Over the last few years, British automakers have started to mount hostile incursions into what used to be each other’s sovereign territory. Aston Martins have become more pliant and comfortable. Rolls-Royces have grown modestly more athletic. And now Bentley is making a push into much more focused driving dynamics with the new Continental GT Speed.
There have been Speed versions of Bentley models before now, but these have largely just added horsepower, rather than sharpening handling to any significant degree. But the new GT Speed takes a different path. Sure, W.O.’s company says it is quicker than the already rapid Continental GT W12 it is based on, but only just. Its twin-turbo 6.0-liter W-12 makes 650 horsepower—a 24-hp increase—but also produces the same torque peak of 664 pound-feet. Bentley says the Speed shaves a tenth of a second from the W12’s zero-to-60-mph time, which should translate to a 3.1-second dash when we get around to testing one. Top speed also improves by a similarly trivial margin, increasing from a claimed 207 mph to 208 mph. These are details that even the hardest-charging GT Speed drivers are unlikely to notice.
The other changes are more significant. The Speed is the first Continental to get rear-wheel steering to simultaneously sharpen its responses and improve high-speed stability. It also gains a new electronically controlled limited-slip differential so as not to make a one-tire fire out of one of the summer rubber wrapping 22-inch wheels. There is also a more pronounced rearward bias for the car’s all-wheel-drive system and a recalibration of the GT’s electronic sentinels, including what the company’s engineers refer to as a “more charismatic” Sport mode for the stability control.
Our drive of the new GT Speed was restricted to the United Kingdom’s Silverstone race circuit, apparently due to delays in certifying the car for road use in Britain. It was a limited experience in an atypical environment, but it did prove that—unlike most of its predecessors—the Speed seems to actually enjoy hard track use.
While the revised chassis did impress, the Speed’s modestly altered W-12 engine remains its starring feature. The Speed gets new turbochargers to improve responses. While the torque peak moves slightly higher in the rev range, the horsepower peak hits at 5000 rpm and remains flat to 6000 rpm, the engine’s previous peak point. But the overall experience is almost entirely as we remember it from earlier examples. This venerable engine might be nearing its retirement party—Bentley claims it will produce its last non-electrified powertrain as soon as 2025—but even as the sand runs down, it still feels like a modern engineering achievement.
On public roads, where full throttle only ever comes in small doses, we know that the effortlessness of the W-12’s muscle tends to be its defining characteristic. But on Silverstone’s fast GP circuit, the mighty engine forgot its soft voice and wielded a very big stick, turning snarling and savage as it enabled huge velocities on the circuit’s straights. While loud under full throttle (even when experienced through the padding of a helmet), the Speed has lost some of the pops and bangs we remember brawnier versions of this engine making in previous models.
Other roadgoing Bentleys have been as good at delivering straight-line speed as this one, but none of its predecessors felt this accomplished when it comes to shedding velocity or carrying it into corners. We sampled a car fitted with the optional carbon-ceramic brake system, with 17.3-inch front rotors that Bentley says are the biggest in the world. Stopping power felt both massive and relentless. Even when repeatedly hauling the 5000-plus-pound car down from triple-digit speeds, the brake pedal remained firm and linear.
The Speed’s mass remained evident when asking it to change direction, but the suite of active systems work together to help it turn. Like the regular Continental, the Speed gets Bentley’s active anti-roll bars, which counteract body roll with a 48-volt electric motor. The contribution of the new rear steering system was well disguised, although doubtlessly helpful; at higher speeds it turns the rear wheels very slightly in phase with the fronts to impart unbreakable stability.
Pressing harder in Silverstone’s tighter corners with the stability control in either its Sport mode or deactivated proved that the Speed could indeed be persuaded into power oversteer, holding this unlikely state with remarkable aplomb for something so big and heavy. The expression “drift mode” wasn’t dare used by any of the engineers at Silverstone, but that is clearly what this newfound dynamic freedom is meant to replicate.
The Speed is clearly a sharpened GT rather than a pure-blooded sports car, and we have little doubt it will be as accomplished on the street as its less aggressive siblings. On track, the gearbox felt a little out of its comfort zone, the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic shifting quickly and cleanly, but without the snappy forcefulness of most of its ilk. Even in Sport mode and with the transmission under manual control, it still upshifted automatically at redline. It would be nice to be able to hold it there for a second or so in the face of an approaching braking zone. We also found that the Speed’s quilted leather seats, although beautifully trimmed, were lacking the lateral support of true track specials, leading to a degree of lateral ass slippage under prolonged cornering loads.
All of that is unlikely to matter. Bentley knows that hard circuit driving will only ever be a small part of the duty cycle for a typical GT Speed. Its on-track talents will be more “can” than “will” for most buyers. But presuming the chassis changes work just as well on real roads, there seems little doubt this will become the most appealing version of the Continental GT, as well as the most expensive, when it goes on sale later this year.
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