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Friday, September 30, 2022
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Bentley Continental GT Speed

The clock is ticking for brands that make big, expensive, combustion-engined luxury cars like Bentley’s new Continental GT Speed.

Long-stated government policy and associated legislation will allow them to continue to sell their petrol-fuelled wares, but public opinion, and the buying behaviour it influences, is a moving target. Depending largely on which zero-emission alternatives arrive, big-emitting fossil-fuelled luxury sports cars may become very hard to sell in key markets well before the UK’s 2030 ban on combustion-engined cars comes into force.

It helps explain why we’re seeing this Speed performance version of the Bentley Continental GT just three years into the third-generation model’s life cycle, when we didn’t see the equivalent in previous generations until years later on. But that time pressure, assuming it was a factor, hasn’t turned this range-topping GT into a rushed effort: the GT Speed adopts chassis technologies never before seen on a production Bentley.

Although slightly less potent than the end-of-the-line, last-generation GT Supersports, it’s lighter than that car, has bigger wheels and brakes, features more specialised driveline technology and, Bentley claims, is just 0.1sec slower from rest to 62mph.

Rather than as some super-luxury Porsche GT-car rival, though, the new GT Speed is positioned simply as the world’s best two-door luxury GT: a car that brooks no compromise on opulent comfort, refinement or usability, but one that takes the GT to new heights for pace, handling dynamism and driver reward. Can that be believed? Stand by to find out.

The Continental GT line-up at a glance

The introduction of the new GT Speed spells the end of the regular W12-engined GT, which keeps the two-door Continental derivative line from swelling too much. The Mulliner Edition cars, meanwhile, build on the Continental’s luxury ambience with special design details and materials.

As is now familiar, Bentley’s optional ‘Specification’ packages (Mulliner Driving, Touring, Styling, Continental Blackline etc) become key de-facto trim levels, which are likely to affect the residual values of your car, so some are worth having.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Bentley Continental GT

Sticking with the Volkswagen Group’s MSB platform, the GT Speed carries over the same three-chamber, adaptively damped air suspension as the regular GT and the same eight-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox and electronically controlled active four-wheel drive system, all of which run recalibrated software to deliver a more sporting focus. It has the Bentley Dynamic Ride 48V active anti-roll bars that come as an option on lesser GTs, but they run with even more extensively retuned settings.

Those clever anti-roll bars need to work even more cleverly because, unlike any other GT to date, the GT Speed also features a four-wheel steering system adapted from that of the Flying Spur. It works via a secondary steering rack acting on the tie rods of the multi-link rear axle, but its tuning is very different here. The system not only aids manoeuvrability at low speeds by shortening the car’s effective wheelbase, but it also moves the GT’s centre of yaw forward and away from the rear axle, allowing the chassis to pivot much closer to its middle when cornering. The four-wheel steering system’s effectiveness, Bentley says, is as much to do with the aggressiveness with which it turns those rear wheels as it is the angle to which it turns them.

The GT Speed’s other technological first is an electronically controlled torque-vectoring rear diff, which is in fact a planetary axle drive teamed with a pair of clutches. This can behave as a fully open diff, as a 50:50 locking unit, or even to overdrive the loaded outside rear wheel when the electronics deem it appropriate. It not only improves traction but also gives the rear axle – and, by extension, the driver’s right foot – much greater influence over the handling balance and cornering attitude of the chassis.

The four-wheel drive system could support a rear-wheel-drive-only mode, Bentley says. In Sport mode it biases some 70% of torque to the rear axle by default, and more at times. But Crewe’s engineers opted for an actively managed torque distribution that might even shift the balance of drive forwards and aft two or three times during the full course of a corner, in order to variously mobilise and then stabilise the rear axle and manipulate the mass, momentum and attitude of the car without you even knowing it’s happening.

The Speed is powered by a lightly overhauled version of Bentley’s Cheshire-made 6.0-litre twin-turbocharged W12, which makes 24bhp more than in a regular GT W12, so 650bhp but the same 664lb ft. Iron discs are standard, while the optional carbon-ceramic discs fitted here are the biggest used by any current production car. Alone, they save some 33kg of unsprung mass – if you have them.

The test car weighed 2279kg on the MIRA scales, so 16kg less than the Continental GT W12 Coupé we tested in 2018 but clearly still a very weighty, very ‘Bentley’ luxury operator.

The engine-turned aluminium trim in the GT Speed’s cabin is a metaphor for the whole car. Even if you detest similarly racy metallic finishes in every other diesel hatchback and hybrid crossover with the vaguest of performance intentions, you’ll find it beautiful to behold and instantly disarming of any harboured cynicism.

It is so lovely that it renders moot how much weight it may add or how much it might cost – which is what so much else about the car does. This is a performance derivative like few others.

