The best thing that could have ever happened to Bentley over its past 100 years of existence was its monumental failure as an independent automaker during the Great Depression. I know that sounds incredibly cruel, but hear me out—Bentley’s failure in the 1930s would ultimately lead it to producing one of the greatest street cars to ever wear the “winged B” badge: the 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8 coupe and Convertible.
A brief history lesson: Bentley, prior to its 1931 bankruptcy and subsequent purchase by Rolls-Royce, was known as a builder of luxurious and refined sports cars, with an emphasis on sport. Rolls’ purchase lead to an initial focus on luxury before devolving into nearly a half-century of rebadged, warmed-over Rolls-Royces. Unsurprisingly, that enterprise went belly-up in 1970 and was purchased by Vickers, which is perhaps better known for building nuclear-capable bombers and other military hardware. Things started to look up slightly during the tail end of the Vickers era, when Bentley started returning to form, producing sporty cars like the Turbo R, but it wasn’t until the Volkswagen Group gobbled Bentley up in the late ’90s that Bentley began to get its groove back, thanks to an infusion of cash and cars like the 2003 Bentley Continental GT. With over 70,000 units sold, making it the best-selling Bentley of all time, this is the car that singlehandedly saved the brand. Now teamed up with fellow VW Group brandmate Porsche, the new 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8 is finally the car that best lives up to founder W.O. Bentley’s vision for high-performance, continent-crossing luxury. It’s failing upward in the best possible way.
Although Bentley is loath to admit it, that little hit of Porsche DNA might be what makes the Continental GT V8 such a standout performer. Built on the VW Group’s (but Porsche-developed) rear-drive MSB platform, which also underpins the Porsche Panamera and new Bentley Flying Spur, the Continental GT wraps its smaller but heavier version of the platform in gorgeous sheetmetal of its own design and fits it with—you guessed it—a Porsche engine and transmission. In this case, it’s the Panamera Turbo’s fantastic 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 and PDK eight-speed twin-clutch automatic.
That’s not to say Bentley hasn’t done any work on its own with the Continental GT. Ignoring the Bentley-bespoke W-12 engine, the Bentley team did plenty of work on both the Continental GT V8’s engine and transmission. On the former front, Bentley dropped power from 550 to 542 hp and bumped torque up slightly to 568 lb-ft, giving the Continental GT maximum torque at just 1,500 rpm, effortless acceleration—a long-held Bentley brand value—being the ultimate goal for the engine modifications.
The Continental’s eight-speed twin-clutch auto also required some work. Twin-clutch transmissions are known for being quick-shifting, but they leave a lot to be desired when accelerating under light throttle loads—such as in heavy stop-and-go traffic—because the transmission has to slip one of its clutches, resulting in an unpleasant surging or stuttering feeling while pulling away. Bentley says it spent lots of development time engineering that characteristic out of its first-ever dual-clutch transmission, making it feel like a traditional automatic at low speeds but a dual-clutch at higher speeds.
Bentley rounds the Conti GT package out with rear-biased, torque-vectoring all-wheel drive (38/62 front/rear split in the default “B” mode, 17/83 split in sport mode) and, optional but necessary, its version of the VW group’s fantastic 48-volt electronic active roll control system paired with a new three-chamber air suspension, which together masterfully eliminate body roll and improve ride quality.
The end result of this intermixing of Porsche and Bentley DNA is that the new Continental GT V8 is one of the best-driving and most-rewarding Bentleys ever (if not the best). The difference in character between the old Continental and new is readily apparent within your first mile of driving. The new car exudes a sense of athleticism that the old Continental, even in its sportiest spec, could only dream of matching.
At a claimed 4,800 pounds (2,177 kg), the Continental GT V8 coupe is hardly a small car, but like any good sports car, it shrinks around you. Aided by the active suspension system and its torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system, this Bentley is remarkably well-balanced for its size, with smooth, accurate steering and zero body roll. Both steering and suspension systems firm up nicely in Sport mode; the latter is never punishing, while the former gets heavier but could, if I’m nitpicking, use a touch more feel from the front tires.
The Continental GT’s V-8 is tremendous, too. It’s electric-like in the way it delivers power, hitting you with that torque curve right off the line and holding it all the way to its 7,000-rpm redline, even snarling and spitting from its figure-eight-shaped exhaust tips in Sport mode once you get near the line. Combined with the unflappable eight-speed auto, the V-8 Conti is the type of car that encourages you to dive hard into corners and power hard out of them—it’s a tremendously balanced package.
The Continental GT V8 convertible is remarkably solid, too. Despite carrying around an extra 300 pounds (136 kg) of body bracing to account for its tailored power-folding roof, the Continental drop-top effectively captures the spirit and performance of the coupe in a topless package. The convertible isn’t as outright sporty as the hardtop, but it provides an experience so close that I doubt most Conti buyers will notice the difference. The two versions of the Continental GT V8 are so evenly matched, in fact, that Bentley estimates that the coupe is only a hair faster than the convertible, accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in an estimated 3.9 seconds to the drop-top’s 4.0 seconds.
When not pushing and prodding the Conti V8, both cars are unsurprisingly civilized around town and on the highway. In city driving, the extra attention Bentley’s engineers paid to the dual-clutch gearbox is apparent, as there’s no obvious surging from the automatic in stop-and-go traffic, and at highway speeds, both cars are effortlessly smooth and relaxed grand tourers. Bentley’s new soft top is especially impressive at higher speeds; with the top up the cabin is so quiet that I, for a time, forgot I was driving a convertible. (Bentley, in fact, says the new convertible is as quiet as the old coupe with the top up.) With the top down, wind is well-controlled, making it possible to have a normal conversation with a passenger at highway speeds, and—most important to this long-haired scribe—keeping my hair from flying into my mouth in the wind.
Aside from the touch more feel I’d like from the Conti’s steering rack, the only other nit I have to pick from a performance standpoint is in the braking department. The Continental’s 10-piston, 17-inch front- and four-piston, 15-inch rear brakes have plenty of stopping power, but the bite doesn’t truly come in until you’re about halfway into the brakes. That makes smooth limo-style stops easier, but given this car’s pedigree, a sportier state of tune would be appreciated.
As expected from a Bentley, the interiors of both coupe and convertible are impeccably finished. The Continental has the leather and wood trim expected from an Old World luxury car, with modern driver displays and infotainment systems expected in the 21st century, including a CarPlay-friendly 12.3-inch infotainment system on the center stack. Speaking of, the rotating display is the option not to skip inside. With a press of a button, it flips the back the screen like the license plate on James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 to reveal an old-school gauge for outside temperature, a compass, and a lap timer; turning the car off replaces both the gauges and screen with a piece of wood trim that blends in with the rest of the dashboard. It’s a clever gimmick but one well worth the extra $6,365 USD when considering most of us spend our entire days staring at screens. (Bentley’s 18-speaker Naim sound system is also high on the options priority list, but below the rotating display.)
Despite being a far more compelling package than its predecessor, prices for the 2020 Continental GT V8—the entry-level to the Continental line—haven’t gone up significantly from before. The coupe is the cheaper of the two cars, starting at $198,500 USD, while the convertible starts at $218,350 USD. Both are slated to go on sale in North America alongside the Continental GT W12 sometime this fall.
It’s been a long and at times trying 100 years for Bentley. It may have spent the bulk of that time neglected and working with one hand tied behind its back, but I think founder W.O. Bentley would look proudly at what his plucky little company has become. The first Conti GT re-established Bentley in the luxury car field; this new Continental GT plants it’s foot firmly among sports cars.