First Drive: 2013 Bentley Continental GT Speed

2013-bentley-continental-gt-speed

When the V-8-powered Bentley Continental GT rolled out earlier this year, critics pointed out that the V-8's smooth brutishness rendered the W-12 sort of superfluous. The secret sauce is the transmission, since the 500-horsepower V-8 uses the new ZF eight-speed while the 567-horsepower W-12 is bolted to an older six-speed. Nonetheless, rationality is apparently not a huge factor in dream-car purchase decisions, since so far this year 70 percent of Continental GT buyers have gone for the W-12. Even allowing for a head start (the V-8 wasn't immediately available earlier in the year), it appears the V-8 might be seen as too close a relative to proletarian machinery like the Audi S8. I guess when you're spending Bentley GT money, you want the price to include that signature off-kilter W-12 thrum that seems to emanate from grinding tectonic plates on some distant fault line.

More power, more gears

If only that thrum included a bit more actual performance. Well, guess what? It can! Imagine, if you will, that Bentley both increased the horsepower, to 616, while also bolting on the manifestly excellent eight-speed transmission. That would be the hot combo. And it is. The Continental GT Speed clocks a 0-60 time of 4.0 seconds and runs out to a 205-mph top speed. Last year, the Speed was the top-selling Continental model, and this one looks ready to pick up where the old one left off.

Off to Germany

Bentley introduced the Speed in Germany, one of the few places where you might legally attain 200 mph if given enough road. But even on the famed autobahn, you're never going to find enough open space to run any great distance at top speed. Nonetheless, the Speed is built for the possibility that everyone in Germany is busy doing something else (say, there's a Knight Rider marathon on TV) and you've got a lot of open road all to yourself.

In testing, the 6.0-liter W-12 underwent four 100-hour stints at full throttle, which is the equivalent of driving 20,000 miles at top speed. The cooling system is robust enough that you can do 205 mph all day long even when ambient outside temperature is 104 degrees. The 275/35 ZR21 Pirelli P-Zero tires have been tested up to 218 mph. The new wheels are 15 percent lighter but 79 percent stiffer than the old wheels. What, you didn't know that they measure wheel stiffness? Well, they do.

As your speed increases, the car starts subtly adjusting itself to keep you planted on the firmament. Since lift affects the front end more than the rear, the suspension actively drops the front end in two phases, turning the entire vehicle into something of a flying wedge. The front end lowers by 15 millimeters at 180 km/h, and another 6 mm at 255 km/h. To translate that for our metric-addled minds, the GT Speed's front end drops about 0.8 inch by 158 mph. And the active dampers don't care if you're in comfort mode -- they'll stiffen up as speed increases, basically attaining their most granite-like setting by the time you reach V-Max.

A word about megajoules

The carbon ceramic brakes are a $13,500 option, but one I'd definitely recommend. The front rotors, the largest on any passenger car, measure 16.5 inches in diameter. The 14-inch rears aren't small either. Bentley says that a hard stop from full speed would turn 10 megajoules of energy into heat. To get some context for that number, I Googled "10 megajoules" and found that the Navy has tested an experimental rail gun that uses roughly that amount of energy. And, according to the Navy, an eight-megajoule projectile would pack the energy equivalent of a Ford Taurus doing 380 mph (I assume they're talking about an older, lighter Taurus). Thus I can conclude that if anyone ever builds a Taurus that goes 380 mph, it would be prudent to equip it with brakes from a Bentley GT Speed.

Also, the rotors should last the life of the car, thus sparing you untold hours thumbing through Better Homes and Gardens in the Meineke waiting room.

Essential extras

The Speed's base price is $215,000, but the car I drove had some goodies that jacked the price to $246,695. Options included the aforementioned carbon brakes, a little eyeglasses case that snaps into the center console ($470) and trunk carpeting color-matched to the interior ($390). Envision, if it's not too painful, the torment of driving along and knowing that your trunk carpet is a different color than your seats. Nobody should have to endure such a thing, and in a GT Speed, they don't.

Relative to the prior Speed, the new one only makes 14 more horsepower, which is basically a rounding error at this level. The big difference comes from the new transmission. Sure, adding a couple gears isn't as sexy as jacking up the horsepower, but it accomplishes the same thing while simultaneously juicing the returns on fuel economy, to the tune of a 13 percent improvement (the EPA combined figure is still only 15 mpg). You wouldn't think that a 6-liter W-12 needed any advantages, but the new transmission keeps the big double-VR6 on the boil in a way the old six-speed didn't.

Out on the autobahn When the overhead electronic signs on the autobahn flash their wonderful message -- a "120" with a slash through it, indicating no speed limit whatsoever -- the big Bentley responds to full throttle by instantly dropping down three or four gears and summarily hurtling itself down the left lane with an urgency that makes lesser traffic (those schlubs doing a mere 140 or 150 mph) slide to the right with snappy deference. You know the car is up to a lot of tricks as you gain speed, the rear spoiler deploying and the suspension firming and snugging to the road, but it's all quite transparent. You're just aware that you're cruising at autobahn alpha-dog speeds with so little drama that when you eventually slow to 100 mph it feels preposterously slow and boring. How does anyone get anywhere, driving like that? Then you see the magic 120-slash sign and you're sizzling off toward the horizon again -- or at least you are until a straggler pulls out and forces you to scrub a few megajoules with those massive brakes.

I didn't hit 205 mph, but I did make it to about 190. I say "about" because the digital speedometer stopped reading after 286 km/h (178 mph), instead flashing a warning about tire pressure getting too high for the speed. But a photo snapped over my shoulder by our brave photographer shows that the analog needle is out of sight, down somewhere past 188 mph. Fun fact: If we had an autobahn from Boston to New York, this car could make the trip in a little more than an hour. And it would be comfortable, quiet and probably less dramatic than it should be, considering that you're streaking along in the kinetic-energy equivalent to a rail-gun shell.

Over the years, many a car has been saddled with an overreaching misnomer (the Chrysler Imperial, Chevy Celebrity and Hyundai Excel spring to mind). But, by blimey, the Bentley Speed is worthy of the name.

2013 Bentley Continental GT Speed

Base price: $215,000
Price as tested: $246,695
On sale: November
Engine: 6.0-liter W-12, 616 hp, 590 lb-ft
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Drive: 4-wheel
Fuel mileage: 13/20/15 mpg (city/highway/combined)

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