Ferrari 599? That's a bold claim. The Supersports is, after all, a derivative of the Continental GT -- an overweight four-seat GT, not a lithe supercar. Well yes, but after an "engineering drive" of a late prototype, we can confirm the Continental Supersports has come a long way from your garden-variety Continental GT.
A rework of the twin-turbo engine sees peak power rise to 621 horsepower. The torque rises seven percent to 590 pound-feet, developed on a level line from 2500 rpm to 4000. And the engine doesn't have such a hard job: vehicle weight has fallen by 242 pounds.
The biggest slim-fast aids are the front seats, a pair of Bentley-upholstered Sparco carbon fiber shells. They have recline and reach adjustments -- non-electric -- but to move them in any other direction means the use of a wrench. Besides, there's no rear seat. Instead, it's a baggage bench with carbon-fiber retaining member.
The interior might be lighter but it's still pretty plush. If your bags are used to an aircraft hold, they'll enjoy reclining on the ultrasoft quilted Alcantara in the rear cabin of the Supersports. Up front, the driver enjoys new instrument faces, styled to recall the clocks on the first 100-mph Bentley, the 1925 Supersports.
Carbon brakes are standard, as are extra-lightweight wheels, and the front suspension gets aluminum lower leading links (the other three links and the uprights were aluminum anyway). This is not just weight, but unsprung weight. And in the case of the wheels and brake rotors, rotating weight. Well worth losing.
All of which means the 0-60 mph figure is now a brutal 3.7 seconds, without rollout. And top speed rises to 204 mph. To keep the engine cool and boost power, there are vast intercooler intakes at the lower corners of the front clip. New hood vents help extract the enormous gusts of hot air. The rear wheels have more offset than on the base Continental, so the rack is wider, necessitating different rear fender pressings.
Dr Ulrich Eichhorn, Bentley's engineering director, takes the driving seat first as we leave the historic factory in Crewe, in England's North West. The car's deep, soft, slightly syncopated W-12 beat is more prominent than usual -- its tailpipes are bigger and the rear of the car carries less soundproofing as well as missing the absorbent rear seat. We like this noise. There's a bit more tire roar too but this is still a civilized car.
Eichhorn is a swift, clean, and decisive driver. We're soon out into the twisting English roads, with their unpredictable second- and third-gear curves and treacherous wet and bumpy surfaces. We are not hanging about. He demonstrates the car's marvelously disciplined body control as it dips and crests.
The acceleration is properly urgent. Upshifts through the six-speed autobox are accompanied by a fusillade of backfires: It's a new quickshift strategy that engages each new ratio in half the time, and cuts just the ignition not the fueling.
Eichhorn floors the throttle in a tight curve and shows how the tail will loosen up, thanks to a more rear-biased Torsen center differential. But normally the car just seems to magnetize itself to each apex.
We swap places. First thing to be noticed from the driver's seat is the sharpness of the steering. The rack is revised, but so is the electronic damper strategy, so the roll rate is better controlled, and the car scythes into a curve with progression, directness, and reassurance. Eichhorn also says that the yaw center has been moved forward -- the car "turns around the driver." That wasn't possible before because he says it would seem upsetting to rear passengers.
And yes, the car is inclined to steer on the throttle a little. It has been raining hard by the time MT gets to drive, and the traction is immense, helped by the wider rear tread. But more notable is that you can get on the throttle early in a bend and the car pulls itself to the apex rather than understeering away from it, its looser ESP calibration keeping the boost up nicely.
So what about those Ferrari comparisons then? Well, because the Supersports is so capable in the wet and the 599 can so easily overwhelm its rear tires in those conditions, I'm sure the Bentley would have been quicker on the day, and easier to drive thanks to its immense torque. But the Supersports is still more than half a ton heavier than the Ferrari. It wears its pounds well, but not that well.
On the other hand, its air suspension means the Supersports driver can alter the spring rates and the damping, so when switched to comfort mode this is an unusually cosseting sports car for the daily commute.
And a low-guilt one. The Supersports is Bentley's first E85-capable car, and it was an extensive engine calibration job to get it there. It can run on any mixture from E0 to E85 with no change in power. Bentley will offer this capability as standard across its fleet by 2012.
So the fastest-ever Bentley is the greenest-ever Bentley. Eichhorn felt it important to launch in this way, showing that the two aims aren't entirely irreconcilable.