For two decades, Bentley’s roaring success has been underpinned by the sheer power and sophistication of the 6.0-litre twin-turbo W12 engine. Not only is this engine robust and efficient, but it also offers an unparalleled level of refinement, setting new benchmarks for its category. The compact W12 has been the performance lifeblood of Bentley since the debut of the iconic Continental GT in 2003.
However, as the revered automobile manufacturer embarks on its ambitious Beyond100 strategy towards comprehensive electrification, the celebrated W12 is gearing up for its swan-song. Production is set to draw to a close in April 2024, signalling the end of an era for this stalwart of Bentley engineering.
To mark the end of the road for the W12, Bentley invited GTspirit to enjoy the latest generation Continental in the Swiss/French Alps, before I headed back to Crewe, in the UK, to try a few more W12 highlights which were produced in the past two-decades.
The first generation of Continental GT was game changer, not just for the definition of what a GT car was, but also for Bentley. The Continental GT was the first car to leave Crewe following the change of ownership, the company was no longer under the control of Rolls-Royce following a sale to Volkswagen in 1998 for £479,000,000, a deal which involved Ferdinand Piech… you may have heard of him.
Piech was adamant that Bentley should revolutionise the GT car segment, something that was realised with the unveil of the Bentley Continental GT at the Geneva Motor Show of 2003. When Bentley was taken over by VW in 1998 the company delivered 414 cars. At the 2003 unveil, they took 3,200 deposits for the £110,000 Continental GT.
So, what is it like behind the wheel 20 years on? Well, first impressions are that the interior still feels opulent, don’t get me wrong, you would believe it two-decades old, but the fit and finish are excellent. The same can be said for the way this car drives, it’s sold, weighty and quite a pleasure to be behind the wheel… until you feel just how sluggish and gearshifts are, thats the primary component that exposes a cars age. What does not age is the power and torque of the 6.0-litre twin-turbo 48-valve W12 engine. Yes, it may weigh in at 2,385 kilos, but once you’re on the move there is enough hoof underfoot to push you that little bit deeper into the plush drivers seat.
I was impressed by the standard car, and then I was given the keys to the Supersports… this is involuntary expletive territory. In a bold quest to explore the untapped potentials of the Continental GT, Bentley’s Engineering Division embarked on a clandestine mission, the Supersports project. Their aim? To probe the performance implications of a weight-reduced GT. The project’s promising early outcomes captured the attention of the Board, leading to the green-lighting of this exciting venture.
The freshly-minted Supersports emerged, outclassing all previous first-generation Continental GT models in power and weight. Sporting shiny new alloy wheels, carbon fibre-reinforced Silicon Carbide (CSiC) ceramic disc brakes, and a streamlined two-seat cockpit complete with carbon-fibre framed seats, the vehicle achieved a stunning weight loss of approximately 110 kilograms.
The Supersports flexed its muscles with a whopping 621bhp, thanks to a finely tuned engine management system and enhanced airflow management. Adding to its performance credentials was a novel Quickshift transmission, which catapulted the vehicle from 0-100km/h in a blistering 3.7 seconds, shaving nearly a second off the 4.6 second record set by the Continental GT. The Supersport feels quick by any standard, a brute in a suit with Bugatti Veyron seats and baby Veyron power, although the gearbox was still somewhat slow.
Next up was another Supersports, this time from the second gen. You may think Bentley played in safe and turned things up a touch from the first generation. Wrong. The world got its first tantalising glimpse of this breathtaking automobile at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2017. Five-time Le Mans champion Derek Bell had the honour of navigating this beast through the legendary hillclimb, marking a momentous public debut for the Supersports.
The Continental Supersports delivered a heart-stopping 700 hp at 6,000 rpm and 1,017 Nm of torque between 2,050–4,500 rpm. It featured a ZF 8-speed automatic, which was much snappier than that found in the previous generations. The car’s stopping power was entrusted to carbon silicon carbide discs, cooled by an enhanced system, measuring 420 mm (17 in) at the front and 356 mm (14 in) at the rear.
Adding to the Supersports’ high-performance persona were its 21-inch forged alloy wheels, optional titanium exhaust system, a state-of-the-art torque vectoring system, and a precisely-tuned dynamic suspension set-up for maximum grip and agility. The result was a lightning-quick 0-100km/h sprint in just 3.4 seconds, while its top speed maxed out at an exhilarating 336km/h. With the 2017 Continental Supersports, Bentley once again pushed the limits of luxury performance vehicles. A special mention to that exhaust, this is the only Bentley I have driven that pops and bangs on downshifts it’s very naughty and surprising to be in a Bentley that does this, amusing!
That takes me back to my drive on the current, and final iteration of the Bentley W12 which I enjoyed in the French & Swiss Alps. Looking back, my impressions across all of the W12 Bentleys I have piloted are overwhelmingly similar. Each car has an effortless feeling of capability and reassurance that whenever you choose the gearbox will kick down and couple of gears and that W12 will fire you toward the horizon with no fuss or drama.
The latest iteration of Continental GT with a W12 is an experience that is difficult to compare to its GT rivals, the engine is an entering marvel and I will be sad to see it leave the range as Bentley retires it. There will forever be a place in my heart for the W12, particularly in the first gen Supersports!