The time has come to find out just what the new Bentley Continental GT V8 S can do on the road. Time for an epic drive methinks…
Last year, Bentley came back to motorsport for the first time since winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2003. And it was in the Middle East where its first track foray took place, at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi during the Gulf 12 Hours. The V8-powered Bentley Continental GT3 turned a wheel in anger for the first time, and took a fourth place in the race. Not a bad effort for a first attempt.
Six months later, I find myself at Yas Marina reflecting on the dawn of a new motorsport age for Bentley, and blearily wondering why it seemed a good idea in the planning meeting to symbolically be here at dawn.
As the sun attempts to break free of the horizon opposite the famous Yas Viceroy Hotel, rays of light start to catch on what is closest to the new Bentley race car that you can currently get on the road – the Continental GT V8 S. When designing the race car, Bentley opted not to use its long-established W12 engine and instead, for weight and efficiency reasons, installed a twin-turbocharged V8. It’s the same engine found in the ‘standard’ Continental V8 released last year, but for the V8 S it’s been breathed upon, as has the rest of the car. Firmer suspension, beefier bodywork and a more raucous exhaust all complement a hike in power to 521bhp. The aim of the V8 S is to make the most driver-focused Bentley currently available even more so.
Being a road car, and being a Bentley, the V8 S is admittedly a bit of a jump from the GT3. OK, we’re at the circuit, and OK, it’s white like its track-attacking brother, but that’s where the similarities end. The race car was shorn of all accoutrements to be a lean, mean, competitive machine, but road car customers have certain luxurious expectations of a Bentley, so all the piano black wood veneer and leather is back. Inside it’s indistinguishable from the other models in the GT range, but that’s no bad thing.
The plan today, starting at this ridiculous hour, is to head as far north as we can get, an endurance event of our own from dawn to dusk, passing through several Emirates before crossing the border into Oman’s Musandam peninsula to drive one of the greatest sections of road in the region – the road to Khasab. It’ll be a stern test of every aspect of the V8 S, which has to keep the comfort and luxury expected of the marque while providing an extra level of sportiness and driver exhilaration over models that have gone before.
A push-button start fires up the twin-turbo 4-litre V8, which emits a restrained growl, like a guard dog on its best behaviour. The first section of journey will take us from Yas Marina up the coastal motorway to Dubai, a featureless slog of just over an hour. It passes without incident and is notable only for the realisation that, at a cruise at least, the V8 S feels like every other Continental GT. There’s adaptive suspension controlled via the infotainment screen, and it’s in comfort mode, which soaks away all the unwanted bumps from the admittedly fairly smooth freeway. Cruise control is set to the speed limit, and there’s barely a burble from the engine at low range. The excellent stereo system hooks up to the iPhone via Bluetooth, so entertainment is easy. So far, it’s all thoroughly relaxing.
Before long the endless desert gives way to the industrial sprawl of Jebel Ali and then the high-rise landscape of southern Dubai. We detour off the main road to cruise down to the beach road, where the newer skyscrapers give way to older villas overlooking the Arabian Gulf. Again, the V8 S is more than at home – it’s very easy to drive slowly, although it does feel enormous in tight traffic despite only boasting two usable seats. The rears are suitable only for the tiny and legless.
After a whirl around Downtown and the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, we’re back onto the main road and heading to the next Emirate. Sharjah has met Dubai’s expansion with sprawl of its own, and the two are now merged into each other north of Dubai creek. Sharjah gets an unfair rap as a place lacking fun, especially from those in Dubai, as it’s more culturally conservative than its southern neighbour. But it has a thriving arts scene and we pass myriad galleries and sculptures as photographer Arun seeks out a place to grab a few shots. However, its reputation with us is not enhanced by the traffic. It’s chaotic and we spend far, far too long behind large construction trucks waiting to squeeze into the single lane that’ll take us back to the (relatively) open road. By the time we do manage to get out of second gear again, and time is running out if we’re to make the Khasab road by dusk.
So we give reluctantly short shrift to Ajman, the next emirate north and one that’s still trying to break away from the shadow of its larger neighbours. The landscape here returns to relative desolation – blanched dunes stretching into the distance, lighter than the red hues of Dubai sand. There’s plenty of potential here, but it’s yet to be fully realised, and we’re not helping as we glide by in the Bentley, still restrained from exploring its performance potential thanks to unremarkable roads and myriad speed cameras. Soon though. With every kilometre, we’re closer to the goal.
The next stop is in Umm Al Quwain, where we pause at an old abandoned Russian cargo plane that’s been a feature of the emirate for years. The Ilyushin IL-76 sits somewhat forlornly at the side of the road, quietly falling apart, but it’s too good a photo opportunity to miss. And it’s a nice contrast with the shiny new British luxury car.
