Not the very best way to appreciate the GT Speed’s new dynamic party tricks, but still fast, refined, precise, composed – and enticing in its own luxurious way.
The Bentley Continental GT Speed is a slightly evasive car to define. It does what it says on the tin, being the fastest, most powerful and most driver-focused version of this third-generation Continental GT that currently exists, or that is ever likely to. But it’s not a special, limited-series, ‘get-’em-while-you-can’ performance derivative, instead slotting into Bentley’s product line-up as a replacement for the standard Bentley Continental GT W12 rather than alongside it.
The Crewe-based firm’s stated aim for this car was that it be as refined, luxurious, comfortable and usable as any other GT – and also the most agile and dynamic-handling Continental that has ever been built. Quite the ask when you think about it. But this car is also quite the technological departure, being the first GT with four-wheel steering and the first with an electronically controlled limited-slip rear differential – and also getting its regular GT-spec air suspension, active anti-roll bars and four-wheel drive system all adapted to produce even greater body control and handling agility than any of its range-mates can muster.
GT Speeds get 22-inch wheels as standard, their size being necessary for Bentley to offer (as an option) the biggest carbon-ceramic brakes available on any new car in the world. You get whopping 440mm carbon-silicon-carbide discs and 10-piston calipers up front, if you’re prepared to pay for them. They look about ready to stop a bullet train in its tracks, by the way.
Those brakes are also the one place where a GT Speed might weigh less than an equivalent GT W12 or V8; because, in a wider sense, this isn’t a car where Bentley has looked to make gains through ‘lightweighting’ or aerodynamic modifications.
Externally, some new smoked radiator grilles, an optional carbonfibre styling kit, some discreet ‘Speed’ badges and those aforementioned 22s identify the car. Internally, there are a few bold new colour and trim combinations, and a new kind of dark-tinted, ‘engine-turned ‘aluminium decorative trim.
The idea is that this Continental GT loses nothing. It’s simply a faster, more involving, sweeter-handling, better GT – and it can be had as a two-door, four-seat Coupe, or in the two-door, four-seat Convertible form in which we tested it.
We were quite struck by the gains on handling balance and agility presented by the GT Speed Coupe when we drove it on track at Silverstone earlier this year. While you clearly can’t gauge the car’s limits in the same way on the road, I can confirm that the fixed-head’s greater incisiveness and mid-corner throttle-on balance are apparent and can be enjoyed here, too, even at gentler speeds. It goes in to tighter corners more keenly, and comes out of them under power in a more lively, balanced fashion than other GTs.
In the heavier, less rigid convertible, though, the GT Speed’s dynamic gains seem more marginal. The open-top certainly controls its mass well, and resists understeer surprisingly effectively for such a wide, heavy car. But when you dial up Sport mode and go looking for some entertainment, it just doesn’t make you sit up and take notice of the GT’s new-found handling dynamism in quite the same way. Where the coupe’s cornering attitude can be adjusted a little both on and off the throttle, the convertible doesn’t tuck its big, square nose in to a corner quite as readily – and it needs just a little longer than the coupé to settle on its line, begin to work its rear axle, and drive towards the exit.
Both coupe and convertible are near enough identical cars to interact with at a simpler level. Even in their sportiest drive modes, neither troubles you with much weight or tactile feedback through the steering, but they’re still easy and intuitive to place on the road. And they need to be, of course, because they’re sizable cars with wide bonnets that can make the margins of a winding lane hard to judge, and wide A-pillars that aren’t the easiest to see around.
The truth is, however finely balanced you’re able to make it in handling terms, a car of this size and heft, whose inertia can build very quickly, needs plenty of room to run in to if you’re going to explore its handling. Roads suited to that exercise are rare pretty much wherever you live in 2021, and I suspect Bentley owners willing to go looking for them are also quite rare. But the GT Speed Coupe found a greater number of opportunities to both engage and reward its driver during our test drive than the convertible did.
You needn’t worry about signs of structural weakness or compromised ride refinement here, though: this car remains a consummate luxury operator. Sit in Comfort mode and the GT Speed Convertible will soak up bigger bumps and sharper edges very effectively, without bodily tremors or scuttle shake, and keeping the wind comfortably at bay with the roof down and the windows up. Coarser, more open surfaces can make its big rims and low-profile tyres resonate through the body structure just a little bit, but only rarely when the suspension is set softly. In all other respects, easy fast cruising comes very easily indeed to this car – more easily, I suspect, that it does to any of its rivals.
Bentley’s W12 engine feels as potent in this 485kW state of tune as you’d hope it would, albeit still a bit lazy and boosty in its delivery at times, and not being the most enticing engine of its size to listen to. It makes a pleasant noise, but not a soulful one.
The fact that the engine often needs notice to spool up its turbos when you’re in and out of the power is one more minor demerit on its card; the eight-speed gearbox’s occasional refusal to deliver a high-rpm downshift at the first time of asking another. Neither need prevent you from enjoying the GT Speed at a more Bentley-typical canter rather than a flat-out gallop, of course.
You can’t fault Bentley’s reasoning on this car, or much about its execution. Focusing on the chassis and driveline specification has produced a Continental GT with a clear dynamic point of difference here, in a way that simply throwing 500kW or more at it would have almost certainly failed to do.
But this tester’s advice will sound eerily familiar: go for a coupe rather than a convertible if you’re a Continental GT buyer looking for a sharper brand of at-the-wheel entertainment – because that decision simply gives this Bentley the best platform to demonstrate its new-found dynamic abilities.
If you’re loyal to a convertible bodystyle, meanwhile, although the GT Speed Convertible is very unlikely to disappoint, I think you’d be just as happy in a sweeter-sounding GT V8, with some extra budget to spend on extras. Some people may not want to read that, but there it is. And it needn’t change one fact: that a 335km/h Bentley drop-top is one hell of a way to tousle your fringe.