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.”
None of these three adjectives springs to mind when (with rising excitement) you scan the elegant gray-green flanks of the Supersports you're about to drive, complete with an extra expanse of meshed grille, two no-nonsense extractor gills on the top surface of the hood, a complete lack of shiny trim (in favor of rich “smoked steel” moldings) and a set of the most beautiful gleaming black alloys, forged for strength and light weight. Wearing these, the car's huge but light carbon-ceramic brakes and some special, lightweight suspension parts slash 35 lbs from each front corner and another 9 lbs a side at the rear. The rest of the weight saving comes from lighter front seats, the complete lack of rear seats and carbon fiber trim that makes the fascia and console, though familiar, seem special.
Slip into the uncharacteristically firm, enveloping leather bucket seats, frames by Sparco, hand-trimmed at Crewe. Thumb the starter button and the engine starts with a smooth, all-powerful thrum. Select “D” with the knurled gear lever and you'll be surprised as you pull away by the firmness of the suspension, oddly unaccompanied by surface jiggles that usually go with cars as stiff as this, riding on 20-inch wheels. At 40mph this car just glides. Double, then treble the speed and it still glides, its powerful, adaptable dampers translating even the most body-heaving hump into a controlled, passenger-friendly movement.
This is one of those mythical cars whose suspension is stiff and wheels are huge but which insists on riding brilliantly. All Contis offer four ride programs (Comfort, Normal, Sport 1 and Sport 2), but we soon discover that riding in anything softer than Sport 1 is simply not needed, even for commuter levels of comfort.
Cornering meets the same exalted standards. This big, heavy car eats corners like 4,850-lb coupes almost never do. On neutral throttle in bends it'll understeer slightly. Give it big power in faster bends and you can make it tighten the line by increasing the slip angle of its rear tires, without encouraging the admirably laissez-faire ESP to intrude unless the surface gets slippery or you've made a truly hideous miscalculation. Come off the power and it'll restore you to the line you first thought of.
Body roll is never an issue. Cornering loads don't affect you, either, because you're well and truly nailed into the seat by its firmness and shape. In fact, the main challenge is matching the quality of your own inputs to the responses of this car and making sure that, seduced by 621hp, you don't arrive at corners too fast. Even if you do, the carbon-ceramic brakes give you half a chance, washing speed away with an amazing lack of effort. And as long as you steer the car to the full extent of its accuracy potential, it'll zip sweetly through tiny gaps and like an arrow along rutted, narrow roads. Its British heritage is there for anyone to see.
This was the briefest of drives – a sprint on well-surfaced British country roads and a couple of narrow lanes pocked with bumps. Throw in a humpback bridge and a few village intersections and that was the extent of it; 15 minutes and it was over. Yet by the time my stint at the wheel of the $263,000 Continental Supersports had ended, I hardly cared that this was “the fastest and most powerful Bentley ever built.” Why? Because the sensations in my hands, feet and rump were telling me that this Supersports was something even more important in the Bentley hierarchy.
It was the best.
The clear intention of this car's creators has been to build a top-end performance car, capable, in the right hands, of running with Ferraris and Porsches. But the Supersports turns out to be so brilliant that some of its facets deserve airplay in a wider range of cars than the hard-nut performance minority. The refined ride that delivers compromises beyond what normally seems possible, the superb steering, the prodigious brakes, even the unconventionally comfortable ride, would all be loved by owners whose priority is not necessarily ultra-high speed. Let's hope they're bound, in appropriate form, for the rest of the Bentley range.
Words: Steve Cropley/Autocar
Photos: Dominic Fraser/Autocar