First published in the March 2013 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
Jesse Taylor revisits a painful childhood memory and a great road in the $370,000 Bentley Continental GT V8. It’s still cheaper than therapy.
I’LL SPARE you a photo but I have a scar on the fleshy sub-prime real estate of my upper right thigh. It’s only small but it glows translucent against its already vitamin-D-deprived surroundings. Like a tiny Uluru, it’s roughly triangular and rises a millimetre or two above the epidermis plains. The scar is from the Bylong Valley Way. More correctly, it’s from the searing seatbelt buckle of a 1977 baby-poo-brown Valiant CL station wagon.
As a kid growing up in Bathurst, my family would holiday at my uncle’s place south of Newcastle. Instead of the fully sealed and serviced route down to Sydney and then up the freeway, the Taylor clan would load up the Valiant jalopy, Clampett-style, and “take the shortcut” via the inland route of the Bylong Valley Way. Back then the Way was little more than a track and only the ends (Kandos in the south-west and Sandy Hollow in the north-east) were sealed.
After any rain, deep corrugations would form on the gravel sections and, as middle occupant of the Valiant’s bench front seat, it was my job to embrace the dashboard when it started dancing out of time with the rest of the violently shaking car. On one late-night trip back to Bathurst, the corrugations knocked out the weak yellow beams of the Val’s headlights for whole terrifying seconds. Once, they flickered back to life only to illuminate skippy standing dead centre. To this day I don’t know where that roo went.
On a 40-degree January day we stopped at the Bylong Valley General Store as the heat (no air-con), choking dust and wicked corrugations had turned the guts of us four Taylor kids to quivering jelly. After a drink and a packet of chips (while letting the Val cool down with its bonnet up) we jumped back in, me right on top of that bloody seatbelt buckle…
I’d not given the Bylong Valley Way another thought for 20 years until a colleague mentioned it had finally been sealed (in February 2009). But it wasn’t until January last year that I had my first crack on its black-top as a driver. Since then, I’ve fired down its fast and open, and tight and twisty 140km length in a Lexus LFA, Toyota 86, BMW M3, Volkswagen Golf GTI and now, a Bentley Continental GT V8 – take that, shitbox Valiant.
For day-tripping Sydney-siders, the Bylong Valley Way is best approached through Windsor and up the 150km Putty Road. Turn left off the Golden Highway just before Sandy Hollow and run the Way to Ilford on the Castlereagh Highway. Turn around and do it in reverse and you’ve got yourself nearly 600km of great driving. But to replicate the journey of my childhood, I want to run through the Valley from the west, which means a crawl over the Blue Mountains before joining the Castlereagh Highway near Lithgow.
The fragrant, leather-lined Bentley interior is the perfect cocoon for the peak-hour trundle out of Sydney. Cruise on light throttle (often with the V8 dropping into its fuel-saving V4 mode) and the Conti makes near-silent progress, the double-glazed windows keeping the blare from the outside world at bay. In Comfort mode, the adjustable suspension soaks up the worst of Parramatta Road and the never-ending roadworks in the mountains, while the eight-speed ZF auto slips nearly imperceptibly from cog to cog. Only an overly sensitive throttle pedal in its first few millimetres of travel requires any thought from the driver.
Technically the V8-powered Conti GT is the entry to the Bentley range, which tops out first with the $450,000 GT Speed, and then the $660,000 Mulsanne limousine. But there’s nothing ‘base model’ about the $370,000, 373kW twin-turbo V8 GT. The 4.0-litre V8, architecturally the same as the 309kW engine used in the Audi S7 tested here last issue, produces its 373kW at 6000rpm. That old-fashioned 500 horsepower is 50kW shy of the twin-turbo 6.0-litre W12 in the regular GT and a sizeable 87kW off the GT Speed (both of which also make their peaks at 6000rpm). The V8 musters 660Nm from 1700-5000rpm; 40Nm off the W12 GT and 140 short of the Speed.
But the V8 engine is lighter and smaller than the enormous W12 and overall the coupe tips the scales at (a still-portly) 2295kg; a full 200kg lighter than the W12 and 25kg more svelte than the sportier Speed. Bring all those factors together and the V8’s 163kW/tonne power-to-weight ratio just trails the W12’s 170kW/tonne (though the Speed thumps it with 198kW/tonne). Do the same calculation with the torque figures and the V8 outmuscles the W12 288Nm/tonne versus 281. This helps explain why the V8’s claimed 4.8-second 0-100km/h time trails the W12 by just 0.3sec and the Speed by 0.6.
