NAPA VALLEY, California—You don’t waft along on Skaggs Spring Road. The jaggedy, tree-lined stretch between Geyserville and the Pacific coast is a narrow backroad likelier to see Lotus Elises and Porsche Caymans flinging past than big-boned grand tourers. But here we are hugging curves in the 4,773-pound 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8 coupe, and loving (nearly) every apex. Go figure.
This is the third generation of the model first introduced in 2003, a car that was so crucial to Bentley it effectively re-launched the brand’s post-millennium renaissance. And while the stuffy set might insist the 12-cylinder version is more fundamental to Bentley’s core mission—that being low-revving, high-speed, gently imperturbable long-distance cruising—this twin-turbo V-8 spinoff is arguably the more relevant specimen, one that shakes things up and invites drivers, not wafters, to the Flying B table.
The visual differences are all but inconsequential—quad exhaust pipes, V8 badging, etc. —and the interior is the same lovely space found in the numerically superior top model, replete with an optional three-sided rotating bezel. The feature, unofficially nicknamed the “Toblerone” as a nod to the triangularly packaged Swiss chocolate, swaps between a 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen, a dashboard-matching surface, and three reassuringly analog gauges. We say “reassuring” because the old-school (yet digitally controlled) dials ground the cabin, as do the traditional bullseye vents and organ stop pulls. Definitively untraditional, at least for this brand, is the Continental’s digital instrument panel. It incorporates a customizable speedometer and tach with familiar, Audi-derived switchgear on the steering wheel that call up trip info and Google Earth navigation visuals. The Teutonic connection is no less direct, though perhaps a bit more overt, than in the BMW-owned Rolls-Royce Phantom, which manages to feel a tad more special in its execution. At least we get to keep the compass, exterior temperature, clock, and the cool-to-the-touch air conditioning vents.
All in all, the cabin’s accoutrements have improved leaps and bounds over the last generation Continental, as has the long-awaited and much needed multimedia interface. There are novel touches throughout, such as the 3D-shaped quilted stitching on the door panels and the flat stitching on the seats so the massagers don’t knead uncomfortable peapods into your posterior. Other subtle details include diamond-shaped knurling on the control knobs and the so-called Côtes de Genève machine-turned aluminum trim surfaces that just beg for finger strokes, sort of like the “little scratch on the roof of your mouth . . . you can’t stop tonguing” that Helena Bonham Carter’s character describes in Fight Club. The same can be said for the engine-start button, which ignites the boosted V-8 with a mellow muffle. The engine’s pulse becomes subtly more audible when the drive mode dial is switched from Comfort or Bentley (the brand’s custom tailored setting) to Sport. Shift to drive by nudging the shifter while pressing the ‘B’ on top, and there’s a slightly electronic feel to the proceedings—less mechanical than the prior iteration, but also less Volkswagen Group parts bin. Though the new setup is vastly improved, it isn’t quite perfect. For example, as you move into reverse, there’s a tendency to inadvertently tap the park button when pushing with the palm of your hand.
The 2020 Continental V8’s throttle responds intuitively in all modes, but as you’d expect there is greater immediacy in Sport. Similarly, steering effort can be customized, but in this car lighter is better; the stiffer setup doesn’t convey any more road information and it feels fairly insulated in all settings, anyway. The eight-speed dual-clutch automatic operates efficiently and unobtrusively, especially when the 542-hp V-8 is squeezed hard enough to hit its 568-lb-ft torque peak, a flat-as-the-plains plateau that starts at 1,960 rpm and doesn’t seem to want to quit until the cows come home. Though the V-8 bows to the W-12 in objective supremacy (the 12-banger puts out 626 horsepower and 664 lb-ft), this model is also some 551 pounds lighter than its V8 predecessor, allowing for a zero-to-60-mph run in 3.9 seconds, just three clicks slower than the W-12–powered car.
That acceleration comes with a subtle bass soundtrack and a rather understated whoosh, especially when the double-paned windows are up and the optional 2,200-watt, 18-speaker Naim sound system is muted. Not that it’s an easy choice; the stereo is sublime, and the turbocharged V-8 requires a more careful ear to hear, especially given the questionable sonic authenticity of turbocharged engines these days. While there is concrete evidence of forced induction in the brand’s past (Blower Bentleys, anyone?), in this application the technology reflects less sound and more fury, specifically an engine that’s the highest-revving ever installed in a Bentley, to the tune of 7,000 rpm.
We didn’t see the virtual needle delve beyond the indicated 6,500-rpm redline during our time on the road and were later told the 7,000-rpm limit might be achievable with launch control, which we wish we had tried. But we certainly did flog this Flying B harder than any we’ve ever driven, cracking it through hairpins and sweepers at a pace with an agility that would have been unimaginable in the car’s previous iteration.
There are limits to what a big, heavy car like this can do, especially when equipped with the optional 22-inch wheel package wrapped by hulking hunks of rubber (275/35 front, 315/30 rear). But the laws of physics somehow seem to be partially suspended thanks in part to Bentley’s 48-volt Dynamic Ride system, which is optional in the V-8 and standard in the W-12. The system uses active anti-roll bars in conjunction with a three-chamber air suspension and continuously adjustable dampers to fine-tune the balance between compliance and grip. Add in brake vectoring to help turn-in, and the Continental manages to feel far lither than its spec sheet might suggest. It’s a package that emboldened our driving style on the aforementioned mountain road, giving us confidence to push ever harder into tight corners. And though sporting types might hope for stronger initial bite from the steel brake setup (which can be upped to carbon ceramics), they still pull short stopping distances but smell like toasted brake compound after nasty high-speed tussles through twisty roads—ask us how we know.
Also coming to market is a convertible version of the Conti V8, which can drop the top in 19 seconds at speeds up to 30 mph. Though the wind-in-the-hair sensation is swell, the relatively unturbulent air is still noisy enough to mostly drown out those subtle burbles and bass notes from the V-8. Driving purists, presumably the potentially newest member of Bentley’s growing owner circle, will likely prefer to opt for the lighter and tighter coupe.
While Bentley calls the W-12 version of the Continental “peerless,” the 2020 Bentley Continental V8, with its preferable 55:45 weight distribution, higher-revving powerplant, and shockingly tossable chassis, inspires a counterintuitively vaster array of adjectives. We know which one we’d prefer to take home.
2020 Bentley Continental GT V8 Specifications
|ON SALE||Fall 2019|
|BASE PRICE||coupe, $201,225; convertible, $221,075|
|ENGINE||4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8; 542 hp @ 5,750 rpm, 568 lb-ft @ 1,960 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, AWD coupe or convertible|
|EPA MILEAGE||16/24 mpg (city/hwy, est)|
|L x W x H||190.9 x 77.3–77.4 x 55.1–55.3 in|
|0–60 MPH||3.8–3.9 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||198 mph|