sounds much more engaging than the W12 thanks to a different intake and an exhaust with an asymmetric muffler on the left-hand side that uses switchable “clappers” to vary sound levels.
We had the chance to sample the Conti V8 hardtop in Logroño, Spain at the Circuito de Navarra, a freshly minted 2.4-mile road course, as well as over the local roads where the big GT could unwind over long straights, shrugging off the unseasonably cold weather (low-to-mid 30s) and biting winds. And while nobody is going to confuse this Brit with something out of Hethel, Bentley’s engineers have done a bang-up job ramping up this car’s engagement.
In order to accommodate the new V8 and gearbox, changes had to be made to the body-in white. With a different engine hanging over the front axle changing the car’s weight balance (now 51/49 front-to-rear), Bentley went ahead and completely reworked the suspension, with V8-specific spring rates, bushings, shock tuning and special programming for the air suspension system. Combined with slightly smaller anti-roll bars and a unique front differential, the all-wheel drive seems slightly more resistant to understeer and turn-in feels demonstrably quicker. At the end of the day, this is still a 5,000-pound heavyweight with all-wheel drive, so tighter turns coupled with too much entry speed will see the Bentley push predictably wide, but the net-net is a more tossable car with road manners that are every bit as polished as those of the W12 – even riding on the optional 21-inch tuning-fork alloys seen here.
We also had the chance to sample a GTC V8 convertible on the open road, but due to the unseasonably cold weather and driving winds, we left the insulated soft top fixed above our heads. The V8’s burlier growl was clearly more vocal through the drophead’s canvas lid, but it wasn’t annoying – on the contrary, we cursed the uncooperative conditions and longed for top-down driving to better hear the V8’s bellow. The W12’s strengths are still here in spades – effortless power across the tachometer, disciplined ride and soaking luxury. It even felt like the paddle shifters were a skosh more responsive than in the V12.
Interior changes to the V8 are limited to items like a cloth headliner and pillar trim borrowed from the GTC along with a shorter rear center console, a single front armrest and Dark Fiddleback Eucalyptus wood (so named because the timber was popular for use in stringed instruments). For a fee, Bentley will tweak the cabin any way you want, and most every option available on the W12 will be on the table for the V8 as well, including the carbon-ceramic brakes that we had at our disposal for track work.
Presumably, when one acquires the sort of financial gravitas capable of affording The Bentley Lifestyle, thrift isn’t foremost in one’s mind. And despite an impressive 40 percent improvement in fuel efficiency (and thus, emissions), we don’t see this car softening disapproving stares from the hemp clothing set. Official EPA numbers aren’t in yet, but Bentley says drivers could see up to around 24 miles per gallon (the W12 posts city/highway scores of 12/19 and we’ve seen real-world figures a Cheney cackle removed from single digits in that car), so the V8 figures to be a major upgrade. In the face of these massive improvements, one might begin to wonder if Bentley is planning to phase out the W12. On the contrary, the automaker says that it believes many buyers sleep better at night knowing they’ve got 12 cylinders underhood. As a result, Georges promises “we will continue to invest [in] and develop the W12.”
Bentley officials are understandably keen to promote this car’s freshly greened credentials, and it’s hard to blame them, but we think that prospective buyers will be more interested in this car’s newfound range – the V8 manages over 500 miles between premium fill-ups, while the W12 could only managed about 300.
Better range, better handling, better sound and more money left in the proverbial Swiss bank account. Let the profligates flaunt their black-badged GTs – the Continental to have is the one brandishing the Red Badge of Courage.
Engine: Twin-Turbo 4.0L V8
Power: 500 HP / 487 LB-FT
Transmission: 8-Speed Auto
0-60 Time: 4.6 Seconds
Top Speed: 188 MPH
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 5,060 LBS
Cargo: 12.6 CU-FT
MPG: 15 City / 24 HWY
MSRP: $171,000 est.