Wednesday, September 3, 2014
A week with the Bentley Continental GT V8 S Convertible, cool as ice
Every so often, automakers will lend us a car for a week's worth of evaluation. Here's our take on seven days spent with the 2014 Bentley Continental GT V8 S Convertible:
Here’s how this typically works: When a car reviewer gets to pick a vehicle up for review at an airport, he or she usually heads to some odd off-site lot where the keys are delivered with the fanfare reserved for buying a can of Pringles.
When I arranged to drive a 2014 Bentley Continental GT V8 S Convertible, Bentley had the car brought to the airport curb in San Francisco. And that’s when I first felt it: an uneasy sense of people gaping at this white missile.
The drab surroundings only made the car seem more like a celebrity, as if Charlize Theron had wandered into baggage claim.
That’s the difference between everyday luxury and the rare world I’d fuss around in for a week; your Cadillacs and Mercedes and BMWs are all nice, but they don’t trigger spontaneous rubbernecking.
Bentley helpfully includes a sheet detailing the options of my tester, with its "Ice" paint that's a bluish tint which changes in light, the Naim 11-speaker sound system, the upgraded carpets and every other feature. Including the $1,000 gas-guzzler fee for the 521-hp twin-turbocharged V-8 under the Ice, the total cost is $250,665.
Here are things that cost less than this car: The median average home in the United States. Four years of education at Harvard University. One flight on Virgin Galactic into space. (OK, that last one hasn't happened yet, but they're taking deposits.)
Objectively, the Bentley's metal, walnut and hand-built interior can't add up to that price. That number includes not just the pieces and assembly of a luxury car — down to the knotted wood panels and solid aluminum trim and massaging seats — but the entrance fee into the club of top-end British luxury car owners.
If Bentley was charging too much, that club would grow desiccated quickly; instead, Bentley sells all of the 10,000 cars it builds a year and senses room for more. But not many more, because any such club's value lies in keeping the velvet rope politely latched but the windows open.
Luxury in automaking has long flowed from the top down; safety and comfort innovations from heated leather seats to stability controls start off as high-cost items and only slowly become common.
But Moore's Law breaks this paradigm in cars; newer models of any price with the latest software controls can trump the older platforms that makers like Bentley have to amortize over a decade or so. The Bentley's voice commands and center-stack info-disco are a couple years shy of modern.
The Ford Fusion can handle parallel parking automatically, and the Jeep Cherokee can even do perpendicular spots. The Bentley assumes if you don't want to park yourself, you'll have a valet do it.
This tech gap also manifests in small details; I searched the entirety of the Continental and Bentley's accessories catalog, which includes a $912 leather bag memorializing the 1930 LeMans winning Bentley, but couldn't find a simple USB port for the car.
There’s a permanent cord in the glovebox that can charge a previous-generation iPhone and copy its music, and the system has Bluetooth connections for phone and sound, but modern life requires feeding our batteries constantly.
I can just imagine the sales patter: “No sir, Bentley leaves such things out on purpose. This car was meant for driving, and one can always catch up on your calls later.”
I finally manage to break the Conti out for a proper 120-mile drive, through the redwood crests of central California to the Pacific Coast Highway south to Monterey.
The top comes down; I do not care that it’s 50 degrees and the sea has launched a hostile takeover of the air, as the GT V8 S not only heats its leather hides but the one on the back of my neck via a headrest vent.
The modern Bentley boys have managed to make a 5,500-lb., fabric-roofed carriage into a surprisingly precise curve carver. Between the all-wheel-drive, the 21-inch wheels and the eight-speed transmission, the Continental never bogs; the forces can be great, but the mass never feels beyond the power of the acceleration.
“God does not charge us for hours spent driving before breakfast,” said the late David E. Davis, and letting the Conti crouch in sport mode while unspooling turns like Meryl Davis makes me want to shout amen.
Even in Pebble Beach, during the one week a year when you can get into a traffic jam between Bugatti Veyrons, the Continental GT V8 S drew a daily stream of compliments. Which I feel compelled to answer immediately with “Thanks, it’s not mine.”
Bentley owner impersonation is a Class P(roletariat) misdemeanor, and I guarantee this is the first time this machine has visited a Ross store for a $2.99 pack of socks.
(This cuts both ways: Bentley owners do not have the reputation for gluteal haberdashery that some other luxury/sport brands do, and shouldn’t be judged unfairly for the average tips I leave in Starbucks drive-throughs.)
I have my time in the Continental cut a day short, so I try to make the most of it around Monterey, bombing through the hills near Laguna Seca, holding the transmission down so the engine hits redline and a proper roar.
I'm now convinced that the sign of a truly modern automatic transmission is that you forget it's even there; the engine just does what you need it to, when asked, without complaint.
The following day I spend walking around 300 of the world's rarest vehicles, looking at Ferrari TestaRossas and Tatras, wondering if I could sneak in just one more drive with the top down in the Continental to feel like a celebrity again. Maybe over to Ross, where the USB car adapters are, like, three bucks.