TEST DRIVE: BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT SPEED

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Majestic cruiser or gentleman’s racer? The Bentley Continental GT Speed

You know that old adage about power; it corrupts. And, in turn, absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s a warning well served and, therefore, I think we need to be rather concerned about the Bentley Continental GT Speed.

Its distinguished bonnet elegantly hides an almighty, road-shattering muscle. In the grand tradition of Bentley, the workers at Goodwood have lowered in a torquey lump big enough to make a 2.5 tonne car look sprightly, and this time they’ve taken it further than ever before. They’ve gone and strapped their Regency chest of drawers and Louis XVI chaise longue to the back of Usain Bolt.

W12. That’s four rows of three cylinders coupled to a common crankshaft. It’s not completely new. The 6.0-litre powerplant debuted in the Volkswagen Phaeton in 2010. The standard Continental GT got it the following year, in 567bhp-spec, but the ‘Speed’ in this latest model’s name indicates there’s even more Tabasco in the fuel tank. There’s 616bhp under this car’s throttle pedal and, most impressively, 590 lb-ft of torque driving all four wheels. Strap it to an A380, and it could drag the super-jumbo out onto the runway.

A little known fact, to the hundreds of millions of people who have seen James Bond movies but have never read the books, is that 007 owns a Bentley, not an Aston Martin. We’re introduced to it in Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s first opus. It’s a 1930 4 ½ Litre convertible customized by Mulliner Park Ward and described as “Bond’s only hobby”. It is finished in matt grey. Possibly ‘gun metal’ like his beloved Beretta (Bond only switched to the Walther PPK in the movies) or ‘battleship’, where he earned that smart Royal Navy uniform.

Like the secret agent, the Bentley is quick, tough and powerful, tailored with understated class, and as proudly British as a Windsor knot. It is also individual, a one-off, with an up-rated Amherst Villiers supercharged engine.

The GT Speed is the modern version of that car. A grand tourer designed to propel one to the casinos of Monaco, Montenegro and Macau faster and more comfortably than anything else. It’s not only the most powerful production Bentley ever, it’s the quickest by some margin. Zero to 100km arrives in 4.2 seconds, which is Lamborghini quick in a four-seater weighing 2,350kg. Remarkable. It comes into its own over 100km/h, the needle charging across triple-digits effortlessly. Top speed is 330km/h. That’s 5km/h faster than the latest Gallardo LP 570-4 Superleggera, and the Ferrari 458 Italia.

The car has been lowered by 10mm over the standard car with the ability to hug lower at high speed, suspension has been stiffened, and the steering has been retuned. Looks-wise, though, the changes are well camouflaged, the second generation (2011) Conti body designed to age gracefully, like the Queen’s portrait on her money.

The key turns over the engine with the satisfying clunk-click of the oak door to a manor house, or maybe a Swiss deposit box. The centre console is housed in a swoop of two-tone A-grade leather, an LCD screen commanding its optional £5,000 Naim audio system and a TV tuner in case you find yourself on a stakeout. The steep rake of the walnut dash and glovebox reminds one of the old 80s Continental (or Corniche, as it was more commonly sold by Rolls Royce). The chrome buttons for the air vents are like trumpet valves.

The eight-speed automatic gearbox is all-new, stronger than the old one and, together with a new engine management system, designed to optimize the car’s mighty torque curve. It manages to deliver maximum urge at just 1750rpm. Changes occur without the slightest jolt. Slot the stick down to Sport mode and the engine’s base note becomes much more demonic. The car turns from serene to boisterous, like when the whistle sounds at the Oxford-Cambridge boat race.

Paddle shifting is the self-catering option, and it doesn’t feel right, pulling at these oversized levers at the wheel. This is meant to be a four-wheeled Hotel de Paris. Some things are best left to the private butler. Instead, I suggest cruising in ‘drive’ and the normal engine setting, enjoying a squeeze of torque when you need it but being discrete with the engine revs and urgent movements.

Though the handling is impressive for such a heavy car, it’s still a heavy car – despite Bentley slicing 35kg off its kerb-weight – and if you try to drive it like an Aston Martin Vanquish you’ll not only upset your passengers, you’ll probably go off the edge of a cliff. The car’s power and solidity are reassuring, but the chassis doesn’t inspire a huge amount of confidence. To help matters, at over 150km/h a little spoiler pops up at the back or you can summon it yourself at the touch of a button. The car looks better with it down, mind. Like solar panels on Blenheim Palace, it brings benefits but it seems out-of-character.

Ultimately, this is not a supercar. This is a luxury coupe, and that’s the way it should be driven. It’s designed to waft. It does so better than any other car I can think of, with two doors at least.

Special window seals, double glazing, and interior materials manage to keep road and wind noise to an absolute minimum, creating a very refined cabin. This is as it should be, but the muffled hum also means you don’t fully appreciate how fast you’re going, so you do need to keep your wits about you when approaching tight bends. The carbon ceramic brakes, now de riguer on cars costing over £150,000, are more important here than anywhere.

The Bentley’s huge power is, at £151,500, matched by its price. Ultimately the V8 version of the Continental is the rational choice: significantly less expensive, more economical, a bit lighter and, with 500bhp, still a beast. But ‘rational’ is not a word you that immediately comes to mind when you summon up an image of a Bentley customer. Pick your stereotype: The eccentric tweed-wearing, Purdey shooting aristo; the perma-tanned Riviera playboy; a blinged-up sheik or footballer looking to add to their collection of supercars; Paris Hilton in a pink one. To them, a big purring engine is seductive. If they’re to have a Bentley, they want it to be the best Bentley.

And that’s exactly what this is. It’s unconventional, but that’s what Bentley has always stood for. Some wealthy people choose to be driven in Rolls Royces, but the more rebellious among them, the characters and hell-raisers, they plump for the Bentley and prefer to drive themselves.

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AUTOBIOGRAPHY: BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT SPEED

ENGINE: 6.0-litre twin-turbo W12

POWER: 616bhp

TORQUE: 800 Nm (590lb/ft)

TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic with paddle shift

ACCELERATION 0-100KM/H: 4.2 seconds

TOP SPEED: 330km/h

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