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2010 Bentley Continental Supersports (BENTLEY)
2010 Bentley Continental Supersports (BENTLEY)

First Drive: 2010 Bentley Continental Supersports

Bentley beauty is a beast Add to ...

We'll call this one the truly brutal Bentley.

The Bentley Continental Supersports, from its 4.1-second 0-100 km/h time to its claimed 325 km/h top speed, to carbon-ceramic brakes as big as round Martian spaceships, right down to carbon-fibre moulded seats that look horribly uncomfortable but aren't, and the special leather on the steering wheel that wears forever and offers better grip ... Well, this drop-top takes the Flying B to new extremes.

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Bentley Motors CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen, the tall, aristocratic German whom the Volkswagen Group selected to run its Bentley brand in England, quietly suggests this is the "most potent Bentley drophead ever." Hard to argue with him.

Somehow, someway, Bentley's engineers carved out some time to tinker with the GT Speed just enough to lower it by 10 mm, strip out 90 kg of fat and boost the 6.0-litre, twin-turbo W-12 engine to 621 hp from 600 hp. (Carve out time? Remember, now, a new version of the Continental GT is due for sale in North America in the middle of next year, so the Crewe, England, crew has other things on its collective mind.) Most of the weight came out of the seats, brakes and wheels, though at 2,395 kg, the car is quite a load.

The driving of it? I imagine this is what the Top Gun pilots, the Maverick types, feel when they launch off an aircraft carrier, from nothing to speed in a blink - 590 lb-ft of torque will do that for you.

In the Supersports, it's just a matter of pressing hard on the throttle and bringing the W-12's glorious rumble to life. Oh, it's a rumble, too. There is no other word for it. Not a loud, unrefined roar, mind you, but something along the lines of an aging, proud lion.

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From the driver's seat, a hard launch isn't really hard at all. It is almost as if a giant hand is giving a firm and unforgiving push to this $322,430 (as-tested) two-door convertible. Whoosh, you're away - 160 km/h arrives in 9.5 seconds. Yes, you read that correctly. You are flying in less than 10 seconds.

Paefgen and his ilk are the sort who say, "It's about the journey, not the destination" and the cars they make stand as proof. The Supersports, he concedes, is certainly the most extreme Bentley, but it also remains true to what Bentley types argue are the core values of the brand: power and refinement, sporty and luxurious.

So the power comes on in a creamy sort of way (refinement), not savagely. Yet downshifts of the tweaked "Quickshift" six-speed ZF automatic gearbox come in 100 milliseconds (sporty). The carbon-fibre cabin trim looks athletic, yet the organ-stop-type vent controls are a rich throwback to another era. The standard four-wheel-drive system puts torque at all four corners, smoothing out so many performance aspects (refinement). On the other hand, to give the Supersports just that little extra, the torque split is biased to the rear 40:60, rather than the normal 50:50 split.

This, as one wag here blurts out, "is the Continental for the racer in you." Paefgen says this is the car in his lineup that delivers Ferrari times on the famed Nurburgring loop just south of Cologne, Germany. Notice the car's name. You won't find GT associated with the Supersports. Bentley's engineers had a little more than grand touring on their minds here.

Despite getting the Jenny Craig treatment, the Supersports is obviously a monster. The mass is unnoticeable in a straight line; 621 hp is has a way of overcoming weight. But flick the car into a tight corner, such as we did on the San Juan Skyway with its many rights and lefts, and the tires (275/35 Pirelli Ultra High Performance rubber mounted to 20-inch forged alloy wheels), indeed all of the suspension bits, go to work coping with the weight transfer.

Not an easy job, this business of managing super horsepower and serious mass. The Bentley boys (and I say boys because none of the engineers in Colorado were women) did retune the automatic dampers, there are very stiff anti-roll bars front and back, and even the bushings in front are a third firmer than the GTC Speed's. The carbon-ceramic brakes, meanwhile, are, at 16.5 inches up front, the most powerful binders on any current passenger car, says Bentley. They scrub speed in a serious hurry. The steering is tight, precise, progressive and simply excellent.

Bentley's trick is to look for a sweet spot between racy and just sporty, erring if at all on the racy side of the equation. Racy it is, but not enough to make cruising at all sorts of speeds utterly relaxed and comfortable. But you'd expect that at these prices, wouldn't you? You'd expect a fast car, at least from Bentley, that can putter through a school zone at 30 km/h to be just as happy doing 240 km/h on the autobahn. That's this car.

All that weight, even with the rear bias of the AWD system, does result in just the slightest bit of understeer in tighter turns. If you hammer the throttle you can overcome this, and even get the back end to feel as though it might step out into oversteer. But I couldn't get the car actually to oversteer - merely hint at the possibility.

Did I mention creature comforts? You won't find them overdone. Alcantara upholstery is everywhere, sure - even carbon-fibre bucket seats have it. Yes, they're manually adjusting, but we're willing to forgive that given these seats, sans power operation, account for 41.5 kg of the car's weight loss. The convertible, unlike the coupe, has rear seats to house the rollover protection hoops, but who on earth is going to sit back there for long? If one piece in the cabin stands out as dated, it's the small navigation screen.

Then finally, there is look of the thing. The big story here involves the additional openings in the front fascia and hood. This engine needs air and lots of it, so breathing is a priority of the designers. There is nothing at all wrong with this.

However and truthfully, the sinister black wheels seem a tad out of place - like a nervous teenager trying too hard to fit in. Bentley is trying for menacing, and maybe trying too hard at it with these wheels. The wheels look more suited to a '32 Ford than a Bentley with this body.

None of this comes cheap, either. My Silver Tempest tester had a base price of $308,400. Add in the $3,695 freight charge and another $10,335 in options ($7,900 of which was tied up in the premium audio system) and the out-the-door price came to $322,430 - plus tax. That's not inexpensive for a convertible with a fabric top, even one as nicely sealed as this.

Cleary, if you're buying a Supersports, you're running in fairly exclusive company. Take comfort in knowing this Bentley drives as beautifully fast as it trundles along comfortably at slow speeds.

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BENTLEY SHOOTING FOR GROWTH

Bentley sales peaked in 2007 when the brand sold 10,014 cars worldwide. It's been a steady downward slide ever since.

Last year, Bentley sold 4,616 cars, down 40 per cent from 2008. According to trade journal Automotive News, Bentley lost $262-million (U.S.) last year compared with a profit of $13.5-million in 2008.

Bentley CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen expects the ultra-luxury brand in the Volkswagen Group to rebound to 5,000 cars sold globally in 2010 - and that's with an aging lineup.

The Continental GT coupe, Bentley's first model under VW ownership, is no longer being produced in anticipation of a new, second-generation Continental GT expected to go on sale in North America around this time next year.

Paefgen (pronounced Puff-gun) says he believes the recession that has whacked Bentley's small but usually profitable corner of the market has hit bottom. Bentley, he says, "will come back to a successful phase - whether it is 8,000 or 9,000 cars."

The very wealthy who comprise Bentley's customers are slowly, though carefully, opening their wallets and "China is exploding. It is a big market and has the biggest growth."

Jeremy Cato

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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