The superb V8 engine breaths new life into the Bentley Continental GTC, without completely changing the formula established back in 2006

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When Bentley and Rolls-Royce were split by BMW and Volkswagen in 1998, there were fears that neither firms' ethos would survive the fragmentation. Those were allayed in 2003 when the Continental GT appeared, with its huge pace and majestic looks and its rise continues today with the facelifted second-generation.

The four-door Flying Spur and drop-top GTC were introduced in 2005 and have been subsquently replaced too. In 2009, the limited-edition 621bhp Supersports showed that Bentley was still capable of producing something resembling the most unlikely super-fast bruisers it was famous for.

Can Bentley's suave convertible cut it with a V8 instead of a W12?

Some will find it comforting to think of Bentley's implied heavyweight sporting elegance as an intransigent part of Britain's automotive landscape: as evocative as the thwack of willow on leather, the smell of a village pub or the peal of a church bell.

But, in truth, the company is no more resistant to the preoccupations of the 21st century than any other cultural benchmark. And so, like limited-overs cricket or gastropubs, Bentley has moved with the times and, with the considerable help of its German cheque writer, Volkswagen, introduced the green and pleasant version of the Continental GTC that it promised in 2008.

Of course, some things don't change. The continued fitment of the 6.0-litre W12 engine is proof of that. Bentley may have delivered the 40 per cent improvement in economy and emissions that it said it would, but that hefty reduction still permitted the fitment of a twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 petrol engine from Audi that produces 500bhp. The question is: are those 500 four-ringed geldings capable of mimicking Bentley shire horses aboard the mobile amphitheatre that is the GTC?

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Bentley Continental GTC rear

The Continental was always a model child when it came to sharing. Very much a product of Volkswagen's profitable mania for platform recycling, the car infamously shares its underpinnings with the less-than-glamorous Volkswagen Phaeton. The tweaked 6.0-litre W12 engine came as part of the bargain and continues to this day as the 582bhp range-topper. However, with 384g/km of CO2 belching from its 12 cylinders, it must have been clear from the outset that the Bentley engineers would have to delve back into the VW Group parts bin if they hoped to satisfy their directors' environmental boast.

In best downsizing tradition, the forced induction unit they returned with is four pots and 2.0 litres short of the full W, and bristling with Audi technology. Already installed in the Audi S8, the engine's most conspicuous party trick is its capacity for variable displacement (or cylinder deactivation). When the electronic management system detects a throttle opening consistent with a cruise or gentle acceleration, it closes valves in four of the eight cylinders, effectively operating as a V4. Reactivating them takes less than a heartbeat.

In the front seats and with the hood down you'll remain remarkably unruffled. It's breezier in the back, but still quite bearable at a cruise

Bentley's own 6.75-litre V8 already benefits from a similar function, but the new 4.0-litre unit combines it with improved thermal management, an optimised, on-demand electrical system, lower-rolling-resistance tyres and, most important, the eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox that is responsible for a six per cent gain in efficiency on its own. Although most of these features are the result of Audi's expertise, Bentley is at pains to stress that, while not built there, the engine is finished at Crewe to a bespoke configuration that reduces total output by 13bhp but delivers 7lb ft more torque at 1700rpm.

Compared with the GT, the GTC features a slightly more flared rear spoiler, which helps to taper the drop-top's profile neatly. At the front, the most obvious changes are to the headlights which are now ringed by LED lamps - the large, close-set twin headlights have long been a defining feature of the GT.

Externally, the V8-engined GTC has been very gently tailored to differentiate it from the W12 variant. The red enamel background on the winged 'B' badge is a nod to smaller-engined cars of the past, and is complemented by the gloss black mesh of a new radiator grille and air intakes. At the back, two 'figure eight' exhaust pipes have been added to signify the cylinder count up front.

Beyond the two engine choices, those looking for a little more grunt can get the subtley more aggressive Speed models, with the W12 churning out 626bhp and the V8 version 520bhp.


Bentley Continental GTC interior

Bentley may have deferred to another member of the Volkswagen family to source the GTC's V8 hardware, but in terms of interior ambience it has no peer. Partly this is because of the kind of deep-seated heritage and expertise that only ancient British marques espouse, but mostly it's because a cumbersome brief is accomplished without conspicuous effort. Looking at the GTC's innards, one would think that opulence and broad-shouldered athleticism go naturally hand in hand. They do not. It's only a sure hand, clever broad strokes, superb finish and timeless material choices that prevent the convertible from dissolving into an ungainly mess.

As with the exterior, subtle alterations have been made to distinguish the V8 car. A new veneer, Dark Fiddleback Eucalyptus (a name certainly worth repeating), features heavily on the fascia and trim, offset by the textured metallic finish of the dashboard and switchgear. Elsewhere, soft-touch leather abounds - offered in a choice of eight single-tone colours - apart from the headlining, which is now finished in Elidae cloth. The fully automated, four-layer hood is also available in eight colours and it does its job impeccably. At idle, the GTC recorded a reverential 42db, but it is not so insulated that the finer points of the eight-cylinder soundtrack fail to register at a glorious 79db high.

Retaining the big shift lever is a conscious decision - most GTs have have diddy buttons

Of course, the best way to experience it is with the roof lowered. The GTC looks, sounds and scintillates better with wind added. Choose the right options, and it is viable in a remarkably wide range of ambient temperatures. Naturally, the seats are heated as standard, but in March the added neck warmer will convince you to stay out in the open, and in August the seat back ventilation will negate a return to the shade.