You sit in a superbly comfortable and adjustable seat with enough bolstering to keep your backside in place when driving hard, but not a hint too much. The seat may not quite be low-enough set for those who like to feel really at one with the movements of a car’s chassis, but it offers plenty of room around you, grants decent visibility (the wide pillars and roof are notable but not huge adverse factors) and is trimmed in a tactile, visually appealing style. The GT Speed’s rear seats remain.

They’re more useful than you find in most 2+2 coupés but still tricky to access and only really comfortable for kids or smaller adults. The boot could accommodate a couple of medium-sized suitcases and soft bags, but beyond a ski hatch it doesn’t offer seat-folding, through-loading functionality.

Almost without exception, what looks like metal here also feels like it: cool on a chilly morning and possibly beaded with moisture when the air conditioning is working hard. This cabin is full of tactile, knurled finishes and offers one of the most materially solid, lavish and special-feeling interiors in the automotive world.

But its lavishness also makes it functional in some ways. With an entirely leather-covered upper dashboard, for example, there are few surfaces to reflect light into your eyes and few exposed edges to collect dust.

Infotainment and sat-nav

Bentley’s 12.3in touchscreen infotainment system looks and works very much like the one you get in a Porsche Panamera, but it’s hard to fault for usability. There’s a small scroll wheel and plenty of physical menu shortcut keys for those who don’t like to prod away at a screen; and for those who do, the column navigation on the right margin of the screen works well, too.

The rotating display feature is optional and not cheap (£4865). But that’s because the screen is replaced by a line of classic dials when it’s folded away (compass, outside thermometer, stopwatch). It consists of more than 150 parts, it works near silently and it fits beautifully into the dashboard. It also had to be engineered to be able to flip around and display the image from the reversing camera within two seconds of the driver selecting reverse gear (a legal requirement in some markets).

Moreover, simply being able to fold the screen away when you know where you’re going, or don’t want distractions from the outside world, really does feel like luxury.

Bentley’s mammoth, four-bank, twin-turbo W12 is not, and never has been, an engine with an ostentatious streak. It doesn’t zap to high revs or demand to be heard, and it sounds only marginally more forthcoming here than in a regular GT. It revs to only just beyond 6000rpm, and no, partly because of that kerb weight, it doesn’t quite make this Bentley the undisputed performance king of the grand touring niche.

But crikey, does it ever pull. The GT Speed has the kind of performance you might call ‘comfortably monumental’. It runs the same gear ratios and axle drives as the regular Contintental GT W12 so is relatively short-geared from first to third. That, allied with four-wheel drive and 664lb ft, is what allowed this 2.3-tonne luxury coupé to crack 60mph from rest in just 3.4sec and 30-70mph through the gears in just 2.7sec. Both are a couple of tenths quicker than the regular GT managed three years ago, and faster over the benchmark standing start than Aston Martin’s more powerful DBS Superleggera. Not bad for a big lad.

The Aston is quicker to 100mph from rest, though, and over a standing kilometre because, when you get into the higher gears, the GT Speed’s ratios get longer quite quickly. In top, the Bentley is over-driven to more than 50mph per 1000rpm (running in a vacuum and breathing through a snorkel, if you will, it would run on to 310mph). It’s about 20% longer-geared than the DBS in eighth, but if you lock the car into top and bury the accelerator from just under 60mph, the GT Speed will nonetheless reach 80mph in less time than the Aston. That’s the difference made by an engine that hits peak torque from 1500rpm.

When you’re on and off the throttle, there is a little bit of lag, which can make big, sudden pedal applications feel a little uncouth as the torque tears through the driveline slightly later than requested. But be smoother and more deliberate with your demands, squeeze the throttle pedal rather than slap it and time your manual upshifts well (a little sooner than you might think is usually better), and the GT Speed’s urgency rarely fails to impress.

Or just leave it in ‘D’ and let the car handle it all pretty seamlessly for you. The dual-clutch gearbox delivers shifts as quick and positive as you’ll need even when piling hard into a second-gear hairpin. It still has its tardy moments in everyday driving, (it’s slow when hopping into reverse, and likewise when engaging Drive), but it generally times and selects gears intuitively on the move.

Those optional carbon-ceramic brakes, meanwhile, lack a little bit of bite at speed and outright power on track, with a pedal that can seem just a little over-assisted and sensitive when manoeuvring, but they needn’t be a persistent bother.

It’s far easier to describe what the GT Speed has gained in this department when you drive it on a track rather than on the road.

Find a wide circuit with plenty of room to run in to, dial up the drive modes and dial back the electronic stability control and you’ll unearth a car here that can indeed pivot and rotate underneath you like no Bentley road car has before it. It will powerslide a little, too, if you’re bold enough and use plenty of initial positive steering angle, although its limit handling does feel somewhat contrived and micro-managed when you shake it loose. This feels very much like a 2.3-tonne car with a lot of inertia to manage, however well it might succeed at achieving that at times, rather than a naturally agile, balanced and adjustable sports car.

