Good: a classic Bentley in every sense - fast, practical, rugged
Not so good: poor rear seat space, clunky infotainment
You know how you can be too close to a subject and not understand how other people aren't experts in it? Like when you just can't believe that someone doesn't know when Ayrton Senna scored his first win in Formula One (Portugal, 1984 - you think I had to look that up?) or who won the best actor Oscar in 1994 (Tom Hanks for Philadelphia). Or that Bentley and Rolls-Royce are actually two separate companies.
I guess that last one is somewhat understandable because the two greatest names in British luxury motoring were joined at the hip since Bentley couldn't pay its mortgage in 1931 and Rolls-Royce bought the firm. Many Bentley enthusiasts reckon that 1931 was the last time a true Bentley was ever built, as Rolls increasingly turned Bentley into a badge-engineered sister brand for its own cars. Aside from the short-lived Continental R of the 1950s, it wasn't until the eighties' Turbo R that Bentleys began to become distinct from Rollers once again.
In 1998 though, the separation began when Volkswagen and BMW fought over the rights to buy and own both firms. BMW ended up with Rolls-Royce (thanks to buying the rights to the name from the aircraft engine maker that is the actual, real Rolls-Royce) while Volkswagen got Bentley. And in 2003, it produced the first stand-alone Bentley for decades - the Continental GT.
A dozen years on, the Conti GT has a few questions to answer. With a resurgent Rolls-Royce now a rival, can it compete? Can a V8 model, with an engine effectively borrowed from Audi, ever be as good as the one with the mighty 6.0-litre W12 engine? And, what's the difference between a Bentley and a Rolls anyway?
That last one is the easiest to answer. A Rolls-Royce is haughty, a Bentley is sporty. Simple, but it speaks of a world of difference. Rollers are driven, in image terms, by captains of industry, world leaders and the odd megalomaniac (cough - Simon Cowell - cough). Bentleys, in spite of being pretty exclusive and expensive, are somehow more attainable, less aloof. The fact that they're supposed to be fun to drive makes them more bloke-y, no matter that those early Le Mans successes were essentially bankrolled by Woolf Barnato, a wealthy playboy who made his fortune in South African diamonds.
That answer leads to a definitive answer on the engine front. You see, impressive though the W12 engine (essentially two VR6 engines mounted back-to-back on a common crankshaft) is, I've never felt that it's quite a Bentley engine. In fact, it's rather more Rolls-Royce in character - all turbine smoothness and distant whooshing, as the scenery flashes past at warp speed.
This V8, basically the same 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 you get in an Audi RS 6, is very much more a Bentley engine and you can tell that from the second you thumb the chrome-ringed starter button. It crackles noisily to life in a way that would be utterly alien to the discreet purr of a Rolls. It rumbles and growls like someone emptying a bucket of tigers down a lift shaft, all metallic roars with a deep bass background. It's a fantastic noise, one that's almost (but not quite) enough to render the ear-splitting Naim stereo in the cabin redundant.
It's also as quick as the bigger engine, which seems a bit like witchcraft. The 521hp and 680Nm(!) are nothing to be sneezed at, but the W12 is packing 575hp and the V8 is only 25kg lighter. Yet it records the same 4.5-second 0-100km/h time, launching off the line in a flurry of four-wheel drive traction and a sound like someone's been poking God with a stick. It may be related to an Audi, but this is a proper Bentley power unit. It hushes up perfectly when you want to cruise (aided by double-glazed windows and headlining that must weigh as much as some small cars) but grumbles back into instant audible life when you want to have some fun. Which is a lot.
Even so, it won't break the Monte Carlo bank when it comes to fuel costs. Hardly the greatest concern to someone who can afford the asking price, but it's nice to see an engine that actually hits its quoted fuel consumption figure - Bentley says 26.8mpg (10.6 litres/100km) and that's exactly what we got out of it, in spite of the frequent excursions to the borders of Ludicrous Speed.
There is a definite altering of the character of the car with the V8 too. The W12 has always felt hefty and solid, but never quite enough fun. Bentley's continuous tinkering has unearthed a fabulous chassis for the V8 though - this is a big, 2.2-tonne car that can shimmy and twist with the best. The way it flies, body utterly flat, through a series of corners is just brilliant, the steering is good too - lots of feel, nice weight. Better still, select any of the five positions between Comfort and Sport for the adjustable dampers and the effect is the same. No matter how stiffly you set it up, the Conti GT never gets harsh or even too firm. Yet no matter how soft you set it, it also never wallows or rolls. Quite remarkable.
The cabin is somewhat more of a mixed bag. The design, with the twin sweeps of the fascia reflecting the winged-shape of Bentley's badge, is gorgeous and the seats are some of the most comfortable things your buttocks will ever caress. The quality levels are just off-the-scale good too; just look at how the contrast stitching lines up so perfectly. Someone who made this cabin really, really cared about making it right. And the chromed organ-stop switches that open and close the air vents? Gorgeous to both look at and use. Why can't all cars be this nice?
The problem is that the Conti GT shows its age a little inside. A dozen years old now, the cabin can't hide the fact that the infotainment touch screen is ageing a lot now (and has been seen moonlighting in various Skodas) and the switchgear has fallen a step behind the best. It all works fine, but you can sense the grey hairs beneath the Just For Men. On top of which the rear seats are tiny (if sumptuously upholstered) and the boot is smaller than what you'd get in a Peugeot 308.
Can we forgive it these foibles? Yes, and a lot more easily than we can forgive the blinding Monaco Yellow paint job of our test car (looks great in photos, looks daft on the street). This is a proper, real, unexpurgated Bentley - mixing sports and luxury like Heston Blumenthal mixes mayonnaise. It feels hefty, chunky and rugged (and that four-wheel drive gives you huge confidence when the conditions are less than perfect) yet it's also comfortable, quiet and relaxed on a long journey. And that engine - whoever thought that you could take away four cylinders and yet make a better car? With that crackling V8 soundtrack, this is definitely the Bentley to have.
Ferrari FF: four-wheel drive and four seats, but massively more expensive.
Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe: sleek and sexy but doesn't have the same image as the Bentley.
Rolls-Royce Wraith: essays a similar sporty/luxury ideal but again, it's much more expensive.