Bentley Continental takes muscle way upscale

With wide haunches and a deep, throaty exhaust note, the Bentley Continental GT V8 S Convertible comes off as a muscle car for the wealthy.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
6 min read

In the world of money-is-no-object motoring, Ferrari and Lamborghini vie for the title of ultimate sports car, and Rolls-Royce holds the crown for luxury. So what of Bentley? Where does it fit into this world of cars that easily top $200,000?

After a weekend in the 2014 Bentley Continental GT V8 S Convertible, I say Bentley makes muscle cars for the high-flying set.

With its Sports Exhaust option, the Continental GT V8 S's engine let forth a deep, bass growl worthy of a '67 Chevy Impala SS whenever I hit the gas. The ability to drop the rag-top enhanced the exhaust note. Strong wheel arches and wide rear fenders called out the 21-inch wheels. Round headlights evoked 1960s design.

Bentley Continental GT V8 S ripples its muscles (pictures)

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Although making do with Bentley's smaller engine, the Continental GT V8 S delivered complete satisfaction behind the wheel. At only four liters, this engine comes in under the six-liter V-12 offered in the Continental and standard in the Mulsanne . However, twin turbos packed into the engine's V, one for each bank of cylinders, along with direct injection and valve timing, bring output to 521 horsepower and 502 pound-feet of torque.

That power gets delivered to all four wheels, in a 40:60 split between front and rear axles, through a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission. The Continental GT V8 S is a recipe for high speed and excellent handling. At the same time, it proved eminently drivable, able to cruise comfortably in traffic without power surges or lag.

In Ice, as Bentley called the white paint on the Continental GT V8 S, with a black cloth top, the car should have lacked ostentation. Further, the exterior body eschewed extensive jewelry, an automotive designer term for reflectors, lenses, and other brightwork. The headlights merely sat in body-colored sheet-metal holes, while the black-painted grille seemed to hide from notice.

It looks incredible, but the Continental GT V8 S will win you over by its driving dynamics alone.

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Despite this seeming attempt to hide from the public eye, the Continental GT V8 S drew admiring looks, waves, honks, and more than a few offers to swap cars as I drove it. The car exudes a subtle magnetism, and serves as a lesson for designers that an artistically molded body is worth more than a cargo ship full of chrome.

Looks of envy turned to downright jealousy when passerbys got to look in the cabin, a view afforded by the open top. There I was, sitting on two-tone diamond-quilted leather and beautiful brightwork, an area of the car where the designers shook off the subtle notes of the exterior for high quality natural materials. High gloss wood trim usually looks plasticky to me, in even expensive sedans from Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, but the Continental GT V8 S' dashboard panels looked as solid as a Chippendale bureau.

I should caution those who can actually afford the Continental GT V8 S that an open top on a sunny day and beautifully polished brightwork can lead to painfully hot buttons, as I found when I had to put the top back up. Oh the poor, suffering fingers of the rich and famous.

The Continental GT V8 S boasts room for four on thick leather with fine stitching.

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The Breitling clock set into the dashboard is certainly a step up from the mere digital display in an average car, but one thing that showed me how the Continental GT V8 S was superior to every car I have owned was the rear view mirror. Looking into this rectangular glass was like seeing the world behind me in HD. The crystal clear reflected image showed just one aspect of the attention to detail Bentley craftsmen gave this car.

Squealing tires

As much as the coachwork made merely sitting in the Continental GT V8 S a sublime experience, the real joy came in firing up the engine and heading down the road. I mentioned the wonderful growl of the engine. That sound was coupled with smooth, powerful, and effortless acceleration. Bentley cites a figure of 4.5 seconds to 60 mph. Rather than throw me violently against the seat when I hit the gas, the Continental GT V8 S moved its bulk forward with the inexorability of an ocean liner.

Although I had previously experienced the 616 horsepower of the six-liter W-12 in the Bentley GT Speed Convertible , I hardly felt deprived by the lesser power of the Continental GT V8 S.

