I went to Portugal not so much to drive a car, but to drive an engine. The engine in question employs two banks of six dovetailed cylinders, 12 pistons total, their combustible mixture fed to them through two twin-scroll turbochargers. The result? 700 horsepower, a figure very few production cars can claim.
That engine comes ensconced in the 2017 Bentley Continental Supersports, wrapping it in a layer of classic British luxury, along with considerable weight. At 14 years old, the Continental platform shows its age in a few concerning ways, but a generational update should be coming soon, making this Supersports a powerful last hurrah.
During a Bentley-sponsored trip to drive the new Continental Supersports over Portuguese highways and on the Autódromo do Estoril racetrack, I came not only to appreciate its careful coachwork, but also the easy manner in which its massive power comes on.
Between the Lisbon airport and the drive, I had the fortune to ride with Rolf Frech, Bentley's member of the board for engineering, a fancy way to say the Continental Supersports' chief engineer. Frech, splitting his time between home in Germany and the Bentley plant in Crewe, UK, talks passionately about the power of the Volkswagen-derived 6-liter W12 engine in the Continental Supersports. His team redesigned the intake entirely, sourcing the new, high pressure turbochargers, to achieve the target 700 horsepower and 750 pound-feet of torque.
As we talk, I wonder how squirrely the Continental Supersports will get, if that much power will leave me sitting in a ditch on the side of the road. Frech mentions a new torque vectoring system, using individual wheel braking, to help the car's handling, which doesn't entirely reassure me.
Later, I meet Paul Jones, Product Line Director for the Continental, whose gentlemanly English accent makes it seem like he represents the car's fine coachwork, its diamond-pattern two-tone leather upholstery, chromed organ-pull vent controls and Breitling clock set into the dashboard. In reality, he evinces the same passion for power as Frech, with both being motorcycle aficionados.
Jones highlights the Continental Supersports' predecessor from the 1920s, the Bentley 3-liter Super Sports, which could hit over 100 miles per hour, an impressive figure at the time. Along with the new Supersports' performance technologies, Jones says the car has 90 exterior paint color options, or eight two-tone combinations. For those seeking a little more individuality, Bentley offers a Bespoke program, so you could, for example, attempt to match the battleship grey of James Bond's Bentley, as described in the novel "Casino Royale".
When I get behind the wheel of the Continental Supersports in coupe form, dazzling in St. James Red paint, I find familiar territory, a very similar cabin to a Continental GT I drove last year. However, large, polished carbon fiber trim panels point to the Supersports' performance character. On the console, the same massive shift lever, working an eight-speed automatic transmission from ZF, supported by column-mounted paddle shifters for manual mode.
The Continental Supersports' double-pane windows mute the start-up bark of the W12. And contrary to my fears of wild, uncontrollable power, my first stab at the accelerator shows the car can be as gentle as a drugged kitten. Similarly, the electric power steering makes it so that the same kitten could turn the 21-inch wheels.
Thundering down Portuguese highways, the Supersports feels as comfortable as any Continental, as it employs the same adaptive suspension system. As I mentioned, I don't like the suspension settings interface, which goes through four increments from Comfort to Sport on the car's touchscreen. Unlike a Rolls-Royce or Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the Continental Supersports feels in firm contact with the road, trading comfort for driving engagement.
Getting up to a few onroad antics, I try a standing start, to see if I can feel the Continental Supersports' reputed 3.4 seconds to 60 mph time. The initial launch feels measured, but the car's acceleration builds convincingly, rolling forward like a freight train.
At almost 5,500 pounds and featuring standard all-wheel-drive, with torque split 40 percent to the front and 60 percent to the rear, I don't expect nimble balletics in the turns. But pushing it hard enough to make the tires sing, I feel that extra rotation as the brake-induced torque vectoring kicks in. The steering also firms up at speed, enhancing the performance feel.
Along with the coupe, I also drive a convertible example of the Continental Supersports, this one painted in beautiful Flame Orange. Because of the convertible top, there are certainly different dynamics at work, but I am hard-pressed to feel the change.
Before getting on the track at Estoril, Bentley race driver Guy Smith talks me through the 2.6 mile course's 13 turns. In the diagram, it looks tricky, and Smith points out that I can't drive the Continental Supersports like a race car. He says to get back on the power late in the turns, otherwise expect understeer, something I don't want with 700 horsepower on throttle.
Smith also plays coach while I drive the track, telling me when and how hard to brake so I don't overrun the tight turns, very helpful for my first time on Estoril. Unsurprisingly, the Continental Supersports feels heavy as I aim for the apexes in declining radius turns. With Smith's coaching, I also feel like we aren't really pushing the handling limits, but a glance down at the speedo shows a pretty good clip. Blame all that noise dampening for muting the car's apparent speed.
Things become more viscerally satisfying at Estoril's long straight, where I floor it and take advantage of the turbocharged W12. Entering the straight from the final turn at about 70 mph, I don't have quite enough runway to hit the car's stated 209 mph top speed, so 150 mph will have to do.
Throughout the high-speed straight and the turns, I note the Continental Supersports feels solid and unperturbed.
While I am largely impressed by the new Continental Supersports, a generational update would do many wonders for the car. For one, the Continental's steel monocoque body makes it a very heavy car, so some lightweighting could improve fuel economy and handling, not to mention zero to 60 mph times. Bentley may also be able to get even more power out of the W12 engine by swapping its port injection for direct injection, but that will likely require a whole new engine.
The greatest failing by far in the Continental Supersports comes from the dashboard electronics and driver assist systems. The LCD touchscreen covers the basics, such as navigation, digital audio and a hands-free phone system, but it lacks such modern conveniences as online destination search, any sort of app integration, or support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Software aside, these Volkswagen-sourced electronics also mean an array of unsightly plastic buttons in the center dash, letting down the finely wrought coachwork.
The Continental Supersports also lacks such safety features as adaptive cruise control or a head-up display, attributable to the car's older platform.
The only bright spot among the electronics comes from the Naim audio system, a true hi-fi piece of equipment.
The collusion of British coachwork and German engineering makes a fine recipe for Bentley, and it finds impressive expression in the 2017 Bentley Continental Supersports. And where the Bentley employees I met really come together is a passion for performance, a universal language defying temporal political issues such as Brexit. Add a dose of US or Japanese electronics know-how, and Bentley might be approaching motorcar perfection.
There is a reason, however, why you don't see Bentleys in every other driveway. Pricing begins for the brand at $200,000. The Continental Supersports, a limited edition model of which Bentley will only build 710, bases at $293,300 for the coupe, and $322,600 for the convertible, the latter coming out as a 2018 model year car.