There's always more to a car than the numbers on its spec sheet. Take the new 2013 Bentley Continental V8 for example. It looks like the same coupe we've known for years, but with a smaller engine that's more efficient. Doesn't seem like a recipe for success, yet from the behind the wheel it's a shocking improvement.
But it can't be that good. Can it?
With its new 4.0-liter V8 it has only two-thirds of the displacement and piston count as a W12 Continental, but with 500 horsepower and a curb weight of 5,059 pounds, the V8 is actually quicker off the mark than the original 12-cylinder. Top speed has fallen a few mph, but really who's going to care if it can still storm from zero to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds?
Then there's the whole added benefit of the V8's added efficiency. Not that Bentley buyers are likely to care, but it does pay off in terms of range. Even the wealthy can see that going over 400 miles on a tank is more convenient than having to stop after 250.
So What's the Secret?
For starters, the 2013 Bentley Continental GT V8's engine is very, very clever. It's built by Audi (and available in a different tune in the S8) and then sent to Bentley, where it is dressed with all external ancillaries to create a bespoke specification before it's bolted into the car.
Its neatest trick is its ability to shut off half its cylinders on part load, turning the motor into a V4. It sounds as if it might run as rough as a tractor but, in reality, is impossible to distinguish when it's running on four cylinders. This is not new technology, though, as various manufacturers have employed this technology over the years, but never has its actuation been as imperceptible as this.
The new V8 also uses two far smaller and more responsive turbos than those used in the larger W12. They produce up to 17 psi of boost compared to the W12's turbos, which only deliver up to 9 psi of boost.
Further efficiencies come from an eight-speed transmission (the W12 soldiers on with just six), better thermal management, reduced drag, slightly less weight (55 pounds), energy recovery under braking, more efficient power steering that's inactive in the straight-ahead position and lower-rolling-resistance tires. Some of these may seem small, but together they add up to a notable 40 percent improvement in fuel mileage.
Behind the Wheel
Our chance to get in the driver seat came at the Silverstone circuit in England. Bentley executives were keen to stress it was a prototype and insistent that we say as much in this story. Fair enough, but when asked what differences there were between this prototype and production cars, the answer was, "Er, none." It was good to go on the track and anywhere we chose on the roads of the British Midlands.
At first glance, there are few obvious indications it's the V8 Continental. When we look closer we realize that the rear pipes were artfully revised to look like number 8s on their side. Then there's the new front airdam, a red badge and different wheels. What you can't see is the more limited range of available interior colors and the slightly different options available on the V8. For a car that will probably cost 10 percent less than the W12, this is not such a big deal.
So we thumbed the start button and waited for it to respond to its first big test, that being the obvious, "How does it sound?" The answer, supplied by way of a rumble, a roar and a howl is that it sounds just fine. In fact it sounds brilliant, better by far than the rather nondescript voice of the W12. This may or may not be what Bentley intended.
And How Does It Feel?
Test Two. Does it respond as a Bentley should? To see for ourselves, we locked it in a high gear so it couldn't kick down, and hit the pedal. At once it pulled like an intercontinental express. No lack of torque here. Not surprising given that the V8 is rated to deliver 486 pound-feet of torque at just 1,700 rpm. Test Two passed.
Until quite recently Bentley had to limit the torque of the 6.0-liter motor to stop it from frying its transmission. The smaller 4.0-liter motor actually has more torque than the original 6.0-liter W12 and it rolls out along a horizontal curve from 1,700 rpm all the way to 5,000 rpm.
Bentley is pleased with this motor. Smug might not be too strong a word. In fact, it's so delighted with it that the engineers don't want to talk about anything else. After we pushed a little they told us that the steering has been modified to improve its feel and reduce the overall amount of assistance offered, while the entire chassis from its roll bars to its air springs has been retuned to support not just the fractionally reduced weight of the new powertrain, but the more aggressive and sporting character of the car.
On soaking English lanes, an environment of changing cambers, broken surfaces and unpredictable curves, it was a revelation. For the first time we can remember, this was a Bentley driving experience not defined by the weight of the car.
This is not because it's lost a significant amount of weight, because it hasn't; instead that weight is at last being properly managed. We would stop far short of calling it nimble or even agile, but it was precise, poised and responsive in a way no other Bentleys — not even the Speed or Supersports — have been.
Makes It Easy To Forget the W12
So here's the thing. You can buy a regular 2013 Bentley Continental GT with its W12 engine and put up with its many well-known shortcomings, or you can spend roughly 10 percent less and buy a Bentley that is just as quick in the real world, more rewarding to drive and far more invigorating to listen to. Oh, and it will likely take you more than half as far again on a tank of gas. The next question is not difficult to guess: How the hell will Bentley sell any W12s now?
Bentley believes it will, saying a W12 buyer is an entirely different person compared to its target prospects for the V8. Well maybe, but so far as I can see the reasons for choosing the W12 over the V8 can now be summed up thusly: You have some small character quirk which means you have to have the ultimate engine even if it's inferior or, someone once told you bigger was always better and you believed them.
For everyone else, the 2013 Bentley Continental GT V8 is a better car than the W12 in every way that matters. Were they the same price, we wouldn't hesitate for a second before choosing the smaller engine. In this case, less really is more.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report, which originally appeared on insideline.com.