On first acquaintance with the Bentley Continental Supersports, it's hard not to be mesmerized by its power and speed. The ordinary Continental GT coupe, launched six years ago, is impressive enough in the poke department, but this new one has its power boosted by 13 percent and its curb weight cut by 243 lbs, which means its power-to-weight ratio jumps from 238 to 271hp per ton, its 0-100mph time is cut from 11.1 to 8.9sec and its top speed climbs from 198 to 205mph. In short, the Supersports is as fast as any of us could want to go, something vividly demonstrated by Bentley's chief engineer, Dr. Ulrich Eichhorn, half an hour before my hands touched the steering wheel.
Eichhorn has been the driver – in both senses – behind Bentley's well established policy of continuous improvement. He is passionate that his cars' performance must be accessible as well as awesome, and matched by peerless dynamics.
It will be a long time before I forget a particular full-blast departure from standstill, Eichhorn at the wheel, which also involved a right-angle turn on roads greasy from drizzle. When you think about it, this is a hideously difficult maneuver for any powerful car, potentially involving yards of wheelspin, continuously increasing cornering speeds, fast-rising steering effort, increasing body roll, huge weight transfer to just one rear tire and an all-too-real potential for the car to lose adhesion, swap ends and deposit the pair of us backwards through the hedge.
None of this happened. Given the extreme nature of the maneuver, it was almost disappointing. The four-wheel drive and traction control tamed all trace of wheelspin. The Supersports' firmer suspension bushes and springs and its continuously variable dampers reduced rear squat and body roll to traces. The 20-inch, 35-profile Pirelli P Zeros gripped as if specifically matched to the car (they were). The Supersports' revised torque split (40 percent front, 60 percent rear) allowed a little more tail drift than usual to bring the rear around, which meant the man holding the quick-ratio steering had no correcting to do.
Just before Eichhorn flicked the car straight there was a half-hearted judder from the ESP, just to register its attendance, but the whole thing was over in seconds. The car was stable and straight, doing 80mph. It was a better demonstration of the Supersports' talents, in some ways, than a full-noise lap of the 'Ring.
It should not be lost, in all this, that the Continental Supersports is Bentley's idea of an economy car. It has been painstakingly engineered to produce its 621hp whether burning E85 (15 percent gasoline, 85 percent ethanol) or pure pump gas, or any combination of the two. Making the engine management system versatile enough to cope is a more important engineering achievement than is generally perceived – apart from which, ethanol-based fuels are inclined to attack conventional plastics and rot fuel lines and gaskets. You must practically start again.
Even so, Bentley says its entire range will have this capability by 2012, bringing a CO2 fleet reduction of 15 percent. Eichhorn, author and leading advocate of Bentley's philosophy, insists that on a “well to wheel” basis for all calculations an E85 Bentley's emissions are around 70 percent lower, not so far north of a Toyota Prius's. Many experts disagree with this hypothesis, as you can imagine, but it does allow Bentley to claim that “cars can be green without being small, slow or boring.”