What the heck is a Poker Run? And why did I do one in W12 Bentleys?

Looking for something more interesting to do with your car-loving friends than just standing around a parking lot on Saturday mornings drinking coffee? How about a poker run?

Never heard of one? Neither had I until I received an invitation to drive a variety of W12-powered Bentleys on a “poker run” tour of greater Los Angeles. To be clear, you do not need Bentleys to do this, nor do you need to cycle through a variety of cars. You also don’t really need to know how to play poker, which is good, since my knowledge of the game begins and ends with watching the crew of the Enterprise play it on “Star Trek.”

This is what happens. Craft a four-stop route of wherever you may live or visit. Coffee or lunch stop, scenic overlook, tourist spot, friend’s mansion, whatever. In this particular poker run, we would be going from the chic Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica (did I mention we were driving Bentleys?) to the Griffith Observatory by way of Beverly Hills, the Sunset Strip and Hollywood. We’d then drive across Highway 101 (an interstate-style road at this point in L.A.) to the Topanga Overlook in Woodland Hills, down to the Cross Creek plaza in Malibu, and out through the Santa Monica Mountains to Calamigos Ranch for lunch. You can see the route map here.

Was it the most dynamic drive in the world? No, but we saw some stuff. And at each stop, plus at the start, we drew a card from a standard deck. With W12 Bentley branding on them no less. With a fifth and final card drawn at Calamigos, we discarded one to craft the best hand possible. The winner in this case would receive the first press loan of the limited-edition Bentayga Speed Edition 12, but you could make the prize whatever you want. I knew enough about poker (thanks Commander Riker) to know that my hand was probably not going to get it done despite an ace of diamonds and a joker. My other choices were 10 of diamonds, two of hearts and five of clubs. And no, bluffing isn’t allowed even if it could be worked into this. Sure enough, I did not win. It was a fun way to spend the day, though, and an idea I’ll try again sometime with friends.

I’m guessing we won’t be in a colorful collection of Bentleys, though, which is of course the other part of this story. You see, the venerable 12-cylinder Bentley is going away. The classic 6.75-liter V12 already disappeared back in 2020 with the Mulsanne, and after 2024, the twin-turbo W12 will be joining it. This is the engine that helped re-imagine the Bentley brand after it was purchased by Volkswagen Group at the turn of the century. Launched in 2002, the W12 was an entirely different type of engine, in the most basic of terms a pair of VW’s narrow-angle VR6 engines spliced together to pack 12 cylinders in an area roughly the length of a V8.

That was vital for it to fit in an entirely different type of Bentley: the Continental GT. It was based on the same platform as the Volkswagen Phaeton (which could be had with a less powerful naturally aspirated version of the W12), came standard with all-wheel drive and featured rounded styling that was a radical departure from the boxy, ye olde Bentleys of the past. Those had been reworked Rolls-Royces, though, and the 6.75-liter was part of that legacy. The Conti GT and its W12 showcased the future.

We of course know what that future would entail. For the next 20 years, a W12 would find itself in multiple generations of Continental GT, Continental GTC convertible and Flying Spur, plus the Bentayga. Bentley would introduce a new V8 and eventually a hybrid powertrain, but the W12 remained king with multiple updates and two generations (the second was launched with the Bentayga in 2015). In those 20 years, the W12’s power has been increased by 37%, torque improved by 54% and emissions decreased by 25%. It continues to be hand-built in 6.5 hours by a group of 60 workers in Crewe, England, who will be redistributed to other engine production.

It’s been ages since I last drove a W12-powered Bentley, and the first time I’d driven the latest-generation Continental and Flying Spur. I’d never driven a Bentayga before. The power delivery certainly does not disappoint. The 6.0-liter twin-turbo W12 is smooth and abundant with either 626 horsepower (Bentayga and Flying Spur) or 650 hp (Continentals). There’s 664 pound-feet of torque regardless. The exhaust provides a lovely rumble, but honestly, the sound of the engine itself is just as underwhelming as I remember. It sounds like a V6, which isn’t surprising since it’s basically two of them. This would be the reason why so many reviewers (and owners) over the years have stated they prefer Bentley’s “lesser” V8 models than those with the W12, which is found in all of the Speed models I sampled on the Poker Run.

A more emotional, characterful car like the Continental GT therefore seems like a better fit with the more characterful V8, even if its ancestor launched the W12 three generations ago. On the other hand, the W12 seems wasted on the Bentayga, which I found underwhelming. For $321,000, I’d want something that looks and drives more special than what seemed like an extremely fancy Audi Q7 (with an amazing Damson purple leather interior, to be fair).

The Flying Spur seemed like the best match for the W12. This grand sedan is all about quiet, effortless motoring, so the engine note just doesn’t matter as much. At the same time, this is still a grand sedan intended for high-speed grand touring in fine Bentley tradition – if you want to waft down the road, buy a Rolls-Royce. The W12’s 626 hp and 664 lb-ft provided the motivation for a surprisingly adept blitz through the Santa Monica Mountains on Mulholland Highway. Perhaps the beautiful British Racing Green paint and complimentary Porpoise/Cumbrian Green interior with gorgeous engine-turned aluminum trim had a lot to do with it, but it was the Flying Spur Speed that left the strongest impression during this poker run.

As the Rolls-Royce Spectre proved, though, electric motors are perfect replacements for 12-cylinder engines in big, ultra-luxurious cars like the Flying Spur. Bentley has committed to an electric future, and unlike the transitions of some other brands, I don’t think this one will be quite so dramatic. The W12 may be going away, and while a commendable engineering feat and a capable performance engine, I won’t be missing it as much as other layouts when batteries take over.  

Of course, there will forever be something exotic about an engine that starts with the letter W instead of V, I or H. Whether it’s a W12 Bentley, W8 Passat Wagon (yes, that was a thing) or the mack daddy of them all, the W16-powered Bugatti Veyron and Chiron, we car enthusiasts will always be intrigued by that which is different or even quirky. You know, like a poker run.