SAN MILLA’N DE LA COGOLLA, Spain — It was an appropriate setting for Bentley’s announced conversion. The luxury-car manufacturer, formerly an unabashed devotee to the pleasures of excess power, is reducing its thirst for gasoline.
It is a change not quite as radical as that undergone by Augustus Aurelius, best known as Bishop Augustine of Hippo, Blessed Augustine or Saint Augustine. But it is nonetheless remarkable.
Augustine gave up the wine, women and wanton frolicking of his youth to devote himself to spiritual pursuits. A 16th-century monastery stands here today in his honor, staffed by monks who are members of the Order of Augustinian Recollects (La Orden de Agustinos Recoletos, in Spanish).
What better place to renounce horsepower for the sake of horsepower, to embrace what adherents to that consumptive theology consider heresy — the doctrine of responsible horsepower?
But that is what Bentley — now owned by Volkswagen of Germany — did here. And it did it before the world, announcing its partial change of heart to several groups of international automotive journalists.
“Partial?” Yes. Giving up the pleasures derived from satisfying one’s appetite for sex and power is difficult. Consider Saint Augustine’s famous prayer: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
Similarly, Bentley officials strove mightily here to explain that their company’s belated turn toward environmental grace does not mean it is jettisoning “Bentley’s DNA.” They could’ve put their message this way: “We’re not going to sin as often or as egregiously as we’ve sinned in the past on our new road to redemption. But we’re still going to have fun getting there.”
Long test drives here and in neighboring jurisdictions in northern Spain amply demonstrated their point.
The new Bentley GT, scheduled for commercial release in the spring as a 2013 model, comes with a smaller engine — a 4.1-liter V-8, vs. the previous 6.1-liter W-12 to which Bentley aficionados have grown accustomed. But it still produces a humongous 500 horsepower at 6,000 rotations per minute and enough torque to twist you into oblivion — 487 foot-pounds delivered over a range of 1,700 to 5,000 rotations per minute.
The car launches from 0 to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds and does so with a tailpipe burble and growl loud enough to irritate the most pious of sleeping saints.
Bentley officials are hoping that the new engine’s 40 percent improvement in fuel economy (moving from 19 to 26.6 miles per gallon on the highway) and a concomitant reduction in tailpipe pollutants will please new customers as well as placate government regulators who are pushing for less-consumptive, lower-polluting cars and trucks worldwide. But the company is hedging its bets.
Sex sells much better than copies of “The Confessions of Saint Augustine,” and there are lots of wealthy sinners still out there with the desire and money to buy a genuine Audi/Volkswagen-sponsored W-12, starting at $189,000. Bentley wants that cash and, for the time being, will keep the W-12 among its offerings.
But the company believes, and wants everyone to believe, that clever applications of virtue can lead to saving grace. Thus, we have advanced engineering in the new V-8 engine and subtly redone styling cues in the Bentley GT’s body — the latter of which is smoother than its predecessor and devoid of anything that can turn the wind into an enemy of fuel economy.
Twin turbochargers, engineered to pull more air into engine combustion chambers more quickly, deliver maximum horsepower and torque with a minimal increase in the consumption of the required premium gasoline. Composite materials and high-strength steels have been used to reduce vehicle weight. Friction impairs engine efficiency. So Bentley’s engineers have worked hard to reduce friction in the new V-8 wherever possible. And to provide a more efficient transfer of engine power to the car’s four drive wheels, an eight-speed automatic gearbox has been installed.
Should the new Bentley buyer’s soul and mind flinch at the thought of 500 horsepower, although more cleanly and efficiently delivered, there is seduction aplenty in the 2013 GT to keep the mind focused on the pleasures at hand. Is there a more tufted, lavishly outfitted coupe? I doubt it.
From its piano-black front grille to its chrome-tipped dual exhaust pipes, both shaped in the manner of the infinity sign, the car bespeaks continued adherence to refined excess. The interior consists of seats draped with diamond-embossed supple leather hides. Dark eucalyptus wood veneer is used to accent the dashboard and door panels. The latest electronic infotainment devices and access portals are there along with a knurled wood sports lever — and an indented leather headliner (ceiling cover).
I know that all of this remains egregiously over-the-top, despite the changes to improve fuel economy and reduce tailpipe emissions. But I now think I fully understand Saint Augustine, who is also the patron saint of my Catholic high school in New Orleans. The spirit is willing. But the flesh is, well . . .
“Grant me chastity . . . but not yet.”