Continental GT: Wild Side of Bentley

By Lee Pang Seng
THE Bentley Continental is the two-door version that panders to the elite strata hankering for some sporty drives. As it usually weighs more than two tonnes, matching even the large SUVs, few would imagine that the Continental would be almost as much fun to drive as smaller size and nimbler sports cars about half its weight.

We had the pleasure of gaining that experience late last year at the Changi Exhibition Centre in Singapore when Bentley introduced the latest model to the Continental range, the GT (Grand Tourer) Speed, to the region. While we also had a drive in the flagship Mulsanne, it was the Continental (both the GT V8 and Speed) that took our breath away.

As we have had the thoroughly enjoyable experience of driving the Toyota GT 86 fast and in a highly dynamic way in Germany earlier, it served as the benchmark to put the Continental against. And we were not disappointed. The Continental may have all the trappings of a premium class car but it wouldn’t lose out too much against ‘lesser’ rivals, that is, if its owner wishes to drive it that hard!

The Bentley folks clearly wanted to prove a point: elite sports cars are not merely macho eye candy. They can measure up to the extreme driving demands when required and they are fully capable of being dynamical stable and predictable in adverse situations. After driving both Continentals through slaloms, corners of varying degrees at a gallop, quick steering manoeuvres in accident avoidance exercises, among other demanding routines, we have gained new respect for such cars.

First, let’s see what the Continental GT V8 and Speed are all about. These are the two-door coupé offerings from Bentley, with hardtop and convertible variants. The GT V8 was introduced earlier to drum up fresh interest in elite sporty driving, while the Speed with the W12 engine was unveiled towards mid-2012 for those who simply wanted more.

The GT V8 is powered by a 4.0-little muscle house with modern-day trappings: each bank has double overhead camshafts with cam phasing and four valves per cylinder. The block is aluminium alloy and the crankshaft and conrods are forged steel units. Fuel feed is via direct injection with two parallel twin-scroll turbochargers and indirect intercooling.

The engine is undersquare in configuration with a long 89mm stroke against 84.5mm bore to displace 3993cc. Power is punchy with 373kW (500bhp) at 6000rpm and loads of torque at 660Nm from 1700rpm! With the introduction of engine management systems, four cylinders, valves and fuel feed are electronically deactivated under light load so that better fuel mileage can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.

As for the W12 in the GT Speed, its unusual arrangement is brought about by combining two V6 engines so that a ‘W’ configuration is formed. VW first introduced this engine to the flagship Phaeton but lukewarm response saw the model being discontinued. As Bentley now comes under the VW banner, the W12 engine is rejuvenated for this elite brand, with which it is more likely to be accepted as an exclusive measure of prestigious power.

There may be some similarity in technical areas between the V8 and W12, such as the metals used for the engine block and internals, and the cylinder head design but the latter has its own merits. It is even more of an undersquare in configuration with a 90.2mm stroke and 84mm bore to displace 5998cc, although the compression ratio is slightly lower at 9.0:1.

Fuel feed is port injection while twin parallel turbocharger with indirect cooling system is retained. Apart from petrol, it can also run on E85 ethanol. Needless to say, the power delivered is higher at 460kW (616bhp) at 6000rpm and 800Nm from 2000rpm. Both engines are served by a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission with the same ratios and final drive.

The car’s performance easily takes one’s breath away: the GT V8 does 0-100km/h in 4.8 seconds and 0-160km/h in 11.1 seconds, while the GT Speed does the respective sprints in 4.2 and 9.0 seconds, although the kerb weight difference between them is not significant at 25kg (2295kg against 2320). The top speed is 303km/h and 330km/h respectively. The GT V8’s fuel range, based on the standard 90-litre tank, is claimed at 857km for presumably ‘normal’ driving while there is no mention of that for the GT Speed.

Changi Drive
Technical drivel aside, it’s the drive that worked its magic better in experiencing the thrill of driving these elite coupés. We started with the GT V8 as it was better to start from the bottom up rather than the other way round. Besides we were drawn towards the strong guttural exhaust note on acceleration that was so characteristic of a V8.

We were accommodated three to a car, including a co-driver to guide us through the various routines. We might be close to 2.4 tonnes with the passenger load but the V8 showed no lack of initial pace, with the exhaust roar adding to the excitement of the drive.

The first routine was to hit the brakes hard after full acceleration through the first four gears. The stretch was long enough for us to hit 190km/h before slamming hard on the brake pedal and letting go of the steering wheel. It was Bentley’s way of showing us how the car’s management would take over to slow the car effectively, even from high speed, without squirrelling all over. It stopped dead and true, and over a relatively short distance for the given speed.

The next routine was a brake and turn exercise, this time to demonstrate the ABS’s effectiveness in braking hard and steering away from colliding with whatever was in front. The key point again was its weight: we didn’t feel it as we did the manoeuvre. It was not much different from doing the same with a far lighter car.

We loved the slalom section: we could pilot the car through at a respectable pace before entering a series of corners. The first was designed to induce oversteer while the latter brought out the understeer. We could drift the rear slightly through the first even though the Continental GT is a permanent four-wheel drive.

But the second corner was a handful, despite giving our all to slow the GT V8 before entering the bend. We couldn’t slow it fast enough and understeered through the set cones, twice. We were allowed two runs each, and the benefit of foresight from the earlier run didn’t help.
The final routine was a sudden yank of the steering wheel on initial acceleration to avoid hitting someone dashing onto the road, especially a kid. Such sudden avoidance action tends to upset the car’s yaw rate. Under normal circumstances, this can cause the vehicle to fishtail as its body veers to either side sharply and car control is lost.

With the ESP (electronic stability program) fully in control, the sudden weight transfer was evened out among the four wheels through braking and suspension compensation. The Continental GT comes with self-levelling air suspension to assist the double wishbone front and multi-link rear, and anti-roll bars front and rear. The manoeuvre was done at about 60km/h but it remains a fact that at this speed, it can still maim or kill. Needless to say, the GT V8 passed the ‘test’.

With the GT Speed W12, we did the first routine at just above 200km/h. The carbon-fibre brakes, similarly to those used in Formula One, stopped this Continental within expectations and over a similar distance. It continued to impress through the other routines, especially the cornering section. The better brakes slowed the GT Speed quick enough for us to steer the Continental through without heavy understeer forcing the car wide.

We took the car through the final section a few times, especially with the ESP turned off (it is quite a hassle switching it off as Bentley doesn’t recommend it). We could feel the rear wanting to let go but the suspension was well set up to accommodate such extreme dynamics and allowed us to regain control quickly. Perhaps, it would be more of a handful at a higher speed and that’s where letting the ESP do its work would help greatly.

The Continental may belong to the million-ringgit club but should either model be required to perform under extreme conditions, we are fully convinced that they would deliver.

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