Three fun drives in a Bentley, an Audi and a Mustang
What better way to kick off summer than taking engaging drives in three sporty, but very different, cars. Back-to-back trips out west had me behind the wheels of the Bentley Continental GT V8 in the San Francisco area and the Audi Q8 in Utah and Arizona, preceded by a test of the Ford Mustang GT350 in Michigan.
Now in its third generation, the 2020 Continental GT (and GTC convertible) first hit the market in 2003 and has successfully carved out a unique niche as a powerful but comfortable two-plus-two touring coupe in the ultra-luxury segment.
Christophe Georges, CEO, Bentley Americas, contends that the Continental’s winning design formula and lack of direct rivals has accorded the model icon status on a par with a handful of other cars, such as the Porsche 911 and the Mini.
And unlike some British high-end brands, which continue to struggle with poor customer satisfaction ratings in the U.S., Georges claims Bentley has really paid attention to feedback from American consumers, and modified its cars to suit.
“We spend a lot of money conducting vehicle review clinics with existing and potential customers in the U.S., years ahead of production so we have time to correct issues,” says Georges. “Bentley’s value is well appreciated by U.S. customers.”
Value is a relative term. Though the Continental GT coupe pricing starts at a reasonable – for ultra-luxury cars - $198,500 ($218,350 for the convertible), it’s shockingly easy to leap well into mid-$200,000 territory by ticking a few option boxes.
That noted, the real question is whether the latest generation Continental continues to deliver the exceptional driving experience that has made its predecessor so desirable. The 2020 model comes with a 4.0-liter V-8, which may seem like a step down from the alternative 12-cylinder motor, but in reality the sacrifice is minimal. The new engine has ample power (542-hp and 568 lb-ft of torque), at least for U.S. driving conditions. Coupled to a quick shifting eight-speed transmission and an all-wheel-drive system, the twin-turbo V-8 is always ready to accelerate hard, whether for overtaking or powering out of a corner on a winding road.
The 0 to 60 mph dash takes 3.9 seconds and the car will top out at 198 mph if you can find a place to do it. Select sport mode and the engine produces a deep-throated burble, which can be entertaining for a while, but the car’s quiet and refined long distance touring character is best experienced in the comfort setting.
For a vehicle of its considerable size and weight, the Continental GT handles more like a compact sports car, with crisp steering response, pliant ride quality and excellent, near-flat cornering attitude. Big Pirelli P Zero tires (on 20, 21 or 22-inch wheels) provide ample grip, although they roar noticeably over grainy pavement.
A major part of the Continental’s appeal is its exquisite interior, which blends digital displays and modern controls with old-school wood veneer trim and chromed push/pull levers for the air vents.
There are a myriad of trim choices and options, some of which can add alarmingly to the bottom line. The result is a bewitching visual and functional feast for the driver and passenger, highlighted by a rotating, three sided display in the center of the dashboard. At the push of a button, the display switches between a navigation screen, a set of three traditional gauges and a wood veneer panel.
There are some quirks: The infotainment system control settings are overly conservative, preventing the driver from silencing the navigation commands easily (as rival systems allow) or disabling certain features while moving, notably the system that automatically slows the car when encountering lower speed limits.
Rear vision is compromised because of the small and heavily raked back window. However in the convertible version, this problem is easily solved by lowering the roof. The top itself is finely engineered and goes up or down in a swift 19 seconds, and can be operated at up to 30 mph.
In sum, the latest Continental takes a gem and polishes it to shine even brighter, with all the technology, craftsmanship, and sheer style that a classic grand touring car could want.
Sporty Audi Q8 has style and utility
Moving down a few steps from the ultra-luxury segment, but staying within the VW Group family, I spent time touring the back roads of Utah and Arizona in a 2019 Audi Q8. My mission was to compete in the Grand Canyon half-marathon, which this year was to be held in a remote location on the north rim, plus do some sight-seeing in around Zion National Park.
Though I had driven the Q8 at its launch last year, the chance to spend more time in Audi’s range-topping SUV was appealing. My route would test the vehicle in a wide variety of conditions, from freeway driving to occasionally tricky off-road trails.
With an as-equipped cost of $89,940 (base price $67,400), my Q8 was a far cry from the Bentley’s price point, but still ticked many of the boxes in terms of luxury accoutrements. In fact, the Q8’s slick, three-screen infotainment system is more sophisticated than the Bentley’s, and easier to manage.
This Audi is positioned as a sporty, coupe-like alternative to its Q7 sibling, which has a three-row, seven-seat cabin versus the Q8’s two-row, five-passenger design. As such, the Q8 made for a comfortable and practical means of transport for myself, as well as two fellow half-marathon competitors plus all our luggage and hiking gear.
On the freeway from Las Vegas to Kanab, Utah, we encountered temperatures as high as 121 degrees and the Audi’s AC system was taxed to its limits.
The car’s 3.0-liter V6 delivers its 335-hp smoothly and quietly to all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission. The only negative is the car’s reluctance to move off smartly from a standstill. The transmission is sluggish initially and then bolts forward abruptly, which can be unnerving until you adapt your driving style.
On rugged unpaved trails, the Q8 managed ruts and potholes, but ultimately the lack of sufficient ground clearance and a drive mode for deep sand curtailed some of our more ambitious trips into the wilderness.
On the plus side our car’s standard panoramic sunroof not only helped make the all-black interior seem more airy, but enhanced views of the spectacular mountain scenery in Zion National Park.
The Q8 does a fine job of exploiting a subset of the booming luxury SUV market, a segment for consumers who want to blend a touch of style and driving fun with their sensible crossovers.
Mustang GT350 is at home on the track
Stepping out of the luxury class altogether we come to the final car in my testing trio, the 2019 Ford Mustang GT350. This Mustang has two doors and four seats, like the Bentley Continental GT, but that’s where the similarities end, except perhaps in terms of performance.
The GT350’s 5.2-liter V-8 delivers a solid 526-hp, which is not far off the Bentley’s output and results in a similar 0 to 60 mph time of 3.7 seconds and a top speed of 180 mph.
No one will confuse the driving characters of the Bentley and the Mustang. The Ford’s fast and furious, track-focused manner is designed for an entirely different audience.
Happily, the GT350 is just civilized enough for driving around town, its six-speed manual transmission surprisingly smooth and easy to manipulate. But where this Mustang comes alive is on the track. Ford treated us to a day at the M1 Concourse circuit in Pontiac, where the GT350’s bellowing, high-revving powerplant made for a compelling companion on the tight track.
Shod with excellent Michelin Cup 2 high performance tires, the GT350’s grip levels are well matched to its performance. Powerful, six-caliper Brembo brakes will slow the action when needed. Suffice to say, the GT350 is an excellent track car, even if your skills are modest, and a decent road car given its hard-core specifications.
For $61,535, the 350GT is sure to extend the appeal of the Mustang, which is already the world’s best selling sports car.
While my three summer cars are dramatically different in nature, they all share a key characteristic; a focus on delivering a highly entertaining driving experience.
John McCormick can be reached at email@example.com