Our motoring man sinks into the deep leather and pile carpet of the Bentley Continental GT V8 Convertible
Review by Marc Stickley
It’s a big name for a big car, but as the baby of the Bentley range, the Continental GT could be viewed as entry level to this luxury automobile club. However, as tested, the Continental GT V8 Convertible weighs in at £180,000 – it may be the baby, but this is no entry level. Perhaps think of it as the first rung on an elevated ladder…
Around the GT V8 Convertible sits the rest of the Continental range – for more shove, try the GT V8S with 520 bhp, the GT its 590 bhp 6.0 litre W12, or the 633 bhp GT Speed, each with corresponding reductions in economy, but probably increased driving satisfaction. The ultimate incarnation, perhaps not sitting as comfortably in the range is the slightly bonkers GT3-R – inspired by the GT3 racing Bentley, the GT3-R will be on limited production and has added lightness, power and would suit the Bentley Boys of today. Most are available with or without a roof – the GT3-R is a pseudo-racer and comes as a tin top only – but all exemplify the values of Bentley – luxury and performance. With regards to the other Bentleys in the range, fellow Riddler Andy recently drove the new Mulsanne limousine at its launch, with the Flying Spur sitting just beneath that car in terms of size, but with more of a performance focus. The new Bentayga sees Bentley foray into the SUV segment – but at the top end, with (or more likely above) the mere Range Rovers of this world. So the Continental is the smallest Bentley, the sexy coupe, the sports focus and if there is such a thing, the entry level Bentley.
The V8 Convertible is still a sizeable car – it looks distinguished from the outside, that distinctive and handsome front end, with the evocative Flying B motif and LED-bejewelled headlights, moving gracefully towards the sculpted rear arches and boot. Up top, there is a fabric roof (a really nice fabric roof), which raises and lowers at the touch of a button, stowing behind the rear seats with no impact on what luggage space there is. Yes, there are rear seats. Well, they’re there and you can use them, but as my seven and eight year olds will testify, there isn’t a huge amount of space. You would need to have short friends – and not take up much space behind the wheel yourself – to do any boulevard cruising in the Continental Convertible four up. Luggage space is there – you can get a couple of large suitcases in the boot, or one suitcase and several holdalls – what more would you need for a Continental GT continental break for two? Well, a nice place to spend that time cruising would be good and an involving drive would also be nice – this isn’t a Bentley to be chauffeured in (unless your wheel man is Oddjob and you’re Tom Cruise).
So, to the inside. Ah, the inside… I’ll get to the driving part in due course, but when you slide behind the wheel and survey your driving domain, you can tell where a goodly part of that significant outlay has gone. The beautifully trimmed dashboard, wonderfully comfortable and supportive seats, that folding convertible roof, your feet are absorbed into the luxurious pile carpet. The details in the Breitling clock, the push press vent controls (think cafetière on the horizontal) the Mulliner spec car gaining knurled controls and diamond quilted leather for the seats and door trims. Hang on though, as the infotainment screen loses its Bentley welcome, it seems a little familiar. Has someone transplanted my wife’s Golf’s screen into its distant cousin? They are very alike, the Bentley just distancing itself by transplanting the knurled effect of the actual cockpit controls to the touch screen’s sliders. It’s a minor point, but feels a bit parts-bin raid to me. You get reversing cameras, acoustic warnings, seat cooling and heating, an air-scarf for your neck – for when the top’s down and you’re pushing on – and a host of other goodies. It certainly is a luxuriously appointed place to be, but not overly spacious, given the size of the car.
