Even if you’re unfamiliar with Southern California, finding great roads is often a matter of looking at a map (these days you do it on your smartphone) for something that’s out of town and has more than a few curves. When one of your California-residing friends shows up to go for a spin in Bentley’s new Continental GT Speed and points to the same roads, you know you’re on the right track, so to speak.
In 2012, Bentley introduced this second generation of the modern grand tourer, appropriately bearing the Continental GT name. You won’t find its name on this Bentley’s flanks because this brand is far too subtle for that. Instead, the bonnet and the boot are adorned with the familiar winged “B” badge, leaving it to those in the know to recognize this model for what it is.
The Speed, you see, is a factory-tuned version of the Continental GT, and all of the changes are perfectly in tune with the character of the coupe. On the outside, a careful eye will discern that this Continental sits a little lower than the standard car and, with its large 21-inch wheels, the Speed has a muscular presence. For this model, Bentley’s designers chose an appropriately dark finish for the trademark grille, and discrete W12 badging on the wings hint at what’s really under the bonnet.
Modern Bentleys, both the Continental GT and Flying Spur, have famously used a unique engine configuration, the W12. Think of it as two narrow-angle V6 engines mated to a common crankshaft forming a double V. Each bank of V6s shares a common cylinder head, giving this powerful engine exceptionally compact dimensions.
In Speed specification, the W12 includes a pair of turbochargers in order to produce 616 glorious horsepower and a formidable 590 lb-ft of torque. The Continental GT must make do with 49 fewer horses and 74 lb-ft of torque, making the near $22,000 premium for the Speed seem almost entirely justifiable. It’s the torque delivery that defines the character of this engine. It makes maximum torque from just 2,000 rpm all the way through the rev range to 5,000 rpm.
As I point the Speed to the hills — sorry, I’m keeping the location of my California roads to myself — and casually roll through urban traffic, it’s obvious that even in this car-crazy culture the Bentley is something special. It doesn’t take long for smartphones to come out and point in the Speed’s direction. I wonder just how many photos of me behind the wheel of this Bentley will snake their way through the various spheres of social media.
Even before I break free of the city, it’s apparent the interior design of the Continental is meant to convey a feeling of relaxation. The feel and finish of the leather is second to none, and the hide has that rich, distinctive Bentley scent. The interior of this Speed is finished with some carbon fibre trim, which is among the finest of its kind to grace the interior of an automobile, but I’d prefer something more traditional like turned aluminum.
That knurled aluminum does find a home atop the shifter, at least. The Continental GT uses an eight-speed automatic from well-regarded supplier ZF, with calibration specific to the GT. Shifts happen almost — almost — as quickly as the best dual clutch gearboxes, and given that there are eight gears, this transmission is capable of shifting immediately from eight to fourth any time the driver asks for a surge of acceleration.
In normal driving, the abundant torque of the engine requires fewer shifts from the transmission and that further affirms the calm, relaxed character of the Speed. The ride is exceptionally quiet for a car that rolls on four 275 mm-wide wheels shod in Pirelli P Zero rubber. The smooth roads of California are almost Utopian compared to our frost-heaved and pockmarked streets, but my recent test of the Flying Spur in Ontario suggests the Speed is just as quiet and composed in Toronto as it is in Beverly Hills.
Sliding the shift lever over to sport mode changes the usual parameters like throttle response and the shift program, but also the most enjoyable function — the sports exhaust. On start-up, the Speed idles discretely with enough volume to let passersby know this gorgeous coupe means business. But when sport mode opens baffles in the exhaust, the rumble transitions from baritone to bass.
When I finally escape the suburban landscape for those unmistakable mountain roads, the Speed wants to settle into a pace where it feels comfortable. Alas, that pace is well above the posted limits, so I have to be careful. There’s no question the Continental is quite literally a massive car — it’s 2,320 kilograms to be exact, or the equivalent of 5,000 pounds and one supermodel. The careful construction, attention to detail and rigidity of the chassis attest to the mass of this two door. There’s simply nothing else that weighs this much and offers as much accessible performance as well as comfort. It’s nearly as remarkable a package as its distant VW cousin, the Bugatti Veyron.
No matter the type of corner, the Speed is responsive. Turn the leather-covered wheel and it changes direction obediently. As G-loads increase, its cornering behavior is virtually sports car-like, thanks to the Speed-specific suspension. The Speed sits 10 mm lower than the standard Continental on firmer springs, anti-roll bars and bushings. Of course, the electronically-controlled dampers are recalibrated to suit the stiffer suspension settings. Body motion is always well controlled in normal driving situations and the ride is never harsh.
It’s only when I have the chance to fully explore the Speed’s handling limits that I discover it doesn’t like being hustled through corners on its absolute limits unless the steering and throttle inputs are perfectly smooth. It’s not that the Bentley is unforgiving because it’s not, but it will easily translate your imperfect inputs into imperfect behaviour — as any good car should. Still, the feedback from the chassis gives the driver confidence in spades.
Bentley cabins always convey a sense of relaxation, elegance and luxury. Leather and wool cover virtually every interior surface, save for bits of aluminum and carbon fibre in this Speed. And although it’s quiet, you still hear enough of the engine and exhaust to remind you that you’re piloting a sporting grand tourer. The adjustability between the exceptionally comfortable and supportive seat and the steering wheel allows for almost any size of driver to find that perfect seating position. While stuck in legendary L.A. traffic for two hours en route to a meeting in Hollywood, my back is pleased that I’m seated in a Bentley Continental.
Testing this Continental GT Speed over a week in Southern California gives me a thorough understanding of a modern Bentley. They’re engineered and finished to the highest levels, entirely without compromise. My test of this Bentley comes to an end when I drive to LAX for my flight back to Toronto and I can’t help but think about how remarkable a car this is considering its broad envelope of performance and abundant comfort. I’ll never forget what it’s like to carve Californian roads, with songs from my playlist turned up on the gorgeous sound system, while behind the wheel of this extraordinarily capable and luxurious grand tourer.