Unsurprisingly, the satellite navigation is inherited from Volkswagen, and although that may be a credibility handicap, its functionally is largely beyond reproach. The GTC shares many of the features one would find in a top-of-the-line Volkswagen and comes equipped with sat nav and 15GB of storage. A television tuner can be selected from the options list if you wish, while the standard stereo has sufficient guts to be heard above the wind. However, it takes quite some time to get bored of the sound emanating from under the bonnet.



Bentley Continental GTC side profile

Any lingering doubt you might have had that, with the removal of four cylinders, Bentley might have removed some of the more compelling aspect's of the Continental's performance linger no longer than it takes for your right foot to propel the pedal from rest to carpet.

At our test track, the GTC accelerated from a standstill to 60mph in 4.5 sec, and on to 100mph in just 10.8sec. Given that, a few moments earlier, the V8 had tipped our scales at a fairly monumental 2530kg, that is no mean feat. Bentley's aim was to reduce fuel consumption with this car but, evidently, didn't necessarily ally that to a particular drop in weight. It's only 15kg less than the W12 GTC we road tested in 2006.

The Audi-sourced 4.0-litre V8 has been tweaked by Bentley to generate 7lb ft more torque for 487lb ft in all

However, it isn't so much the acceleration figures that impress, as the way that the V8 GTC goes about its business.

As befits a car sporting a winged 'B' on its prow, the GTC has a duality of character. Woofle about at low speeds and low revs and it'll shift gears on the eight-speed auto 'box almost imperceptibly, while emitting the kind of muted yet powerful-sounding exhaust 'whump' that makes a pleasing accompaniment to any automotive promenade.

However, beyond 2750rpm on anything more than a moderate throttle opening, the V8's character changes, taking on a genuine eight-cylinder growl and adding a hefty dose of extra performance.

But just how much performance does it have compared with its W12 predecessor? Ample. The W12 convertible we road tested in 2006 actually wanted longer - 5.0sec - to hit 60mph from rest. As far as we're concerned, unless you're particularly fascinated by the engineering layout of the 6.0-litre W12 model, there is absolutely no reason to look beyond the V8, particularly given the extra economy that it offers, which we'll come to in a moment.


Bentley Continental GTC rear cornering

You might think that, because of its kerb weight, the Bentley GTC is rather better at the ride than the handling part of this section. And, by and large, you'd be right.

Even on its enormous 21-inch alloy wheels and taking the 35-profile of its 275-section tyres into consideration, the Bentley is a fine-riding car. It's possible to set the air springs to any of a range of softness settings between Comfort and Sport, but actually there proves little point in shifting it too far from a central compromise, which allows both sufficient bump absorption and respectable body control.

Even on a firm setting, though, at no time does the chassis crash or is there anything more than the merest hint of a lack of body rigidity, which manifests as a tiny shimmy of rear-view mirror on truly dreadful road surfaces. If you're wondering why this car weighs a full 225kg more than the W12 Continental GT coupe, look no further than the fact that it feels impressively solid.

The weight has an effect on its handling though. No recent Bentley could be called a sports car, and this is no different. However, it's willing to be hustled along without complaint and it steers positively and accurately, if with no great agility or incision. It stops quickly and trustworthily, too.


Bentley Continental GTC

Just because a car costs £136,000, it doesn't mean that its owners are uninterested in value. Probably the opposite, in fact. So rest assured that the GTC V8 comes well kitted - although as usual it is hopelessly easy to add options to the Bentley. Its worth remembering that when considering depreciation - all cars of this type depreciate heavily, but the V8 will fare better than its 6.0-litre counterpart.

You could easily kit out your GT with must-have extras, such as the carbon brakes and convenience pack, and escape the showroom having spent less than you would on a mid-spec Ferrari California or Aston Martin Virage.

And that economy we mentioned? Normally, an average of 18.6mpg would have precisely nobody penning postcards home, but it represents an improvement (despite the extra weight the convertible carries) of 4mpg, or nearly 30 per cent, on the 6.0 Continental GT we road tested . Our sub-15mpg average economy for that model was poor, but balanced against the GT's immaculate record for reliability, it could be considered a small price to pay.

It's worth bearing in mind that our tests are hard, too. Our touring figure of 27.4mpg is even more promising.


4 star Bentley Continental GTC

The revisions to the Bentley Continental GTC run deep but they don't transform the car, so it's a credit to how well it was engineered in the first instance that it still feels so impressive, solid and satisfying.

Few cars have such a mighty powertrain and, although we're disappointed with the fuel economy, there's little denying the pace and flexibility. They go a long way to making the GT supreme at shortening distances.

The V8 doesn't represent such a wholesale change to the GTC's ethos. It isn't five days of test cricket foreshortened to 50 or 20 overs. Instead, the new V8's arrival is like being allowed to switch on the floodlights to play in restricted light: eminently more sensible, but not game-changing. No, the general ethos to the GTC remains the same. This is still a 2.5-tonne, four-seat, four-wheel-drive convertible that will only average 20mpg if you're a bit careful with it.

The ride is not as compliant as its most cosseting rivals'. However, there are a few cars that can get away with such idiosyncrasies and, thanks to a feeling that it's impeccably and individually built, the Continental GT is one of them. It has its failings, yes, but it also has charm.

We wouldn't countenance a machine like this arriving from, say, Honda; yet, somehow, every one of our testers found it remarkably difficult to do anything but gently fall for the graceful Bentley and its wily charms. Six years ago, when we originally road tested the Continental GTC, we said that it was the most authentic production yet from Bentley in the Volkswagen age. Today, times have changed, but its sense of occasion means that it remains as special as ever.

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. 

Bentley Continental GTC 2011-2019 First drives