Our final chapter in the UAE is the northern-most emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, one of the country’s up-and-coming areas. A lot of money is being spent in the region to appeal to investors, tourists and the like – a snow-themed waterpark, apartment complexes that resemble Incan temples. There’s also a heck of a lot of work going on in the city centre, chiefly on the roads. Which makes for interesting progress – a lot of detours, half-laid surfaces and annoyingly slow progress. The sat nav is freaking out, convinced that we’re going the wrong way, but there’s little choice but to crawl through the city and hope we end up on the road towards the Omani border.
And we do, eventually. Since Abu Dhabi we’ve barely seen a hill, but now as we exit the urban surroundings, huge mountains loom on the horizon, forcing the road towards the coast. We’re getting close. Part of me is frustrated that I’ve not been able to uncork the V8 yet, but on the other hand, the beauty of a Bentley is that it can effortlessly waft you along without feeling like it’s being reined in against its will. We’ve already covered hundreds of kilometres and I feel fresh, comfortable and relaxed.
The border arrives, and after filling out forms and having our documents scrutinised, we’re through. Finally, the adventure can begin. We’ve got just over an hour of sunlight left, and I intend to make the most of it. The road from the border to Khasab is a whopping 45 kilometres of twisting coastal highway, with no speed cameras, light traffic and only a few villages to break up the fun. It’s a beautifully finished road surface, squeezed between sheer cliff face and the open ocean, with never more than a concrete barrier between you and the deep blue. At long last I swipe the damper settings from Comfort to Sport, clunk the milled gear lever into manual and grasp the oversized paddles behind the wheel.
Acceleration from standstill is torque heavy and syrupy smooth, with 502lb ft available from just 1700rpm. The V8 S hits 100kph in 4.5 seconds, fractionally slower than the more powerful, W12-powered Speed model, but it delivers its grunt in a more dramatic, responsive way. With the pedal squeezed closer to the floor than it has been all day, a deep, gurgling V8 roar claws its way into the air, bouncing off the cliffs and heading out to sea towards the setting sun.
At almost 2.3 tonnes, the V8 S is a big lad, but it can move. The road twists and turns, racing along the coast at sea level before climbing up into the mountains. For such a heavy machine the Bentley holds its poise extremely well, dampers keeping each corner in check and stopping the front of the car smashing into the ground under heavy braking. There is a limit to its talents though, brought on partly by physics and partly by a lack of feel and texture to the steering. Charge up to a corner, brake hard in a straight line and turn in and the wheel feels oddly light and lifeless, robbing me of the information I want to immediately know how close to the limit the front wheels are and taking me out of the moment. After a while it becomes clear that while the V8 S is an immensely talented Continental GT, it’s still a Continental GT at heart and one can’t expect the pinpoint precision of a full-on sports car. Weaving through the corners becomes a process of braking, giving the car plenty of time and space to turn in, wait for progress towards the apex to become apparent, and then bring the noise. Once the Bentley has readied itself, then the torque and the traction from all four wheels comes into play and you’re ready for the next adventure. Although it’s not quite the road-going race car I’d hoped for, it remains a lot of fun, and bloody fast. And it’s absolutely been worth the early start.
The road conquered, I park the Bentley on a cliff top for some final photos as the sun touches the horizon at last. Ultimately, the V8 S is still a GT, and it retains the character of its siblings. If you want balls-out maniacal performance, look elsewhere. But if you want to cross continents in style and luxury, and have enough technical performance to crack a smile on roads that deserve a good seeing too, then this latest Continental GT may just be for you. With Bentley’s motorsport program going extremely well, it seems highly likely that we’ll see some sort of more focused tie-up between road and race divisions. Perhaps then we’ll get an even more focused, lightweight GT to really appeal to the hardcore enthusiast.
|Bentley||Continental GT V8 S|
|Engine:||V8 / twin-turbocharged / 3993cc|
|Power:||521bhp @ 6000rpm|
|Torque:||502lb ft @ 1700rpm|
|Transmission:||Eight-speed automatic / all-wheel drive|
|Front suspension:||Four-link double wishbones / anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension:||Trapezoidal multi-link, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes:||Cast Iron or optional Carbon-Silicon-Carbide (CSiC) / 405mm ventilated iron or 420mm cross-drilled CSiC (front) / 335mm ventilated iron or 356mm cross-drilled CSiC (rear)|
|Wheels:||20-inch front and rear|
|Tyres:||275/40 ZR20 front and rear|
|Top speed:||309kph (limited)|