Finally, it’s time to flick the indicator for the right turn off the Castlereagh Highway and onto the Bylong Valley Way towards Kandos and Rylstone. Kandos, famous for its cement, is the tidy town time forgot. The main drag (the only drag) features two pubs, a strip of boarded-up shops and an empty laundromat. Sadly, the welcome sign I remember from my childhood (‘Welcome to Kandos, five percent slow’) is gone. Just 7km down the road, Rylstone is a bustling and gentrified metropolis by comparison. More importantly, it’s the true beginning of the Way and soon the throttle pedal meets the deep woollen carpet and the eight-speed auto slips into attack mode.
The burbly V8, with a direct-injection snuffle on the overrun, imbues the Conti with a very different character to that of the regular W12-powered GT. Weirdly, despite being at polar opposite ends of the Conti range, it feels more in line with the Speed. Sure, the V8 lacks the sledgehammer shove of the Speed’s 460kW W12 (there’s a 27km/h difference in Vmax) but it crackles and fizzes and revs hard.
Despite going pound for pound with a Toyota Prado, the Bentley has grip and poise to eat up the faster, more open stages of the road. Unlike the tighter, second- and third-gear Putty Road, the majority of the Bylong Road is best devoured in third, fourth and fifth gears. On occasion, the open flow is interrupted as the tarmac coils like a snake up and over ranges and ridges within the Wollemi National Park, before striking out again into fast, well-sighted sweepers. No wonder one of the first entries on a Google search for the road suggests: “Motorcycle paradise – Bylong Valley Way”.
We later meet farmer Peter Grieve who tells us that for two days either side of the Australian Motor GP at Phillip Island, the road reverberates to the screams of sports bikes making the annual pilgrimage. Peter doesn’t mind. The bigger concern for those living in the Bylong Valley is the march of mining from the Hunter – ‘Food bowl, not coal hole’ signs dot farm fences the length of the road. And, aside from the effect on families and farming, mining will bring trucks and traffic, and cops.
The Comfort mode I enjoyed earlier allows too much bodyroll through fast corners and too much pitch and dive in the tight stuff. Even in the firmest setting for maximum-attack driving, the Bentley rides the bumps and road repairs with grace. And this despite optional 21-inch alloys fitted with 275/35 ZR21 Pirelli P Zero rubber. Body control is vastly better in Sport mode but there’s never a total escape from that mass. One big compression gets the Conti up on its toes and flustered for the only time on the trip. Twelve months ago, the same dip sent the stiff-legged Lexus LFA airborne and tagging its 9000rpm limiter.
The all-wheel-drive system, split 40:60 front to rear, means traction is never an issue and only from very low speed will ESC intervene when you abruptly unleash all 373kW. The steering, corrupted both by the AWD and the weight of the engine over the nose, isn’t overflowing with feel but the big Bentley is easy to place accurately, even when you’re tipping in at serious pace. With this kind of grip and grunt, plus a road like this, it would be easy to get carried away…
If you do, the monster brakes (404mm front rotors clamped by eight-piston calipers, 333mm rears with four-pistons) can bite a big speed in half in the blink of an eye. But after a few runs up and down a tighter section for cornering shots, the anchors grumble at the effort of hauling down 2.3 tonnes. The pedal never goes away, nor does retardation fade, but they are audibly working hard.
Given its largely flowing nature, the Bylong Valley Way suits big-power cars like the Bentley. It also allows more modestly endowed cars to link the corners together to disguise any lack of mumbo. Power and agility are rewarded on the tighter sections and, while it is now sealed, the surface can be patchy, so it tends to suit cars with a reasonable level of compliance. The grand Bentley GT V8 covers nearly all bases.
Got a day to spare for a good drive? Here’s 980km of (mostly) great roads. There’s no easy way out of Sydney so jump on the Hume and bomb straight to Goulburn. Take the road up through Taralga to Oberon, then the Jenolan Caves Road back to the Great Western Highway east of Lithgow. Turn left to Bathurst via Lake Lyall, Tarana and O’Connell roads. From Bathurst head to Ilford via the Sofala Road, which includes two good hillclimbs. Ilford to Sandy Hollow is via the Bylong Valley Way, then it’s back to Windsor via the Putty Road.
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