For British automaker Bentley, the name Continental implies Europe, where drivers can log many more miles than the distance between John 'o Groats and Penzance, about as far as you can go in the UK without crossing seas. As such, Bentley designed the 2016 Continental GT V8 S for a trip from Plymouth to Prague, or Barcelona to Rome, likely with a stop in Monaco.
To get some sense of its long-range behavior, I took the 2016 Continental GT V8 S on a run from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and back again, traversing both the long highway and crowded urban centers.
The test brought to light the efficiency of Bentley's powerful V-8 engine, a newer option for the still-available W-12 cylinder, the comfort of its cabin and chassis, and the accuracy of its navigation. And cruising through Los Angeles and San Francisco showed bystanders' reaction to the Continental's subtle styling and can't-ignore-it Monaco Yellow paint job.
Bentley currently offers the Continental in 10 variations, including coupes and convertibles, cruisers and a race-ready edition. The Continental GT V8 S comes in coupe layout, two doors and four seats with a metal roof overhead, and sport tuning. Base price for the Continental GT V8 S comes to $210,000, meaning that if you have to ask, you can't afford it. A mix of styling and other options brought the US example I drove to $257,254.
The ineffable and subtle styling of the Continental looks at once simple yet striking, a lesson for automotive designers everywhere. Unadorned surrounds for headlights and air intakes up front make the car unmistakable, while a few contour lines on the sides give an impression of momentum. The body shows muscle, hinting at the power under the hood.
Superb interior coachwork includes high-quality leather with body-colored stitching and polished metal switchgear. Double-paned glass in the side windows keeps out unwanted noise. Driving the Continental, it felt like I was sitting in an airport's VIP lounge, a much calmer and more relaxing environment than general seating at the gate.
Bringing down the cabin refinement, plastic buttons prevailed for climate control, suspension settings and the navigation head unit.
Seemingly at odds with its nicer appointments, the Continental GT V8 S is essentially a muscle car. When I stepped into the throttle, the twin turbo 4-liter V-8 engine sounded off with a ticking growl, putting 521 horsepower and 502 pound-feet of torque to all four wheels. At over 5,000 pounds, the Continental takes a half second to get itself together, then blasts off the line, pushing you back into its seats.
On Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles and Skyline south of San Francisco, I experienced how that all-wheel-drive system, the Continental's air suspension and its 20-inch Pirellis gave it nimble handling. Dropping the shift lever for the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission into Sport mode kept the engine speed high, making the throttle more responsive, and the electric power steering made for easy, precise turn-in.
The Continental isn't the kind of car you drift around the corners -- its tail stays firmly planted -- instead weight and grip conspire to make hard cornering feel almost casual.
Crawling along in LA and SF traffic, I absorbed a bit of the Continental's panache. While it exudes presence, the subtle styling defused any ire from bystanders that might otherwise be aimed at a peacocking venture capitalist or Hollywood mogul. And the powerful engine proved perfectly manageable, letting me gently throttle off the line or maintain distance from the bumper of the car ahead.
While the Continental's cabin furniture blunted the sting from traffic congestion, the navigation system added its own frustrations. The plastic buttons below the 8-inch touchscreen look pedestrian, not up to the coachwork's caliber, and entering an address or looking up a location revealed the slowness of older generation electronics. I found myself double-tapping buttons when I wasn't rewarded with immediate results. Trying to keep up with the times, Bentley adds an online search feature, shoehorned in with a search button on the map screen, but it wasn't operational in the example I drove and would still suffer from the general system slowness.
Worse, route guidance on the Continental's map lagged just a bit, so the system would still show me making the last turn as I was supposed to be preparing for the next.
There is, of course, a Bluetooth hands-free phone system, which worked fine with my iPhone. However, I also ended up relying on Bluetooth for audio streaming, as Bentley gives the Continental the same proprietary audio port as you find in most Volkswagen and Audi models. Laughably, that port held a 30-pin iOS adapter cable, which had me wondering how many people who could afford this car hadn't upgraded from an iPhone 4.
Bluetooth streaming from my iPhone 6S didn't offer the quality that would let the Continental's Naim audio system shine, so most of the time I was feeding this 900-watt 11-speaker system an inferior source. The audio system includes a digital signal processing setting for digital media, partially mitigating the source problem. When I tested the car with a CD, the Naim system gave crystal-clear reproduction, delivering balanced frequency response and excellent staging.
The Naim stereo stands out as the best cabin electronic feature, by far, in the Continental.
Tracking city fuel economy wasn't pretty, as I saw the trip computer give me averages below 10 mpg for a trek across the city, not quite meeting the EPA 15 mpg city number. On the freeway, the Continental GT V8 S brought its average up considerably, using cylinder deactivation on the V-8 to achieve 25 mpg in its EPA highway rating. Thanks also to a 24-gallon tank, I made the 400-plus mile trip between SF and LA with plenty of range to spare.
Bentley fits the Continental with an air suspension, with four settings between Comfort and Sport. However, for the truck-battered Interstate-5 in California, the Continental's ride quality at even the most comfortable of the comfort settings felt like any other car. It is possible the "S" in the model name meant Bentley engineers tailored the car more for sport than luxury ride quality, but the Mercedes-Benz S-class does a much better job of straddling those two worlds.
Surprisingly for me, the cabin quality and quiet, along with massage seats, sufficiently mitigated the road feel, so that after four hours straight behind the wheel of the Continental GT V8 S, I felt like I'd just been driving an hour or so. That long-range comfort gives the Continental the credibility of its name.
Driving, not driven
For the kind of ultra-luxury set in which Bentley and Rolls-Royce play, there are driven cars and driver cars. The 2016 Continental GT V8 S, as with the entire Continental line, falls into the latter, a car meant for the owner to take the wheel. That owner will be rewarded with cabin quality promoting a restful ride, along with power and handling allowing for enthusiastic driving.
However, it's a shame that the same amount of detail spent covering the cabin in leather couldn't have also gone to building a seamless navigation and audio experience. Bentley clearly sources its tech from the larger universe of the Volkswagen group, of which it is a part, rather than really taking charge of it and refining the experience.
In many ways, the Continental's craftsmanship and driving character mitigates the inferior electronics, but owners will still find frustrations when trying to navigate across town.