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A Fond Farewell to the Bentley W12

by Nik Berg
12 June 2024 3 min read
A Fond Farewell to the Bentley W12
Photos courtesy Bentley

Twenty-one seems pretty young to retire, especially when your predecessor served for 61 years. Nonetheless, after just two decades and 12-odd months, Bentley’s W12 is being put out to pasture, replaced by a new hybrid V8.

Significantly, since the replacement engine is built by Porsche in Germany, it will be the first time in Bentley’s history that the British company has not manufactured its own motors. Pedants may point out that the 1998 Arnage was launched with a BMW M62 V8, but it wasn’t long before a Red Label version re-introduced the venerable 6.75-litre engine that had been assembled in Crewe since 1959.

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When it was unveiled in 2003, in the W12 was the Volkswagen Group’s flagship engine, powering a whole new generation of Bentley in the form of the Continental GT coupe (and, in 2005, the GTC cabriolet).

The engine would also make appearances in the Continental Flying Spur and Bentayga SUV, as well as in the Audi A8, the VW Phaeton, and even the Touareg. Bentley has hand-built more than 100,000 examples of the W12 since its launch, each taking six and half hours to assemble. Over the years, development has enabled a total power increase of 37 per cent, and torque has been boosted by 54 per cent, while emissions were cut by 25 per cent. In its ultimate guise, as fitted to the Batur, Bentley eked out as much as 750bhp from the W12. When the last of these 18 coupes and 16 convertibles are completed, the W12 will be no more.

To bid this remarkable engine a fond farewell, I’m at the undulating Oulton Park circuit, a short drive from Bentley base in Crewe, where an early 2003 Continental GT and one of the final 2024 Continental GT Speeds are waiting in the pit lane.

Bizarrely, Bentley is less precious about the newest £235,000 car than it is the 20-year-old model the company’s heritage arm recently bought for less than £32,000. So I get three flying laps with an instructor at my side in the Speed and just one in the older GT.

2024 Bentley Continental GT Speed W12 front 3/4

Nonetheless, it’s just about enough to quantify 21 years of W12 progress. The green-over-tan 2003 Conti has aged well for the most part. It was never considered beautiful, but the looks have proven to be quite timeless, although I’d still avoid choosing one in gray; its snout and wide flanks are more hippo than hip. The quality of the cabin is exceptional overall, excepting the dated digital display and the plastic gear paddles, which are a bit “VW parts bin.”

The reality is that you probably wouldn’t touch them anyway, as the car feels very much the GT and therefore all-at-sea here on a circuit. The steering is super light, suspension soft and wallowy, and brakes on the spongy side. Really though, I’m here to talk about the engine, and it certainly outshines the chassis and lethargic six-speed transmission.

2024 Bentley Continental GT Speed W12

The W12 is effectively two VW VR6 engines joined together. The unique configuration makes the block quite compact and allows it to sit relatively low. With a pair of twin-scroll turbochargers, it delivers 560bhp at 6100rpm and a 479lb ft torque tsunami from just 1600rpm. Driving all four wheels through a Torsen system, it can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 4.8 seconds and top out about a tad below the double ton. It feels effortlessly brisk, and smoother than a silk worm secretion, but there’s no hiding its 5000-pound bulk.

Bentley Continental GT Speed W12

After hopping into a fetching blue-over-black 2024 Speed model, the opposite seems true of the new car. Aided by rear-steer and another 90 horses, it’s a totally different beast. Now we’re looking at just 3.6 seconds to reach 62 mph, much more eager throttle response, and a gearbox that reacts instantly instead of pausing to consider your request.

It’s properly fast, squatting down and firing out of corners with gusto. Perhaps even more impressive is the way that it dives in, the steering offering far more feedback and the front end really rather keen to catch an apex. By all accounts (by which we mean Henry Catchpole’s), the upcoming V8 hybrid handles even better and packs an even greater punch.

No doubt it’ll be far more efficient than the thirsty six-litre W12, which despite deactivating a few cylinders could only muster a combined 18 mpg. Yet despite all the gains, there is a uniqueness that will be lost in the transition.

It may have powered a few other VW Group vehicles, but only Bentley truly made the best of the W12. If that’s something you’d like to experience for yourself from new, there are reportedly a few cars still available.

Or you could do what I’ve just done and start browsing the classifieds, where you’ll find early models in tidy condition for less than £25,000.

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