On the road, it’s debatable whether the GT Speed does quite enough in simpler ways to deliver a really sporting driving experience, or at least one that is significantly more enticing and involving than that of any other GT. There is a shade more weight and connected feel about the steering, but what you don’t feel through your fingertips is the extra bite that the four-wheel steering undoubtedly generates on turn-in. Instead, it is produced almost as if by magic. It allows the car to take a keener line and a more playful attitude through a tight corner than you expect of something so heavy, althoughsomehownotinvitingyou to enjoy it quite as vividly as you otherwise might.

Drive with a bit of enthusiasm and you’ll feel the steering system, differential and anti-roll bars pitching the car into each apex and wheeling its mass around, only for them then to team up with the ESC a split-second later to manage the rotational momentum back out again – and all without you needing so much as a steering correction. Objectively, at least, it all works rather well, but that doesn’t make it engaging or involving.

The filtering and isolation on which Bentley trades simply prevents the GT Speed from communicating as you might like it to, as luxurious as it undoubtedly remains. In its more lurid moments, this car simply is not quite the indulgent, predictable and flattering big hooligan that it might otherwise have been.

Track notes

Bentley ought to congratulate itself on getting the GT Speed within a tenth of its big rival from Aston Martin around MIRA’s narrow and punishing dry handling circuit, especially given that the car gives up plenty to the DBS Superleggera on power-to-weight ratio.

The GT Speed simply rockets out of second- and third-gear corners once it’s on boost. It takes a little attitude under power with the electronics dialled back and begins to handle a bit untidily when you really press it, and it takes experience to know when and where it’s best to correct the car’s angle and line yourself and when to leave that job to the active systems. You find your way, though.

The car’s considerable weight can certainly be felt under braking, however, and when turning in. Steady-state understeer is the car’s default way of communicating its limit (until you start hoofing the rear axle around, that is), and it’s the outside front tyre that generally takes the hardest punishment.

Ride comfort and isolation

Bentley is right to bill the GT Speed as the match of any Continental on refinement. Crewe’s chassis engineers will tell you how much easier their life was made by the lightweight forged wheels (which come in only one size here, so they didn’t need a tuning compromise that would work across rim sizes), the lightweight carbon-ceramic brakes and an uprated performance tyre.

Only on open, coarse asphalt does the car seem to generate any more noise than a regular GT. Around MIRA’s inner test track it proved just a little noisier than the GT W12 was at 30mph, but then a decibel quieter at a 70mph cruise. The difference to that Aston DBS Superleggera we mentioned earlier? At 70mph, it’s a whopping 11dBA. The GT Speed may not be as hushed as a super-luxury limousine, but if you like a quiet, well-isolated, genuinely luxurious fast coupé, it takes some beating.

The car’s low-speed ride can be really supple around town – too soft, at times, in Comfort mode when it allows the front chin spoiler to ground out gently over speed bumps. That apart, though, the ride deals with both small inputs and large ones impressivey well.

Out on flowing country roads, body control and supple comfort are typically better combined in Bentley mode than they are in Sport, the latter introducing just a hint of jittery brittleness to the ride over more complex surfaces.

An entry-level GT V8 starts from just under £170,000, and few will pay much less than £200,000 after options. But by forgoing some options and adding 25% to your budget, you can get a range-topping GT Speed instead (even if the de rigueur options spend isn’t to be underestimated).

It’s a pretty competitive starting price, and remember we’re in rarefied market territory here, where many customers will prefer to spend more, and will imagine they’re getting better value, if they can end up with an even more special car by doing so.

The forecast residual values are better than those of its competitors from Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce, even if they won’t be the kind you’d brag about over a cigar. Bentleys have never been cheap to run however you quantify it. Expense is expected.

We applaud Bentley’s commitment to what may be the most performance-focused Continental of its generation. The GT Speed has its moments as a driver’s car – and, as this leather-and aluminium-clad heavyweight swivels underneath you and then catapults forwards, they’re moments to remember.

But even the very latest active driveline, suspension and steering systems have their limits. Like a rugby back-row forward given ankle injections, the new toys make a difference, but they won’t make him spin like Rudolf Nureyev, and the GT Speed won’t, either, not in a way that will really hold your attention on road or track.

Like so many Bentleys over the years, this one is at its best at a flowing eight-tenths stride down a wide, sweeping country road or, better still, over long distances as a luxury GT, where little else would compare. It remains wide and still feels heavy when the hedges close in, and it is typically reserved and filtered-feeling in character.

It’s lovely, opulent and disarming, but alluring to drive rather than truly absorbing. And it only entertains as well as an uncompromising luxury-first coupé ever could.

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