Start the engine and there’s little to let on that you’re in a performance car. I reckon there is a fair amount of lining on the underside of that big bonnet – engine noise is not a common feature in the cabin. Snick the auto-box into gear – the good people at ZF have donated their 8 speed to the Conti GT – and pull away. Big car. Still silent. VERY expensive. Gulp. Ok, I survived the initial 10m and began to explore the Big B’s driving traits. It is a big car – more at home on the motorway than my local B-roads, but the effortless power and torque from that twin turbo 4.0 litre V8, coupled to all wheel drive, moves you along securely. So far, so luxury. Where’s the sporting presence? Well, stand by… Push the throttle into the deep carpet and you’d better be ready. Jekyll. And. Hyde. You knew Bentley did luxury, but you’d possibly forgotten they did sports. Well, first off, the V8 let’s you know it’s there. Not in an uncouth American muscle car way, but with an off-beat woofle – it sounds like distant artillery, but if you try to outrun it, it just gets louder. Apparently sound deadening can only do so much… You can’t spend too long appreciating the aural delights though – the drivetrain has done its thing and converted that 500bhp and 487 lb ft (that’s a lot – both times) into traction and walloping the two and a half tonne Bentley towards the next bend, or the horizon whichever comes first. This you do not get tired of. Effortless thrust, grip from that all wheel drive and while the big car doesn’t quite shrink around you, you feel confident to push on. But you will run out of road, so you’ll need to apply some stopping power. Gulp again. Remember that two odd tonnes? Well, that, coupled with the luxurious feeling of detachment impaired by the engineers at Crewe, means you don’t quite feel the deceleration in the same way you experience that thrust. In fact, a couple of times it felt downright scary – it’s slowing, your eyes can see that, but it doesn’t feel like it is. There isn’t a perceptible dive forward, you aren’t held in your belts, as if the same powers that attempted to defy physics in flinging this considerable beast down the road, now want to cocoon you from the inevitable reversing of those forces. Weird. Of course, as you’ve hit the brakes, the V8 isn’t singing, so all is quiet again. It’s a bit like the Bjork hit It’s Oh So Quiet…
The detached sensation wasn’t reserved for braking. It’s not the most responsive or feedback heavy helm. You do feel isolated from the grubby business of driving. Given the target customer base of Bentley, perhaps that is to be expected. WAGS and millionaires can’t all be racing drivers – although with Bentley’s performance heritage (the Bentley Boys? Le Mans? No? Trust me, they’ve got form), you might expect a touch more focus – perhaps this is the reserve of the Speed and GT3-R. The Conti GT will go and stop like a super-mini, but better, harder, faster. It just doesn’t need you to be sweating to do it. Span continents in the Continental and you’ll emerge unruffled. A good job, because you don’t have that much luggage space. 240 litres is about on a par with a VW Polo, but that luxury roof needs to fold somewhere and you probably didn’t bring rear passengers, so there are options to bring a few changes of clothes and maybe restrict shoe carriage to a few pairs of Louboutins?
Despite the goading of that engine noise, I did restrict myself to only a few unleashed moments. Accordingly, for my several hundred mile round trip, across country lanes, a school pick up (that impressed my kids!) and a motorway trip – four up with bags in the boot – I returned an impressive 20.1mpg and had a third of a tank to still play with. If you were on a Grand Tour, that mpg would rise and your range might just allow the crossing of at least a small country without a fuel stop. When you do stop, all that hardware takes some cooling – a raft of fans and motors spring into action to return the beast to normal. Defying physics clearly creates some by products.
So what have we got with the Bentley Continental GT V8 Convertible? Well, a car of contradictions: it’s big, but not spacious. It certainly isn’t slow, but you can’t feel all the power or too many of the details as you move down the road. It’s soooo luxurious, but has little details that whisper of cost saving (the touch screen from VW). Yet at £154,400 basic, it’s not cheap. Neither were the £26,100 of options fitted to “my” test car, but they definitely added to the experience – including the Naim sound system – and if you’re in the market for this type of luxury, you’re going to splash out on the options to make the car more individual. Despite the size and speed and that glorious V8 woofle, it’s pretty economical and would definitely suit the eponymous Grand Touring title – for two up, luxury cruising across continents – the Continental would do very nicely indeed. I’ll take mine in British Racing Green please.