2013 Bentley Continental GT first drive, Madrid

2013 Bentley Continental GT first drive, Madrid

Whenever I land in a strange place for one of these first drives of a new car, the first task at hand is to keep moving. Get off the plane, off the shuttle, and get out of the hotel room before jet lag lures me for "a short nap" and proceeds to take the rest of the day--the rest of the trip--hostage. I use my luggage as a human shield, dodging in quickly and walking right back out for at least an hour, to try to get some context, and some sunshine, because body clocks work better when they're on local time.

When last I tried this, in stunning Croatia, where last we left Bentley's GTC in the embrace of a late warm fall day, I didn't evade the gravitational pull of the pillow quite as neatly. You'd be surprised how many Croatian TV stations stop broadcasting after 2 a.m.

Today's context: Madrid. Spain's in something close to a depression, but the economic exuberance of the past 20 years, the relics of breakneck gentrification, are in full flourish. Magnificently restored old buildings butt up against wide boulevards that wouldn't look out of place in the Texas Metroplex, and Madrid's absolutely littered with arcane pieces of public art that make you find an un-busy corner, to stop and wonder what creative influences and substances were at work. Something as handcrafted as a three-story Calderesque mobile in a hotel is mundane in today's Madrid. Art as a commodity is its own art form.

Why Bentley would choose Madrid and northern Spain to launch its new V-8-powered Continental, on one of the most brutally cold days I've ever felt in a Mediterranean climate, isn't immediately obvious. It only begins to make sense as I lock in on the fifteenth or twentieth modernist sculpture, perched between fits and starts of amazing graffiti. Like these works of public art, Bentleys "pop"--stand out crisply--and the image shifts by gradients along with their surroundings. On a winding lane and a half in Britain, they're the jewels left in the crown, unhocked. In Orange County they could be taxis, so prevalent in gated communities, choking off easy exits from big Starbucks parking lots.

Here in Spain, the clash between Bentley's classic design language and ultramodern details and technology is welcomed warmly. Despite their dramatic ultra-luxury stance, so bullish and big, the Continental GT V8 and its companion GTC convertible fit in here, even more so where we're headed eventually--the Circuito de Navarra test track, and the Marques de Riscal hotel, a Gehry-designed bauble that in my sleep-deprived state, looks something like a rhythmic gymnastics tournament if it were held during the Northridge earthquake.


Hotel Marques de Riscal, Spain

Hotel Marques de Riscal, Spain

Available in both coupe and convertible body styles, the new V-8 in the Continental makes 500 horsepower and 487 pound-feet of torque. Coupled to a new eight-speed automatic and standard all-wheel drive, it's remarkable for a few reasons. One, despite being down anywhere from 44 to 131 horsepower against the W-12 that still bears the Continental standard, it's only a few tenths shy of the twelve's acceleration numbers -- 4.6 seconds from 0 to 60 mph, versus 4.3 seconds, according to Bentley's figures.

The new drivetrain also delivers 500 miles of driving range on a tank of premium unleaded fuel, and ekes out 40 percent better mileage than the 2008 Continental GT--18/26 mpg or thereabouts, if the EPA cycle holds true. How it gets there is a combination of cylinder deactivation, direct injection, and lower internal friction--along with the extra gears in the transmission, which can also drop down four gears in a single change, if so called for.

2013 Bentley Continental GT first drive, Madrid

2013 Bentley Continental GT first drive, Madrid

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.