Rapid Review: Taking Bentley's new Continental GT V-8 S to the track

Rapid Review: Taking Bentley's new Continental GT V-8 S to the track
The 2014 Bentley Continental GT V-8 S adds a dollop of sport to the automaker's base model. (James Lipman / Bentley)

Roaring down a racetrack at 140 mph, plowing through a chicane, carving up a hairpin turn, this is not the typical environment of Bentleys.

The valet stand at Nobu, perhaps. Or pulling off Sunset Boulevard into Bel-Air. But Bentley has a racing heritage it says is baked into all of its models, including its newest: the sport-oriented Continental GT V-8 S. And the automaker wants buyers to know about it.

So we're out in Thermal on an unseasonably hot March morning taking a brilliant blue, 5,000-pound, $250,000 coupe around a course more appropriate for a lithe little Porsche Cayman than a lumbering Bentley.

PHOTOS: Bentley's Continental GT V-8 S

As out of place as a Bentley may be, if you're going to choose one to punish on a track, this might as well be it. The new Continental GT V-8 S picks up where the base V-8 leaves off.

The lesser V-8 model is our favorite Bentley. Introduced for the first time in this second generation of the Continental GT, it has nearly the power of the W-12 model, looks identical from the outside, and costs thousands of dollars less.

But the lighter V-8 under the arching hood of the baby Continental means it's a dash more nimble and responsive. The exhaust note is actually something you can hear, and the entire car just feels more alive in your hands than the more prodding and locked-down W-12.

Looking to sweeten the V-8's recipe is the new S variant.

For an additional $12,000 over the base V-8 model, the S adds 21 horsepower, 15 pound-feet of torque, a stiffer, re-tuned steering rack and adjustable air suspension, and various trim upgrades inside and outside the car.

This means 521 total horsepower and 502 pound-feet of torque reduce the zero-to-60-mph times to 4.3 seconds for the V-8 S Coupe and 4.5 seconds for the convertible.

The rest of the burly, 4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V-8 remains unchanged, as does the eight-speed automatic transmission, and the full-time all-wheel-drive.

Another bonus that either version of the V-8 brings to the table is greater fuel efficiency. In addition to direct injection, the engine can seamlessly shut down half its cylinders under light loads to sip, rather than guzzle, fuel.

Both the V-8 and V-8 S models are rated by the EPA at 15 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway. After more than 300 miles of testing the V-8 S in more highway than city driving, we averaged a healthy 19 mpg. Not bad for an all-wheel-drive car with 521 horsepower.

But our morning in Thermal was decidedly less efficient. So it goes when you're lapping a track in a whale of a car. While the experience was fun, it was also a bit silly. Exactly zero potential buyers would or should use their Continental in this manner.

It would be impossible for Bentley to churn out a true track-rat version of this car that also appeals to its clients' actual leisurely intentions. The throttle response is still a bit too tepid for the track, and the steering didn't have the immediacy you hope for on a closed course. And the optional carbon ceramic brakes ($13,875) still started to fade in the desert heat after hard laps of slowing down a very heavy car.

Off the track, in this Bentley's more natural habitat of cruising up California's coastline, the S model is as impressive as you would hope our loaded $276,985 tester would be. The transmission is sublime, with shifts so well-timed and seamless, it convinces you it's a dual-clutch unit.

The $2,480 sports exhaust is a far better use of your money than the $7,300 Naim audio system because you'll actually notice a difference when you add the former to the car. Put the transmission in Sport mode and mash on the gas pedal and the car roars off with a low purr that sounds like an old prop plane. Is it immediately clear this is the S model rather than the base V-8? No, but it does feel tighter on its feet.

This is how Bentley owners will actually use the car, not at the track. And the automaker knows it. But Bentley also knows putting a customer or a potential customer on a track for half a day in one its cars is an excellent way to sell them.

The brand does five to six of these events a year throughout the U.S.. They generally focus on what's called the Smile States: key cities of monied loyalists that can be traced in the shape of a smile from the Tri-State area, down to Miami, across to Houston and Dallas, and then over to Southern California. (Ok, that's more like a J than a smile, but it's their term, not mine).

Each event ends up with two to three people taking home a new car on average, Bentley said. For a brand that sold just under 3,000 cars in the U.S. in 2013, that's not a bad way to move some metal off the dealer's lots.

And no, these drives aren't open to the public. Potential buyers are culled from dealers who ostensibly can tell the difference between a schlub looking for a quick morning drive in the desert and someone ready to spend six figures on a car.

The new Continental GT V-8 S goes on sale in April. When it does, it will start at $194,600 for the coupe and $214,000 for the convertible.