► First test of the new Continental GT Speed on track
► Active electronics make it the cleverest Conti yet
► But also the most fun; a tactile, involving Grand Tourer
This is fun: the Bentley Continental GT Speed just carved into one of Silverstone’s apex kerbs with unerring accuracy, despite an entry speed higher than was probably sensible. Mid-corner it’s full of feedback, letting me know just how much grip is available at both axles, and on exit it’s keener to oversteer than any previous Bentley.
Whether powered by V8 or W12, the ‘regular’ Bentley Continental GT can do great things but it’s not necessarily a great driver’s car. It’s enormously surefooted (and genuinely nimble) for such an enormous car, and it’s as clever and safe as it is fast, but it’s not necessarily involving.
The new Continental GT Speed aims to change that. Aside from being the fastest Continental GT in the range (as its name suggests), with the most powerful version of the W12 engine, it also aims to be the most appealing to keen drivers.
What’s the Bentley Continental GT Speed all about?
It’s just as luxurious and opulent as the rest of the Conti range but aims to be more agile and exciting. To that end, it has what the company describes as the ‘most advanced chassis any Bentley has ever had.’
The Speed gets an electronically controlled limited-slip differential (or e-LSD) at the rear (a first for Bentley), retuned software for the active all-wheel drive system (it’s much more rear-biased in Sport mode, but still sends torque – up to around 18% – forward on corner exit) and rear-wheel steering, helping the Speed turn into low-speed corners more dynamically and keeping things stable in the quicker stuff. It’s the same system fitted to the Flying Spur, but with Speed-specific software. Other Continental GTs aren’t available with rear-steer.
The Speed also gets its own electronic stability control (ESC) software, called ‘charisma-dependent ESC.’ Ignore the baffling name; in essence it allows a broader spread in behaviour between the driving modes, and more freedom when the ESC is in its more lenient modes. If it senses the driver is intentionally throwing the car into a slide, it supports them, rather than aggressively damping down power and grabbing brakes to straighten things up.
Like the standard Bentley Continental GT V8 and W12 models, the Speed also has torque vectoring by braking, three-chamber air springs with adaptive damping, active all-wheel drive and 48V active anti-roll control (an option on the V8).
So, there are a huge number of different active systems at play, all of which need to talk to one another fluently; the complexity at play beneath the Speed’s surface is quite something.
How can you spot a Speed at a distance?
Aside from Speed-specific 22-inch wheels, there’s a darker tint to the radiator grille and some detail trim changes including commendably subtle Speed badging.
As standard the exhausts look like giant ellipses, but the car tested here has the optional Akrapovic quad-exit sports exhausts. It has a gruffer, woofflier tone than normal but still sounds muted in the car, especially wearing a helmet.
There are ‘Speed’ scripts stitched into the seats and the option of alcantara everywhere. Once the doors are closed with a muted thunk there’s the usual rich smell of expensive materials, and the same lovely control weights and fine trim shut lines, as the rest of the Conti range.
I hear it has the biggest brakes in the world?
As an £11k option, the Speed can be fitted with carbon ceramic brakes which Bentley claims are the largest fitted to a production car in the world. Only available on the Speed, they’re 440mm in diameter, with 10-piston calipers on the front. That’s only two less than in the engine bay, because it’s powered by the familiar 6.0-litre W12 twin-turbo engine deployed in much of the Continental range since 2003. More than 100,000 W12s have now been built at Crewe.
In the Speed, it develops 650bhp from 5000 to 6000rpm (compared with around 626bhp in the regular Continental GT W12 and 547bhp in the V8) but the headline figure is the torque.
There’s 664lb ft across a torque curve flatter than Detective Norm Scully’s haircut in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, from 1500 all the way to 5000rpm.
That makes the Speed feel more than quick enough to live up to its name. It’s thumpingly fast. On Silverstone’s Hangar Straight, 160mph comes and goes with laughable ease, and if Stowe corner wasn’t in the way it would keep pulling all the way to 208mph.
On the road the Speed never feels anything less than imperiously potent. Because the torque’s always available, and because the twin-clutch gearbox and four-wheel-drive system are so adept at transmitting that torque to the road, this Conti GT is fast everywhere, all the time. Dusty hairpins? Just flit through them and drive cleanly out, the Speed’s newfound rear-biased four-wheel drive and agility-boosting four-wheel steer helping you rotate through the corner rather than washing the nose wide. Long queue of slow-moving traffic? The instant speed the Bentley can dial up lets you safely pick your way through and past it like a two-tonne motorcycle.
If only the engine sounded a little better. The W12 isn’t blessed with the soul-stirring acoustics of a Ferrari or even an Aston V12, and some of the wastegate noises are jarringly audible for a car so refined and sophisticated as this one.
