Almost 50 years to the day The Beatles first touched down on American soil at New York’s JFK Airport on Feb 7, I arrive in San Diego. They were received by thousands of screaming fans.
I encounter much less fanfare, counting only a single raised eyebrow from the US Customs officer who found out I came to test-drive a car.
Not just any car, I’d like to tell him. Like how Messrs McCartney and Starr stole the show at this year’s Grammy Awards, another famous “B” from Britain was planning a comeback in the US of A: the Bentley.
To showcase the capabilities of the new Continental GT V8 S coupe and convertible, the Bentley team organised a two-day, 570km test drive on some of southern California’s most stunning roads. The route snakes through a grand, open landscape of brown-green plains and azure skies. Against this backdrop, the technicolour fleet is displayed to striking effect.
Starting from the five-star Rancho Valencia resort, we take the coupe 78km eastwards to Julian, a former gold-mining and apple-farming town. These days, there are far more apple pies than prospectors, and we are ushered into the world-famous Julian Pie Company for some of its renowned apple crumble and ice cream. Fuelled by sugar and caffeine, journalists then power the eight high-performance cars through 175km of meandering mountain roads and back down to Palm Springs.
While on the ascent, we encounter roadwork near the top of a hillcrest and traffic starts to snarl. Thankfully, the car is equipped with the necessary technology to make short work of the gridlock.
The intelligent cruise control detects and reacts to the distance of vehicles ahead of me, and the car smoothly brakes and accelerates on its own. Eventually, traffic comes to a complete standstill, a minor blessing as we have a few minutes to appreciate the muscular build of the V8 S variants resting on the sun-baked asphalt.
Once we get moving, it is a sweeping descent down a serpentine highway that overlooks Palm Springs. This is a city in transition, with a younger crowd infiltrating what was once a retirement haven. The exuberance from the local Hard Rock Hotel stands in stark contrast to classic bars like Melvyn’s, where the unofficial minimum age seems to be twice that for most nightspots. The city appears like a bizarre mirage of luxe and kitsch in a desert oasis, with post-modern restaurants juxtaposed against an 8m-tall monument of Marilyn Monroe – her classic white skirt aflutter.
The city is a former playground of the stars and we delve into this in the next day’s programme, when we lunch at Frank Sinatra’s former Twin Palms home. This was where the crooner partied hard with illustrious neighbours like Cary Grant and Bob Hope, just some of the many celebrities who had vacation homes in Palm Springs.
Despite the many cars he owned – from a Lamborghini Miura to a Dual Ghia – the closest Sinatra got to a Bentley was a Ford Continental Mark II, which some say would be the American equivalent of a Bentley in the day. I imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes would approve of the Bentley brigade lined up on his driveway.
It is time to swop the coupe for the convertible, and the day’s weather is perfect for slapping on sunblock and taking the top down for the return journey to San Diego. To help set the mood, we attempt to sync my co-driver’s iPad with the car’s audio system via Bluetooth, which unfortunately takes a good 15 minutes to figure out.
A detour has been programmed into the built-in GPS, taking us to picturesque Dana Point, an affluent seaside enclave where private yachts berthed in the marina appear to outnumber the cars on the road. Situated on a 46m bluff next to the Pacific Ocean, the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel is our designated pit stop. The property lords over the beach, which is a favourite with surfers.
Our silver (“Ice” in Bentley-speak) convertible quietly rolls to a halt along the cobbled, crescent driveway. This is the kind of upscale Californian town that a car like the V8 S thrives in. This is Orange County, where celebrities like Tiger Woods and Gwen Stefani hold court. Today, however, it’s a well-groomed labradoodle that’s getting all the attention. Pets are welcome here, and for a one-time US$150 (S$190) “pet-cleaning fee”, you don’t even need to worry about having to pick up after your dog.
The final stretch of California State Route 78 through the San Pasqual Valley is the last chance to push the car to its limits but, frankly, the Bentley doesn’t come close to breaking a sweat.
When it comes down to mechanical performance, the Continental GT V8 S is sublime. The soundtrack from the 4-litre, twin-turbo V8 engine is the perfect accompaniment to flying down interstate highways, blasting past everything from tall pine trees to towering wind turbines, and scaring the heck out of anything from cattle to colts.
The convertible is quite the beast itself, clocking in at nearly 2.5 tonnes, meaning it isn’t the most nimble of automobiles, but there’s an assuring heft when you push it beyond 200kmh – we never get close to the top speed of 308kmh. A total of 521bhp worth of power is distributed to all four wheels through the eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, and the “Sport” mode is available to further sharpen the throttle-response and gear shifts. This is thoroughly useful when overtaking trailers and RVs along single-lane trunk roads.
As we near the end of our drive, my London- based co-driver shares some insights into how Bentley may have become a victim of its own success. The brand has found a following among nouveau riche English footballers not traditionally associated with the Bentley crowd. This has raised some eyebrows – not in a good way – like when Paris Hilton decided to desecrate a Continental GT by having it delivered in pink. That’s the problem when everyone wants to be associated with the prestige of the Bentley badge.
Like the rousing reception for Paul and Ringo at this year’s Grammys, the Bentley V8 S deserves a standing ovation for its throaty V8 vocals and timeless aesthetic. Just don’t ask for it in fuchsia.
CONTINENTAL GT V8 S COUPE
TORQUE: 680Nm at 1,700rpm TOP SPEED: 309kmh 0–100KMH: 4.5 seconds
CONTINENTAL GT V8 S CONVERTIBLE
TORQUE: 680Nm at 1,700rpm TOP SPEED: 308kmh 0–100KMH: 4.7 seconds