For more than 50 years, from the time it was purchased out of receivership by Rolls-Royce in 1931 until 1998 when Volkswagen took over ownership of the brand, Bentley lived in the shadow of its sister company. While attempts have been made over the years to rekindle the spirit and magic imbued upon the marque by founder Walter Owen (WO) Bentley, it always seemed a bit of a compromise. Where Rolls Royce always was a luxury brand first, Bentley wandered back and forth between performance and luxury, never seeming to get the balance quite right.
Having just spent four days with a 2014 Bentley Continental GT Speed, however, I can unequivocally state that the balance is now perfect.
Everything about the GT Speed, from the styling to the engine to the 8-speed ZF transmission, adjustable suspension, high-performance tires, instrument cluster, and leather seats, is designed for just one thing: to help you drive fast confidently.
Walking up to the quickest Continental, I was struck by its size. While its beautifully sculpted exterior is imposing, it’s not big. The configuration of the W12 engine helps keep the hood at a reasonable length and thus the balance between the front and rear of the car is extraordinary. The 21-inch wheels and tires are pushed way out to the corners creating a powerful, confident stance and the blackened matrix grille hints at the sinister nature of the power that lies beneath its hood.
For 2014 the GT Speed’s 6.0L W12 twin turbo engine delivers 616 horsepower, which will be upped to 635 in the 2015 model. Insert the key and push the start button and the first thing you notice is the sound. It’s not a low rumble, but a growl that seems to be saying, “let’s go.” Put the car in drive, tap the accelerator and the GT Speed moves easily away from a dead stop despite weighing nearly 5200 pounds thanks to the 590 foot pounds of torque delivered to all four of the coupe’s performance tires.
What surprised me most about the Bentley GT Speed is not that it is powerful, quick and fast. That’s to be expected with the massive engine that’s wedged between its front wheels. It’s surprising that it is so incredibly manageable. At low speeds the throttle is not overly sensitive and the steering at two and a half turns lock to lock, is light and quick. I had no trepidation nor trouble parallel parking it on a crowded Main Street at noon in Westport, Connecticut. But find a twisty bit of back road, switch the suspension from comfort to sport, give the throttle more of your right foot, and you’ll soon find what the Bentley was truly designed to do.
Pushing the accelerator to the floor elicits a delicious howl in the cabin, the kind of sound you expect from an engine this powerful. I found it to be the perfect soundtrack for an afternoon of high-speed touring on the backroads of New England.
One of the joys about having a car like this for a few days, rather than just test driving it at a press event for a few hours, is that you really get a chance to know the car. In this case, I was able to play with the exceptionally adjustable seats to find a very comfortable driving position. It also doesn’t hurt that those seats included a massaging function that when activated, kneads the small of your lower back for up to ten minutes to help reduce the stress of the day. The leather is expertly cut and sewn, the optional quilting adding a level of detail that really made the interior feel special. The seats are both heated and cooled to keep you comfortable no matter what the conditions outside the cabin are. Given these features, front seat passengers will enjoy the ride in the Continental for hours on end. The rear seat, however, is another matter.
The Continental GT Speed is a classic 2+2. This means that while the back seats are well appointed, the legroom is such that no one over five feet tall will be able to enjoy their accoutrements for more than a few minutes before leg cramps set in.
Staying with the interior, I was taken by the Bentley’s understated and functional instrument cluster. Bentley designers clearly avoided the temptation to over-engineer the dash by adding all the possible bells and whistles. Keeping the focus where it should, on the large speedometer and tach, the dash also has a customizable center LED screen that simply and clearly presents information like fuel mileage, temperature and speed as well. The center stack is also clean, with an 8-inch touch screen monitor for audio, navigation and the backup camera and traditional buttons and knobs for the operation of the excellent HVAC system. It’s well designed and intuitive allowing the driver to focus on what really matters, driving.
That’s ultimately what the Continental GT Speed does best. The all-wheel drive system is set up with a 60/40 rear/front split in power which helps counter the understeer you’d expect from a car with such a heavy front end. Driving through tight corners at well over suggested speeds was a matter of course and I never once felt like the front end would push or wash out. This combination of power and grip also allows the car to launch itself from 0-60 in just a tick over four seconds and accelerate from 60 to 80 faster than you can say “God save the Queen.” All of that meant that my observed fuel economy was a thirsty 12.9 miles per gallon. But the smile it put on my face was worth the nearly hundred dollars it cost to refill the 24-gallon tank after my first two days of driving.
It’s said that with great power comes great responsibility. That is never more true then when behind the wheel of the GT Speed. In it you have a car capable of speeds of over 200 miles per hour, of driving comfortably for hours at triple digit speeds, of accelerating from stoplights in the blink of an eye. In short, this car requires a great degree of self-control and restraint on the driver’s part. Otherwise, one is likely to be writing checks to the local constabulary for significant sums on a regular basis. That’s something I was fortunately able to avoid in my four days with the Bentley Continental GT Speed. Had my test drive gone five, however, who knows?
2014 Bentley Continental GT Speed
6.0L W12 Twin Turbo Engine
8-Speed ZF Automatic Transmission with Paddle Shifters
Continuous All-wheel drive
Speed tuned exhaust
Base Price: $217,000
Price as tested: $237,400 (includes $1,700 gas guzzler tax)