When less is so much more: Driving the 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8

Bentley’s new smaller-engined grand tourer packs a powerful, luxurious punch.

by HANNAH ELLIOTT/ pic by BLOOMBERG

Along the Pacific Ocean just west of Napa, Calif., a section of Skaggs Springs Road is known for fog-shrouded curves perfect for uncorking your stress and shaking down new cars. It was there I realized why Bentley is so darn confident about its new V8 Continental GT.

The $198,500 beast ($218,350 for the convertible version) is just as devastatingly handsome as its W12 predecessor, with chiseled sides and a latticework grille and four round headlights so brash they look like they’re spoiling for a fight.

But more important, as you round corners and hit the gas, it feels as if you’ve harnessed a linebacker with the footwork of Roger Federer. The 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8 is power and agility blended into a cocktail you’ll want to pour down your throat.   

With a new engine, new light(er)-weight aluminum body, and new double-clutch gearbox (more on those later), Bentley has given the V8 enough juice to make anyone question why you’d buy the more expensive, gas-hungrier W12.

All told, Bentley sold more than 10,000 cars globally in 2018 and will sell more this year. Company executives say they expect half to be Continental GTs. (Photographer: Richard Pardon)

In fact, I’m convinced that those lucky ducks who purchase one of the new V8s will feel downright giddy with their choice. There will be many of them, proportionately speaking. Bentley has delivered more than 70,000 Continental GTs worldwide; it’s the best-selling Bentley ever. In the United States, they make up half of all Bentleys sold, Bentley North America President Christoph Georges told me at dinner the evening after my test drive. Most critical, nearly 80% of the Continental GTs sold in the U.S. will be V8s, rather than W12s, saving their owners $16,100 in (for them, inconsequential) pocket change while providing grander engine notes and edgier handling under duress.

A small core of traditionalists will remain loyal to the W12, Bentley’s most historic engine configuration; for the rest of us, the V8 will be the happy go-to.

Leaner, Meaner

Let’s get this right out of the way: With 542bhp and 568 pound-feet of torque, the car has 84 bhp fewer than the W12. But that’s on paper. I’d bet good money you’d never know the difference driving it; unlike the W12, this all-wheel-drive V8 is heavily rear-wheel-drive biased, especially in Sport mode. It feels like a “real” sports car, which any track enthusiast will tell you must be rear-wheel-driven, no? Plus, it’s 200 pounds or so lighter than the W12, so that’s a wash if you ask me. And this is an all-new engine, updated since the first V8 Bentley made in 2012. The coupe will go to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds (4 seconds for the convertible). It has a top speed of 198 mph.

The part about the engine that really blew me away, though, was not its starting-line sprint speed. It was what it did between third and fourth gears.

Bentley has said a hybrid version of its Continental GT will be available by 2023. (Photographer: Richard Pardon)

Stretching out on an uphill grade, blasting toward Highway 1, the GT went from 65 mph to 91 mph in the same time it took for me to glance from the excellent heads-up display to the passenger seat and back. That’s 91 miles per hour—uphill. For a 4,773-pound car to be able to gather itself so seamlessly and quickly from an already fresh clip was shocking. Heck, for a car of any weight to be able to glide like that was shocking. Note to self: Buy police radar detector immediately. Because there would be no way I could self-regulate this level of tantalizing power.

Credit a brand-new, eight-speed transmission in the GT for such finesse. The Continental GT V8 is the first Bentley ever to have a double-clutch gearbox.

“We did it because we wanted to stretch the limit of performance,” Peter Guest, product line director at Bentley, had told me over breakfast in Napa that morning. “There are limits to how fast you can shift without a double clutch.”

Noted.

The new GT V8 has an intuitive infotainment system. (Photographer: Richard Pardon)

Smooth and Fast

The new Continuous Damping Control system also helped this effect. It optimizes comfort and handling by smoothing things as you drive, constantly dampening—or not—in response to the surface of the road, how the car is moving, and the driver’s input. It does this by monitoring the car’s speed and the distance between the wheels and the body of the car at each curve.

