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With 572bhp, a top speed of 170mph, the GT3-R is a glorious tribute to Bentley's return to racing

The subject of this road test is emblematic of Bentley’s growing confidence and prosperity. The Continental GT3-R is, in Bentley’s words, “the most dynamic, responsive and involving Bentley road car ever”.

It is also a £240,000 Continental GT. Even a company as illustrious as this needs to be in chest-thumping mode to consider pushing the boat out so far.

Never has Bentley attempted to make such a purposeful driver’s car as this

But the significance of the GT3-R extends beyond the obvious. It’s now more than a decade since Bentley’s Speed 8 won the Le Mans 24-hour race – an absence from international motorsport evidently considered long enough by Crewe’s top brass and parent company Volkswagen.

That’s because, after being shown in concept form in 2012, the firm’s Continental GT3 endurance racer led it back onto the track last year. Out of the box, it ended an 84-year wait for a Bentley motorsport win on British soil when the Blancpain Endurance Series visited Silverstone.

It also scooped a win in the same series at Paul Ricard, won the Pirelli World Challenge at Miller Motorsports Park in the US and successfully completed an eventful 24-hour race at Spa.

You could call that a successful maiden season. Bentley certainly would. It’s also seen as justification for the introduction of a road-going tribute to that success: the limited-run Continental GT3-R.

The importance of this car is easy to overlook on paper but less so in the metal – at least judging by the motorsport-inspired styling. Crewe has launched extra-punchy GTs before, and both the W12 GT Speed and the old GT Supersports make more power than this. But neither was so single-mindedly designed to deliver speed, agility and driver thrills.

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Never has Bentley attempted to make such a purposeful driver’s car as this – and never has it considered one of its cars worthy of an identifier as baggage-laden as ‘GT3’. So what results: a proper track-day car, a piece of two-tonne carbonfibre-clad tokenism, or something in between?

DESIGN & STYLING

Bentley Continental GT3-R rear

A hardcore Bentley performance machine is a concept shot through with contradictions from the start. Anyone inclined to dismiss this car without giving it a fair hearing will need to look no further than its kerb weight for justification.

Bentley’s official claim, including the 75kg allowance for a passenger and luggage mandated by the EU standard, is 2195kg. On MIRA’s scales, our test car showed 2285kg with its 90-litre tank full of fuel. Too much for a great driver’s car? We’ll come to that.

The car’s stability control software has also been retuned to make the GT3-R the first Bentley to feature torque vectoring via the brakes

The more important question is whether Crewe could have done more to save weight without compromising on the material lavishness and silver-tongued luxury on which every Bentley trades – and extended experience of this car makes it a hard one to answer.

Having started with a Continental GT V8 S, Bentley threw out the car’s back seats and fitted new, lighter front ones. It also replaced the interior doorcards with carbonfibre alternatives, found a titanium exhaust for the car worth a 7kg saving all on its own and fitted lightweight machine-forged 21in alloy wheels and carbon-ceramic brake discs as standard.

Altogether, the GT3-R’s diet amounts to a 100kg weight loss, but the car still comes with a double-glazed glasshouse, thick aluminium body panels, a relatively heavy and complex air-sprung suspension system, four-wheel drive, massager seats and a motorised bootlid.

Some of that may be indispensable to any modern Bentley, but equally, our sources suggest that the engineers’ weight-saving mission ran out of time before it ran out of opportunity.

The mechanical changes to the car aren’t earth-shattering, but there’s a promising, businesslike directness about them. The car is powered by the twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 engine from the GT V8, because that’s the basis of Bentley’s racing engine – and since we prefer it to the older W12 anyway, it’s good news as far as we’re concerned. New turbos produce peaks of 572bhp and 516lb ft of torque from it, up from 521bhp and 502lb ft in the GT V8 S.

Just as importantly, a shorter final drive ratio (3.5:1, down from 2.85) for the eight-speed automatic gearbox makes for even more greatly enhanced sprinting potential than the power hike alone implies. While the GT V8 S pulls just under 45mph per 1000rpm in top gear, the GT3-R pulls only 37.6mph. Top speed is reduced to 170mph as a result.

