Without wishing to prejudge any car that crosses the PH threshold, we were ready to turn our noses up at the new S variant of the Continental GT on spec. Not because it would be bad, you understand - the current generation of GT has already earned a hallowed place in the Bentley hall of fame - but because it couldn’t hope to live up to the memory of its predecessor. The last V8 to wear its maker’s favourite consonant was a pumped-up, hunkered-down heartbreaker of a thing; as close to a muscle car as Crewe allowed the GT to get without attaching silly motorsport parts to it. The latest one, in stark contrast, is mostly just a trim pack. Big whoop.
But there are no flies on Bentley; it knows what we like. The test car it dispatched is testament enough to that fact. No hot-blooded PHer could stand in the presence of its Verdant paintwork and new 22-inch Pale Satin Brodgar wheels and not inwardly applaud the combination. Or outwardly remark on it to anyone in earshot, for that matter. The GT is already probably the best-looking car Bentley has ever produced; this particular S, clad in standard Blackline specification and with the optional panoramic glass roof, might be the finest example of it we’ve yet seen in the flesh. The interior, duo-toned and walnut-clad and precision-stitched, is ageing like Napoleon brandy.
Then there’s the way it sounds. It’s still not precisely clear if the newly installed Sports Exhaust is the same one that previously languished on the GT option list - although it hardly matters. The point is it’s here now, and, as promised, it ‘amplifies the crossplane V8 beat’. Which is to say that the engine sound that Bentley previously preferred to keep under a bushel has now been lustily emphasised. This you will notice. It starts up with a roar and settles into the fluttering, insistent idle of a powerboat. Every notable prod of the throttle awakens the exhaust valves and presumably some of the Bang & Olufsen speakers, too.
Anyone who drove the car’s predecessor will recognise the inspiration for all this bluster. From distant memory, the last S sounded a wee bit more authentic under load, but the effect is largely the same: where a conventional GT encourages the sort of measured inputs that have you wafting imperiously from corner to corner, the S virtually dares you to floor it - if only to keep the eight-cylinder orchestra playing. So overt is this call to bad behaviour that in Sport mode the manufacturer could be accused of overcooking it somewhat: the noise here is more blaring than stirring. But in the default ‘Bentley’ setting the exhaust knows when to lay it on thick and when to pipe down. As you’d hope, it is primarily guided by the proximity of your big toe to the bulkhead.
Whether or not you are partial to all this mechanical gargling is going to depend on what you think a Continental GT is actually for - or, better yet, what your mentality ought to be when driving one. After all, there is no iteration of the coupe which isn’t the equivalent of a well-appointed, fission-powered armchair - yet evidently the S is being pedalled as the more ‘sporty’ variant to the V-max steamroller that is the W12. However, because there are precious few hardware changes beyond the cylinder count, the differences are less significant than they might otherwise have been. Hence the importance of that sound when it comes to expectation setting.
As a direct result, the S is only going to seem deserving of its premium if you buy into what it’s selling. Which is chiefly a mindset. The embellished look and the noise it makes are a great start, but because there is no additional power to call upon, the only way to love it a little (or more than you would any other V8-powered GT) is to indulge the spirit of the badge and drive it everywhere that bit faster. Fortunately, for the most part, the third-generation model is more than ready to pick up the gauntlet and return it to you with interest.
It helps, of course, that even with the twin-turbo V8 untouched, the GT is hugely brisk. Given the availability of higher states of tune for the 4.0-litre motor, some might consider the decision not to close the gap to the 650hp GT Speed flagship a churlish (and potentially penny-pinching) one, but in truth the 100hp deficit is rarely a consideration on the road. With 550hp and 568lb ft of torque, the coupe is marginally more powerful than its S-badged predecessor, and while you’re still denied the pleasure of manually changing gear via the shifter (arguably a much better character fit for the GT than paddles) the fact that this even crops up as a consideration is indicative of how much more involved you’re inclined to be in getting the car up the road.
The S’s other notable deficit is the four-wheel steering system that helps the GT Speed turn in like there isn’t a twelve-cylinder engine mounted over the front axle. Plainly the V8 is less nose-heavy by default, yet competing with a couple of castor wheels at the back is always going to be a challenge for a four-seat car that’s just 15cm shy of five metres and more than 150kg beyond the two-tonne marker. The impression that the Speed was built to drive like the ultimate GT is hard to argue with, although the standard inclusion of Bentley’s active anti-roll system is not to be sniffed at. Its ghostly intervention means you can chase the V8’s revs with abandon, generally safe in the knowledge that when you tip the S into the next corner, it will stay preternaturally flat and composed.
This capacity for an imperturbable sort of progress is already a hallmark of the GT - nevertheless, much as turning up the V8 volume highlights its irresistible side, so the chassis’s quality is foregrounded by heightened enthusiasm. And where the previous S was lowered and bolstered because it needed to be, Bentley could convincingly argue that its follow-up simply doesn’t require the same attention. Of course, by choosing to not pump it up or hunker it down, the manufacturer has denied buyers the tangibly ‘sportier’ V8-powered variant that might’ve convinced a few more to specifically seek it out. But rest assured anyone who does so is unlikely to feel shortchanged. Especially if they’re inclined to judge a book by its cover.
SPECIFICATION | Bentley Continental GT S
Engine: 3,996cc, twin-turbo V8, petrol
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 550 @ 6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 568lb ft @ 2000-4500rpm
0-60mph: 3.9 secs
Top speed: 198mph
Weight: 2,165kg (EU unladen)
Price: £198,000 (Touring Specification £6,610; Bang & Olufsen audio system £5,280; Bentley Rotating Display £4,965; Panoramic glass roof £3,280; Front Seat Comfort Specification £3,275)
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