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Bentley Continental Supersports E85 biofuel

Published: 25 February 2009

We’ve been hearing for some time about greener Bentleys – and today we see the first concrete proof. But rather than some battery-powered eco-weeny, Crewe has thrown a curveball by unveiling its most powerful and fastest production car ever: the new Bentley Continental Supersports.

Reviving a name from Bentley’s 1920s history books, the Supersports packs a wholesome 621bhp from its 6.0-litre W12. So far, so stock Bentley. The trick is in the fuel – the Supersports can run on E85 biofuels, making it theoretically much, much cleaner than conventional fossil-fuel powered cars. Crewe is taking an holistic view from well-to-wheel and this Geneva show star is the first in a series of greener Bentleys, marking a sea change as this most traditional of luxury car makers seeks to chop its fleet CO2 emissions by 40% in the next three years.

Bentley Continental Supersports: the raw figures

This is one stonkingly fast Bentley. It’ll thunder to 60mph in 3.7sec and hit a rather alcoholic 204mph top speed, meaning this flex-fuel coupe eclipses its Continental Speed siblings for outright performance. Ten percent more air is rammed into the twin-turbo W12, channeled through bigger scoops on bonnet and bumper to liberate more ponies.

Extra performance isn’t just achieved through ECU jiggery-pokery, though. The Supersports is a handy 110kg lighter than the Conti Speed; the project’s roots were in a skunkworks project to strip weight out of the remarkably porky Continental family and the Supersports has had the full 10 Years Younger treatment.

Enabling those startling performance claims is a retuned Quickshift transmission that halves shift times, while the rear-biased four-wheel drive and stability systems have been recalibrated to cope with the extra thust on offer.

So how green is this new Bentley?

The $64 million question. We’d wager the CAR message boards will light up the moment this story is published. Biofuels have their detractors, but it’s worth studying Bentley’s claims for the Supersports. It quotes a 70% cut in CO2 emissions from well-to-wheel, which is more impressive than the 17.3mpg combined average and 388g/km at the tailpipe sound at face value.

So this launch is significant. Bentley aims to make its entire range biofuels compatible by 2012, and E85-style fuels are a quick fix for a brand lumbered with large, luxurious cars which produce high levels of carbon dioxide. In a revealing interview in the new April 2009 issue of CAR Magazine, Bentley chief exec Franz-Josef Paefgen confirmed to us that the company is actively tapping into VW Group fuels tech and is exploring plug-in hybrids, diesels and even fuel-cells for future models – but these all pose huge engineering challenges for a low-volume maker and would take years to reach fruition.

Which leaves us with the suspicion that the Supersports will be bought by people wanting the ultimate Bentley, more than wealthy types wanting to save the planet. The joy of flex-fuel cars is you can take or leave their green credentials in everyday driving – but hog the fanfare for your eco statement of intent...

What if I can't find an E85 pump?

The Supersports production car will run on normal petrol or E85 or any combination of the two, with no discernible loss of performance, vows engineering chief Dr Ulrich Eichorn. That means a gut-wrenching 590lb ft of twist on tap from 1700rpm across virtually the entire rev range. Effortless.

Clearly, biofuels pose a chicken and egg problem. Today you’ll struggle to fill up, in the UK at least, but other markets in South America and Scandinavia have far more E85 stockists and Crewe is banking on the American market switching on to biofuels in a big way, as is mandated under new laws. And while first-gen biofuels can upset agriculture cycles, the new second-gen ethanols are much greener and sustainable, giving an ethanol economy more traction.

It’s been to the gym. Will the Supersports handle it?

We already know and admire the Conti’s skills; CAR is in fact running a second-hand model as a long-term test car at present and we’ve found it a well qualified GT luxury limo, if not a nimble athlete. The Supersports should drive better: it has retuned dampers and anti-roll bars, steering revisions, lighter weight suspension units and a 50mm widened rear track.

That diet could help it no end, too: there is real detail in the weight loss. The carbon brakes alone save 20kg, the new 20in alloys trim a further 10 kilos, the composite seats a whopping 45kg (there is no rear pew at all). And look closely at that interior – it introduces some new leather finishes, while the exterior is lifted by neat brightwork sporting a new technical finish called Physical Vapour Deposition. It gives a smokey, high-tech finish compared with trad chrome.

Bentley: the industrial story

Bentley could certainly do with a sales uplift right now, as it suffers with a collapsing demand across the globe. It hit 10,000 sales annually at its peak, but that dropped by a quarter last year and 2009 is looking very grim. One analyst told CAR Magazine recently that he predicted sales of just 2000 this year. If true, that would be a cataclysmic change in fortunes.

Read the full interview with Dr Paefgen and a thorough analysis of the Bentley business in the new April 2009 issue of CAR Magazine, out today.

>> Click here for more 2009 Geneva motor show news

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

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