Plus, the thing stops great. As in: solidly prompt and firm without the nasty bite that some rawer sports cars possess, and which can lead me toward slight nausea and an overall green feeling on tight, twisty, up-and-down roads. Bentley has used the same iron brakes on the V8 as it did for the W12, to great effect.

An extensive range of veneers is available to outfit the cabin, including a new crown-cut walnut, and four new color-split options with contrast stitching and piping. The Bentley Continental GT V8 has seating for four. (Photographer: Richard Pardon)

A point on that aforementioned engine sound: It has been engineered to be louder than the W12, yes, with a deep guttural growl as you push it to accelerate. (The bark, as it were, matches the bite, and both are potent.) But this car remains a civilized assassin, not a vigilante. Where the BMW 8 Series and Jaguar Project 8 clamor like alley cats at every turn, especially as you downshift, the Bentley Continental GT keeps you within the realm of likability for those neighbors who are not as enthralled by car sounds as we are.

A Paradise Inside

The interior of the Bentley Continental GT V8 is the knockout punch that proves this car is the complete package, as suitable for 1,000 miles driving up the Pacific coast as it would be on a date at the opera, or tearing down two-lane roads on a joy ride. None of these scenarios would prove fatiguing to your nerves—the car is sealed for quiet inside, like a vault—or to your back, with those newly plush and supportive 20-way adjustable seats. Or to your wardrobe: The gaping trunk here easily fits two large, hard weekend cases, two backpacks or duffels, and assorted hats and coats. Even the convertible version allows this, which is more than I can say for any other sport convertible on the market.

The only way to spot the difference between the W12 and the V8 Continental GTs is by noting the minimal badging on the side of the car and on the engine. (Photographer: Richard Pardon)

I also appreciate how Bentley has been honest about how its previous interiors felt dated (no USBs anywhere) and has acted accordingly with its new issue.

“The new interior has really taken us from a little bit behind to absolute state of the art,” Guest said at breakfast, noting such things as the three-point rotating 12.3-inch touchscreen that turns with the press of a button. (If you want, you can rotate it so that you’re only dealing with analog displays, or even just a flat veneer surface.) He’s right. There are enough cup holders for a long road trip, and the back seat is far bigger than what you’d get in an Aston Martin or Porsche coupe. It’s usable even for adults—imagine! And I loved that the Naim sound system packs 12 speakers and a whopping 2200 watts. I used it to crank up Hole, Willie Nelson, and Led Zeppelin. It is expensive—$8,800—but it’s almost as good as being down in the dirt at a Willie concert.

I do have some nitpicks: Sometimes, when the car is going fast on a steep, tight turn, the front pillar to the left of the steering wheel blocked my line of sight as I looked down the road toward my next turn. It was annoying, but probably unavoidable, for a car that looks that good. It would be nice if the Bluetooth would sync when the car is moving. When I asked Guest about this, he said it was a regulatory issue, though other automakers don’t seem to have this problem. It would also be nice if the footwells were slightly wider and longer; for those of us approaching six feet, they can feel confining.

There are four new colors available for the exterior of the coupe, including Dove Grey, Peacock, Alpine Green, and Silver Storm. The new colors for the Convertible version include Barnato, Cricket Ball, Ice, Jetstream II, Silver Tempest, and Rose Gold. (Photographer: Richard Pardon)

But unlike some brands with the tendency to try to do too much (Mercedes, sometimes), Bentley has exhibited that famously endearing British restraint. Thank goodness.

“We know that luxury is not just about stuff,” Guest said. “Luxury is about simplicity, not overload. If you don’t want it, you can take it off.” That moving touchscreen in the back can also be plain wood veneer, if you like. (But you can choose from a range of woods for that veneer, naturally.)

To that end: Omit the purchase of the $610 Bentley bat light that illuminates the ground at night when you get inside the car for all to see; skip the $1,990 diamond knurling on the organ stops that control the vents and on the clock bezel, and forgo the $1,630 pinstripe chrome veneer inside. You’ll probably want the 22-inch wheels, heated steering wheel, and new heated armrests. (Among Bentley, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, these are really becoming a thing, which I love.) 

You won’t miss the rest of the extras. The 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8 perfectly embodies the concept of less is more. Let the engine and design do the talking. The car speaks for itself just fine. It will arrive in showrooms this fall.