The car’s air-sprung, adaptively damped suspension has been retuned, but it’s otherwise carried over from the V8 S – which seems something of a disappointment. But the car’s stability control software has also been retuned, not to mention augmented to make the GT3-R the first Bentley to feature torque vectoring via the brakes. The standard four-wheel drive system, which splits power 40/60 percent front to rear by default, remains.

INTERIOR

Bentley Continental GT3-R driver's seat

It’s almost impossible to sit in a Continental GT now without musing on its age. Previous to the Volkswagen Group’s overlordship, an elderly Bentley could be appreciated like a first-edition book or a vinyl record cover, the leather and wood absorbing time and patina as if layered onto it like so much French polish.

The GT, though, is far too modern to grow old so gracefully. Instead, it’s rather like watching an effects-laden blockbuster from the late 1990s: everything is recognisably in place, yet also now very clearly out of date. 

The door casings are made from rather beautiful lacquered carbonfibre, but that’s worth about as much as titanium earrings on a hippo

Bentley knows this, of course, and so with the GT3-R it does what it has been doing for the past half decade and dazzles you with its lavish materials and fine craftsmanship. And even in 2015, it does that to intoxicating effect.

The cabin’s chief difference, though, is to be found directly behind you, where the rear seats have been plundered in the interests of weight reduction. But that paring down extends to almost nothing else in the cabin.

Yes, the door casings are made from rather beautiful lacquered carbonfibre, as are some of the fascia panels elsewhere, but that’s worth about as much in the GT’s case as titanium earrings on a hippo.

Quite obviously, the cabin architecture behind it all – and the level of kit on top – hasn’t been asked to shed a solitary gram. Even the new, bespoke sport seats, dropped in for their additional support, appear to be the racing bucket equivalent of La-Z-Boys.

Except that nothing originating from the United States has ever been as well stitched together as these – the leather and diamond-quilted Alcantara being almost as satisfying to pore over as they are to sit in.

That, in a nutshell, describes the wonderful incongruity of the GT3-R: it’s trying to be at once plumped up and pared down. Entire swathes of tactile hide – some of it dyed a zesty shade of lime green – decorate the dashboard, and it’s all very nice indeed.

But the inescapable fact is that Bentley has treated its matinee idol to an injection of Botox, where some will argue that industrial-level liposuction was called for.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Continental GT3-R does 0-62mph in 3.7secs

Just when you thought that making a regular Bentley Continental GT travel from 0-60mph in 4.5sec was impressive, along comes the GT3-R. The GT3-R’s weight may yet hold it back from being all the driver’s car it could be, but one thing it doesn’t do is prevent it from being devastatingly accelerative.

Partly that’s due to the 572bhp that the 4.0-litre V8 develops, but at least as much is a result of the lower gearing. Yet still there’s no launch control at work here; you simply tense the transmission by easing the accelerator down a touch with the brake pedal applied, then remove your left foot from the brake pedal and stamp the throttle down to the floor with your right foot.

You’re shoved firmly into the seats and destined to remain pinned there until the speedo reads well into three figures

If you have the space and nerve, 60mph will pass just 3.7sec later, which is the fastest time we have ever recorded for a car that weighs more than two tonnes (the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport sneaked just 5kg under that), and the weight doesn’t hold it back much after that, either.

The Bentley passes 100mph in only 8.2sec and completes a standing quarter mile in 12.0sec precisely. That latter time is a second clear of a Mercedes-Benz S 63 AMG Coupé and only a second slower than a Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, which, remember, has 731bhp and weighed in at only 1630kg on our scales.

Such are the benefits of the Bentley’s broad powerband and a four-wheel drive system that can vary the amount of power it sends to the front wheels to between 15 percent and 65 percent of the total. There is simply no tyre slip under even maximum acceleration. There is, however, no shortage of drama.

This is partly because you’re shoved firmly into the seats and destined to remain pinned there until the speedo reads well into three figures. But it’s also because, although the GT3-R will not spoil Bentley’s reputation for refinement, in removing some noise insulation and installing the titanium exhaust, the V8 engine has been allowed to emit a bit more of a bellow as it makes its way towards its 6200rpm redline.

