2013 Bentley Continental GT first drive, MadridEnlarge Photo
What's the big difference with the smaller-displacement engine? Press the start button, and the V-8 clears its throat with a heartwarming exhaust rumble that's almost American, in the best, highest sense, the result of careful tuning. At low speeds, only half the cylinders are working, and specially developed engine mounts make sure the serene Bentley driving experience isn't caught without its makeup on--no shudders or vibrations make it through the wheel or pedals.
That's something discovered only after chartering into the tiny Logrono airport north of Madrid, in Navarra province, next door to Basque country. With a blustery wind at our backs, our group launched a trio of Continentals on the track with instructors on hand to point out the double-apexes and full-throttle points, and then to show off how it's really done.
What the GT V8 does on the track is nothing short of astounding. Once you've recalibrated for its curb weight and four-passenger capability, the Continental GT V8 feels effortless in straight-line speed, scrubbing it off with right-now insistence through optional carbon-ceramic brakes, bending progressively into corners once you've set the dynamic dampers to sport mode--which also tightens the steering and quickens the shift responses. The loss of more than 50 pounds of weight off the front end with the lighter V-8 is noticeable, and welcome.
Paddle shifters clicking away, we dug deeper into Circuito de Navarra's skinniest corners, took expert advice and put the hammer down on here, and there, and there, and let the Conti drift lightly over a high-speed rise. The all-wheel-drive system gets all the credit here, for making this hefty linebacker behave with grace. A Torsen differential lets it modulate power splits from the basic 40:60 setup, and stability control cuts in, all combining to produce a feat of physics that's akin to Ndamukong Suh winning the Australian Open.
One minor complaint: the shift paddles are fixed on the column, and though they're long, they're not quite long enough to put them at hand at all times. Some cornering leaves you out of touch with them for brief moments.
Spotters will pick out the V8 for subtle changes, but it's hardly distinguishable from a distance to the more expensive $205,000 Continental GT W-12. The badges are enameled red; the grille is black, with a vertical chromed spline splitting it in half; the exhaust tips are figure-eights; and the front air dam has angled body-color buttresses--on W-12s, the same pieces angle outward. The 20-inch alloy wheels on V8 Continentals can be sized up to 21 inches, and finished in gloss black. The cabin gets available two-tone leather and eucalyptus, and the center console stops behind the front seats, rather than extending between the rear seats.
The usual raft of custom touches applies. Seventeen paint and leather trims can be combined with two-tone interior treatments and convertible top colors. The Naim audio system is available here too, and the navigation's beautiful, big LCD screen is the same.
It's a fittingly luxurious cabin, so comfortable and compliant that it's easy for passengers to nod off on the long, unwinding roads leading to the small airport where charters ship us back out, to big hub airports, back to drudgery. Back to places where very public pieces of art like this one still stand out, and still deserve a pause.