Those big brakes are up to the job of getting it stopped, and pedal feel is decent too; not the last word in feedback, but with enough modulation to feel the onset of ABS and hold it there.
If the ceramic brake option box is left unticked, the GT Speed comes with the same cast iron brakes as the rest of the Conti range which are still more than up to the job if you don’t plan on heading onto a track or repeatedly doing emergency stops on a hot day. On the downside, they add a full 33kg of unsprung mass – despite being bigger, the composite brakes are considerably lighter, which brings further benefits in ride and handling.
So, how does it drive?
First things first, the Continental GT Speed isn’t a trackday car; it’s not pretending to be a 911 GT3 rival, and it’s still a big grand tourer first and foremost. We’re testing at Silverstone partly because the Speed’s not yet homologated for the road in the UK (but will be before long) and partly because it’s an environment to safely show off what it can do. That’s quite brave on Bentley’s part: most heavy road cars fall apart dynamically on a circuit within a lap or two.
But the Speed gleefully attacks Silverstone in a manner which shouldn’t really be possible in a 2.3-tonne GT. Turning into the mega-quick Maggots/Becketts essess at three figures plus change and the Speed tucks its nose in eagerly; through the tricky transfer in the middle of the complex it’s balanced and adjustable. All the more impressive given it’s on standard (if gigantic) Pirelli P Zeroes, not special track tyres. Understeer is an issue in some quick, gentle curves, but no more so than you’d expect of a car of this type.
The rear-wheel steering turns the back boots the opposite direction to the fronts below 50mph or so, meaning there are only two corners at Silverstone where that comes into play. It feels good, helping the car dive into the apex neatly. At higher speeds, it turns them in the same direction as the fronts for stability, and if the car goes sideways, it rapidly lines them up squarely for predictability.
Going sideways is something the Continental is keen to do, and not only because it has so much torque so freely available. The new ESC allows a great deal of movement in its partway-off Dynamic mode, and the car moves around a fair bit beneath you – but it never feels unpredictable. ‘It doesn’t bite, and it doesn’t give you sweaty hands,’ is how chassis engineering director Florian Sprenger puts it. The regular Continental GT, which goes without the rear-steer, e-LSD and other goodies has a relatively conservative set-up but the more nuanced electronics on the Speed have allowed the talented engineering team to set the Speed up to be more playful.
Drive modes are still chosen via the rotary switch between Comfort, Bentley and Sport modes. Comfort is claimed to be very nearly as smooth-riding as the regular Conti V8/W12, but the other modes are pushed more toward the dynamic end of the scale.
‘On the road, you’d probably feel the slightly quicker steering more noticeably than here,’ says Sprenger. It’s a little heavier in weight than the regular GT’s (yet still light for parking), helping it feel more tactile, and with a chassis with more propensity to move around beneath you, the car as a whole is more involving.
‘It’s amazing how stable it is at 300kph (186mph)-plus,’ Sprenger says. ‘I can assure you, we’ve tested it everywhere!’
He’s not wrong. As a road car the Speed doesn’t shift the Continental GT’s remit wholesale upon its axis. In Comfort mode it remains ridiculously comfortable. It’s just that in Sport mode the Speed does the word justice.
Through quick series of corners you simply need never slow down, so impeccably is the body controlled and so eerily composed does the car remain, even as its Pirellis begin to audibly complain at your rate of progress. The ride is compliant, dealing with even Sicily’s roughest roads admirably, though the less rigid Convertible can shudder when the surface quality drops from poor to medieval.
But it’s what happens when you get the chance to really hustle the Speed that all its bespoke engineering (not to mention the thousands of testing and calibration hours that have gone into it) takes centre-stage. The more direct steering rack loads up with reassuring weight as you wind on lock, and as soon as the nose is keyed into a corner (assuming you have the car in the right modes) you’re then able to dictate the Speed’s trajectory and attitude ss much with your right foot and the 650bhp W12 as with the steering wheel.
This adjustability is new ground for Crewe’s GT, and it’s riotously good fun, not least because it all happens with such grace and control it’s nothing like as intimidating or nerve-wracking as cool logic would suggest it should be. It’s just fun and immensely rewarding, and it brings a whole new dimension to an already desirable GT.
The Speed is not like the old Supersports. It is not Bentley trying to make a sports car of its GT, and it remains as good at wafting along as it is at hooning around. On the road, in coupe or Convertible guise (around £20k more expensive, 163kg heavier and blessed with less luggage space), this remains a serene grant tourer in which miles melt away and memories are made every time you drive.
And if that’s all you ever plan to do in your Bentley, stick with the V8 – it’s the more charming engine of the two, not to mention the less expensive. But if to you Bentley is as much about Le Mans glory, immersive driving pleasure and the most genteel application of corrective lock as you give an almighty engine its head, then the Speed is the car for you.