The big shifter for the eight-speed automatic makes for a centerpiece on the console.

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The big stick of the shifter serves as legacy ornamentation, another surface to place the B badge, since the eight-speed automatic uses electronic controls. A Sport slot in the gate for that shifter kept the engine running a little faster, with the power just a little more ready at the throttle.

On a twisty road I couldn't feasibly drive the car fast enough to get the Sport transmission program up to its most aggressive point, so relied on the paddle shifters, holding second gear for the tight turns. Bentley's specifications say this ZF transmission changes gears in 800 milliseconds, which was fast enough for my purposes.

Even with the Pirelli P Zero rubber squealing in the turns, I was a little too isolated from the road to feel the all-wheel-drive system adjust its torque between front and rear. As with other Bentleys, this big convertible featured an adaptive air suspension with four settings, from Comfort to Sport. Switching across the range, I did not find a vast difference in ride quality. Even in Comfort mode, the suspension didn't wallow or feel particularly soft. Using a torsional measure, Bentley's press materials say the Continental GT V8 S is the most rigid convertible in the world.

From the driver's seat, the car felt nonplussed by the turns, the steering offering me an easy point-and-shoot response.

The Sport Exhaust option delivers a big, throaty growl under acceleration.

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While the Continental GT V8 S showed plenty of grip and handling prowess, I felt that it lacked much feeling in the steering. And, something I have noted in previous Bentleys, the car made switching suspension settings far too complicated. Pushing a button on the console brought up the settings on the touchscreen, where I could push buttons at either end of the Comfort to Sport scale to adjust the ride. A better approach would be to make the console button toggle through the various settings, with visual feedback on the LCD.

Electronic potential

Speaking of the touchscreen, I was disappointed to find laggardly response, far inferior to what I am used to with a tablet. Since a typical Bentley owner probably hands out iPads for Christmas, the cabin electronics could be a sticking point.

The system in the Continental GT V8 S relies on an 8-inch touchscreen for its interface and comprises stereo, navigation, and hands-free phone system. The example I was driving happened to be a European spec car, so there may well be some differences for the US models. However, I cannot imagine the touchscreen response time improving.

For US customers, Bentley promises the same kind of Google Earth integration into the navigation system as found in corporate sibling Audi models. That means satellite imagery of the terrain through which you are driving. I only had the basic system maps, stored on a 30GB hard drive, to view.

Bentley will offer Google Earth integration, with satellite imagery displayed, for navigation.

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The navigation system got me to my destinations, but I got a little worried when it directed me onto a surface street of a particularly bad neighborhood, when I knew of a nearby freeway that would have made for a faster, and safer, route.

Being a brand of the Volkswagen Group, I knew that plugging iPhone into the stereo would involve a long reach into the glove compartment, and require Apple's 30-pin to Lightning adapter. The placement of this connector is very poor if you want to connect up your iPhone, although if you can afford a Bentley, you can most certainly afford an iPod just for the car.

The Lightning adapter's cheap digital-analog converter did not let the music playing through the Naim audio system in the Continental GT V8 S shine with the glory of which it was surely capable. This 11-speaker system gets a 900-watt amp; and having heard similar Naim systems in Bentleys playing from better quality sources, I knew this system could deliver true audiophile sound, with fine detail at every frequency.

With the detail put into the coachwork and the fine audio system in the Continental GT V8 S, it would be nice if Bentley made a better effort for the infotainment system. Although not a traditional area of focus for the luxury car set, Bentley could help to set a new standard. The company can certainly draw on the excellent equipment I have seen in Audi models.

And despite this model using a smaller engine than some of its Continental stablemates, this is no bargain-basement Bentley. The base price for the 2014 Continental GT V8 S Convertible comes to $216,200. A host of options, including massage seats and a power boot lid (trunk, to Americans), added about $30,000 to the total price. The must-have option to my mind is the Sports Exhaust, coming in at $2,480.

All in all, this example of the Continental breed ran $250,665, making it the priciest muscle car I've driven.