The numbers, put into perspective
The new Bentley Continental GT V-8 is 55 pounds lighter than the W-12.
That's good, but not great. At least, the weight was removed where it matters most: on top of the front wheels.
At 27.0 mpg (on the European test cycle), it is 40 percent more economical.
Sensational! In real life, however, this gain is not easily reproduced when your right foot outweighs the responsibility side of your brain.
The V8 is 75 hp less powerful and 30 lb-ft less torquey than the W12.
So what? 500 hp and 516 pound-feet should still suffice.
It also is 0.2 second slower off the mark than the 6.0-liter version.
4.8 seconds instead of 4.6? We can live with that.
The top speed is a slightly more restrained 188 mph.
On paper, that's 11 mph less stinking fast than the twelve-cylinder car. On the road, the difference is immaterial.
It is about 10 percent less expensive.
Ten percent? One gets a ten percent discount on a W-12 without even trying. Ten percent is peanuts considering the loss of four cylinders and 2000cc of displacement.
So why go for the eight? To placate a green conscience? To save the earth? To look more responsible in the golf club parking lot? There is not even a V-8 badge on the thing.
It's raining cats and dogs, but the weather does not matter when former world rally champion Juha Kankkunen is at the wheel and we're at the start-finish line at Britain's Silverstone raceway. "It is a very well balanced car," states the Finn, who spoke even fewer words over last night's dinner. Kankkunen chooses a very strange line. A couple of heartbeats later I know why: we are only allowed to use a tiny section of the track, right-left-right, and then back into the pits. Time to swap seats. They're trimmed in two-tone full leather with diamond stitching and alloy pedals that shout Mulliner Driving package. The base car comes with monochromatic hide plus a fabric headliner and pillar trim. (Cloth in a Bentley!) Not to mention the dark eucalyptus veneer that is about as symmetrical as the wings of a peacock moth and a peacock butterfly. Or the emphatically unluxurious rear bench seat. Or the limited choice of only four leather colors. Oh dear, oh dear.
Juha's verbal quota for the day appears to have expired -- or not. "Brake!" he says not a moment too late. I do, the ABS snarls, the pads judder, the abused Pirellis lean on their ragged shoulders, and somehow we scrub off enough excess speed just in time, veering way past where the apex might have been, and onto the back straight with two simultaneous sighs of relief. Our dark blue car is a mule wearing license plates that read PROTOTYPE, perhaps to avoid disappointment. Fresh tires would have been nice. Complete laps would have been nice. Less understeer would have been nice. No point to grumble. Instead, I try again, remembering to brake early, turn in early, be ginger with the throttle, and unwind lock early to let the big barge float wide until it kisses the red-and-white curbing. After five laps, I begin to imagine that I can actually feel the 55 pounds that no longer rest on the car's still overweight front end. After ten laps, I am certain I can. Of course, Juha has known this all along. "It is a very well balanced car," he repeats.
Out on the street
Later, we're allowed to take the Conti GT V8 on public roads -- for 29 miles from Silverstone to Blenheim and back. It's not the most challenging route, but is probably in sync with the buyers' typical turf: neatly sealed blacktop garnished with a bit of royal gravel close to home. The track experience was a bit of an anti-climax. After all, a 55-pound weight loss is not enough to alter the fortress-like character of a car that still tips the scales at 5060 pounds even after its spa treatment. On real roads, however, the Bentley's noble portliness does not matter that much. Full acceleration is still amazing, hard deceleration is no problem thanks to the biggest disc-and-caliper combination this side of a Bugatti Veyron, and cornering is sufficiently inspired that my fellow-journalist passenger keeps reaching for the imaginary grab handle. In essence, the V8 does everything right. Let me rephrase that: it actually exceeds our expectations.
Although the British V-8 is a chip off the same block Audi installs in the S8, it sounds so much better in the Bentley, it is cradled more expertly by the dynamic hydraulic engine mounts, and it instantly clicks with the speedy eight-speed transmission not available with the W-12 engine.
The V-8 hammers home the message that there is work to be done on the W-12. Equipped with cylinder deactivation, a low-friction valve train, direct-injection, high-pressure 2.2-bar turbocharging, a free-flow intake and exhaust system, a high-efficiency intercooler, and two twin-scroll turbos, the V-8 is now the undisputed state-of-the-art Bentley powerplant. But it is worth noting that 16 percent out of the 40 percent increase in overall efficiency is due to non-engine-related items like the eight-speed automatic, the variable-rate power steering, and the low rolling resistance tires.
After 15 miles on a boring divided highway, we decide to get lost on a series of back roads where locking the gearbox in fourth dishes up a tasty torque menu that serves 487 pound-feet from 1700 to 5000 rpm. Alternatively, you can work the shift paddles to keep the engine revving between 4000 and 6300 rpm, where the power and torque curves approach, intersect and then run almost parallel to the limiter.
No, we did not miss the W-12 that day, not for one moment. The new V-8 makes its bigger, heavier and thirstier brother obsolete, at least until the twelve-cylinder reappears in upgraded direct-injection form. That's the good news. The bad news is the real-life fuel consumption of the 4.0-liter unit. "I drove from Crewe to Silverstone on the motorway, and I averaged 28.4 mpg," claims Brian Gush, grandmaster of Bentley's powertrain department. But with a series of corners ahead of us, with no traffic and no radar trap in sight, and with the mindset in its most dynamic position, our on-board computer displayed a notably less frugal average of 15.5 mpg after two hours.
Is it worth it?
It sounds great. It goes well. It handles with almost the same aplomb as a Supersport. It arguably looks even better than the W-12 thanks to the more aggressive front bumper, the black matrix grille, the stylish figure-eight tailpipes, and the new two-tone 21-inch wheels. It sports an entertaining rear-biased 40:60 torque split and a faster transmission that can even perform multi-gear downshifts. Most important, perhaps, the Continental GT V-8 will reward eco-minded drivers with socially more acceptable and financially more digestible fuel bills. But because of the bulk and the mass that make every modern Bentley such a monolithic monster of an automobile, the virtues of the sophisticated new engine pale as soon as the driver drops the hammer. And when a however cautiously decontented, potential fuel miser costs almost as much as its fully equipped, twelve-cylinder stablemate, there is a distinct danger that its somewhat relative efficiency claims won't mean much against the image bonus conferred by its top-spec sibling.