It doesn’t do that without turbo lag, even at higher revs, but such is the torque and power when it does arrive that you will never feel short-changed by the response. The automatic gearbox keeps up with it admirably and is more responsive than the large, old-fashioned gear selector and huge, column-mounted shift paddles suggest that it’s going to be. 

The brakes are strong, too, as well they might be, given the weight they have to retard time and again. The GT3-R, despite its name, is not really a track car, but they stood up to the abuse of our handling circuit remarkably well.

RIDE & HANDLING

Bentley Continental GT3-R

Bentley’s engineers have one of the harder jobs in motoring, because they make heavy cars that are meant to be both luxurious and sporting and whose top speeds usually start with a two.

Marrying those things isn’t without compromise, so it’s a credit to them that the GT3-R is as pleasing to drive as it is and that it rides as well as it does, particularly given that – in order to retain decent control – they’ve stiffened the front spring rates by 45 percent and the rears by 33 percent.

The GT3-R is still a fine car to drive over distances, putting up decent resistance to undulations, crests and dips

The damping stiffness can still be varied from the cabin, and while ideally you’d want the body control from its firmest setting yet the comfort of the softest setting, a point somewhere in the middle does an extremely good job.

The ride is really little worse than that of a standard Continental GT, which means the GT3-R is still a fine car to drive over distances, absorbing bad surfaces well and putting up decent resistance to undulations, crests and dips.

Naturally, it’s stable at higher speeds, too, with middling-speed and confidently weighted steering that’s solid and moderately responsive. Given where the GT3-R could have ended up, it’s an impressive piece of dynamic kit.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Bentley Continental GT3-R

While it’s important to take a critical view and to benchmark cars like the GT3-R, this test will be of limited use if you’re only now deciding that it’s exactly the sort of machine that’s been missing from your motoring life.

The production of 300 cars is now all but run, the entirety of the UK’s allocation (34 cars, according to unofficial sources) is sold and only a handful of unsold examples remain in franchise stock around the world.

Limited supply should keep residual values higher than the GT’s normal standard, but exactly how much higher remains to be seen

So while the idea of importing a right-hand-driver from, say, Japan or South Africa wouldn’t be out of the question for anyone well heeled enough to afford the car’s £237,500 asking price in the first place, the plain truth is that even abroad you’ll be very lucky to find a Bentley dealer with a GT3-R to sell. And unlike with the Continental Supersports, there will be no convertible version.

The GT3-R’s price tag plainly reflects the situation Bentley found itself in after the abundance of interest shown in the original GT3 concept of 2012.

A 40 percent premium over even a W12 GT Speed is a big one for the Continental – but the rate at which Bentley has sold the cars would suggest that it’s not too big. Limited supply should keep residual values higher than the GT’s normal standard, but exactly how much higher remains to be seen.

That question will certainly be a bigger one for GT3-R owners than whether they’ll get 20mpg on a mixed run. For what it’s worth, our testing suggests that they won’t. Claimed fuel economy on a combined cycle is 22.3mpg, however during our thorough test we averaged 17.7mpg, even registering as low as 4.7mpg during heavy-footed runs.

VERDICT

4 star Bentley Continental GT3-R

The Bentley’s spring rates are massively stiffer than standard and it has been lowered by 10mm. It’s built in limited numbers and all are sold. 

The Continental GT3-R’s dynamics, frankly, could have taken quite a dive and it wouldn’t necessarily have mattered had Bentley shrugged its shoulders and said: “Well, it’s authentic to the racing car.” Buyers would still have been satisfied.

An even lighter, even keener GT would be more authentic to the race car and more rewarding still

So it’s a credit to Bentley that it didn’t do that and the GT3-R drives as well as it does, but it’s still difficult to shake the feeling that the car isn’t quite all it could be.

Yes, it’s pleasing to drive, and usefully keener than a regular GT, but it still weighs more than two and a quarter tonnes. An even lighter, even keener GT would be more authentic to the race car and more rewarding still.

However, while to us it feels like the answer to a question no one asked, apparently 300 people are keen enough to know the answer, which makes it another motorsport-inspired Bentley victory.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes.