Who makes the most luxurious cars in the world? Mercedes would like to think they’ll be competing on this hallowed ground with their soon-to-be-launched Maybach S600 and there’s certainly credence to their claims. The Range Rover SV Autobiography, their most expensive model ever, will be throwing its hat into the ring when it goes on sale this summer.
In the rarefied atmosphere of ultra-luxury motoring price does tend to become a little irrelevant – this is ‘if you need to ask how much you can’t afford it’ territory – but for those of us who can’t afford it let’s just say that these two recent entries are competitively priced.
Their efforts certainly won’t be in vain and they will undoubtedly find plenty of buyers but, despite all their hard work, in terms of outright exclusivity there’s one area where these two interlopers will have to concede ground, and that’s brand cachet.
That leaves us with a tough, but obvious, choice between Rolls-Royce and Bentley and though they might appear to follow similar trajectories, they arrive at their destinations from very different directions.
The Bentley Continental GT is probably the best example of the contrast between the two manufacturers and this week I was lucky enough to find myself behind the wheel of the V8 S Cabriolet.
First impressions are probably clouded by the knowledge that, even in basic form, this is a £160,000 car. With the options added to my test car the price tops £200,000 and a quick glance at those opulent add-ons reveal more about the money no object world that cars like this exist in.
The real question is, of course, what really makes a car worth this huge chunk of money? There are the obvious things, of course, like the extra layers of paint that gives the bodywork exceptional lustre and depth of colour, or the copious amounts of leather, carbon fibre and aluminium. Then there’s the less obvious, like the heated and cooled soft leather massaging seats, or the high-end Naim audio system.
But even as the Continental GT whizzes past people in the street, providing them with barely a glimpse, it still has the capacity to turn heads, so it must be something unknowable, indecipherable, that provides it with an air of quality and desirability that so few cars possess.
That’s when it dawned on me that perhaps I was approaching this particular conundrum from the wrong direction and that the value of a car like this lies not in what people think about it, but how it makes them feel, not just about the car either, but about themselves.
And, I have to admit, cruising around with the roof down and Absolute 80s blaring from the stereo made me feel pretty good. £200,000 good? Absolutely!
There’s leather everywhere with contrast stitching, an optional extra, that matches the bodywork colour and deep pile mats that wouldn’t look out of place in my living room. As well as being heated and cooled with a massage function the seats, and the heated steering wheel, are also electrically adjustable.
Take a peek inside the twin front armrests and in one you’ll find a sim card reader and in the other a privacy phone which allows you to take calls to your mobile via the car’s Bluetooth handsfree connection.
The’ Naim for Bentley’ premium sound system (£5,580) is an audiophile’s delight, the 11 speakers filling the car with rich tones, strong bass and a colourful mid range. It is equipped with a six CD auto changer, SD card reader, iPod connector and DVD playback.
At the hub of it all is an eight inch touchscreen, surrounded by leather and carbon fibre and sitting above function select buttons for audio, navigation and car settings. While the controls are beautifully tactile, particularly the dials, it is the least impressive part of the car and that is precisely because the rest of the car impresses so much.
Adjacent to the gear selector are controls for the door mirrors – bizarrely positioned on the passenger side of the transmission tunnel – raising and lowering the roof, adjusting the suspension settings and the handbrake.
Steering wheel controls include handsfree and audio, plus the adaptive cruise control. I particularly loved the gear-change paddles which were nothing more than slender, L-shaped levers and, unlike a lot of cars I’ve driven, were perfectly positioned for the ‘10 to two’ hand placement.
According to Bentley this is a four seat convertible and, while it’s true there are two additional seats in the rear, they are only really suitable for small children or contortionists.
Press the starter button – no one who pays this much money for a car should concern themselves with something as mundane as turning a key – and the 4.0-litre V8 rumbles into life. It’s a muted, restrained soundtrack but while it might appear civilised, and for the most part it is, let it off the leash and you’ll find there’s a bit of a beast lurking deep down.
Occupants are quite literally treated to a ride on a carpet of air thanks to the self-levelling air suspension which isolates the cabin from surface imperfections and, coupled with superb noise suppression, makes the passenger space a wonderfully tranquil and relaxing place to be. It is the perfect long-distance cruiser.
But there’s more to this particular Bentley than a revised front grille, new chin spoiler and side skirts and new rear diffuser. The addition of the S to the GT V8 brings with it other, substantial, changes under the skin: Stiffer springs and rear anti-roll bar, lower ride height and a reprogrammed ESP programme all combining to edge this grand tourer ever closer to sports car territory.
At nearly two-and-a-half tonnes the Continental and corners were unlikely to be bosom buddies but it speaks volumes of the effort Bentley’s engineers have managed to stretch the laws of physics to breaking point thanks in no small part to the addition of permanent four-wheel drive. The taut chassis is precise and the steering weighty in the hand, providing intimate knowledge of exactly what the tyres are doing.
Straight line performance is, as you’d expect, impressive. The twin turbocharged V8 pumps out 521bhp with maximum torque of 502lbft available from just 1,700rpm. That translates into a 0-62mph sprint of just 4.5 seconds and a top speed of 191mph.
It’s unlikely that buyers of cars in this price range will concern themselves too much with fuel economy and emissions, but for the record the GT V8 S will stretch to 25.9mpg combined and emit 254g of carbon dioxide every kilometre.
Bentley have worked wonders with the Continental GT V8 S, turning what has always been a capable grand tourer with mild sporting ambitions into a true all-rounder. The roof mechanism isn’t the quickest, but refinement is excellent with it either up or down. As for the question of whether it’s value for money… who cares? You want one, don’t you!
Bentley Continental GT V8 S Convertible
As tested: £201,270
Engine: Twin turbocharged 4.0-litre V8
Transmission: Eight-speed auto driving all four wheels
Torque: 502lbft @ 1,700rpm
Acceleration (0-60mph): 4.5sec
Maximum speed: 191mph
Extra urban: 35.3mpg
Emissions (CO2): 254g/km
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