Bent On Speed

by Larry Printz
photography courtesy of Bentley

On its way to a top speed of 205 mph, the 2013 Bentley Continental GT Speed hits 60 at four seconds. It’s got 616 horses working on it. By contrast, the 2013 Bentley Continental GT V8 gets there in 4.6 seconds – with 500 horsepower and a top speed of 185 mph.

 How’s that for some fast company?

 To drive the revised 2013 GT Speed alongside its new V8 sibling is to witness the changing nature of performance, the old guard enjoying one last sprint before bowing to its more efficient younger brother. Yet both cars retain the very essence of a Bentley: elegance, exclusivity and – of course – speed.

Piloting either of these cars at legal speeds in the United States leaves almost two-thirds or more of its speed untapped. That’s how I ended up in Germany, on the Autobahn, heading toward Berchtesgaden behind the wheel of the 2013 GT Speed.

 With twin turbochargers and higher compression, the GT Speed’s 6.0-liter 12-cylinder engine boasts an extra 49 horsepower over the Continental GT’s standard 567-horsepower 12-cylinder. It’s mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted manually by paddles mounted on the steering column. This adds an extra bit of entertainment to the proceedings but, given the engine’s massive amount of horsepower, proves unnecessary.

 The GT Speed gets a few tweaks besides horsepower. Bentley lowered the car’s ride height and stiffened the electronically controlled damping and steering systems. Optional carbon ceramic disc brakes are offered in place of the standard iron discs. A new engine management system is capable of processing 180 million calculations per second. This sort of processing power helps when the driver hits the sport button on the center console, which gives this already quick car an extra shot of responsiveness. It also enlivens the eight-speed transmission, which is capable of downshifting up to five gears in a single step.

Visually, the GT Speed receives unique 21-inch wheels, a darkened front grille and diamond-pattern quilted leather seat trim. The GT Speed is fierce and spoiling for a fight, but there on the Autobahn, I have to wait. Contrary to popular belief, there are speed limits in spots, and they are strictly enforced. So I am mindful of the 75 mph speed limit as I first enter the highway.

 I make my way over to the left lane, which is empty, save for a very slow-moving BMW 5 Series in front of me. I flash the Bentley’s headlights. The BMW doesn’t move aside. I wait patiently before flashing again. No response. The Bentley can barely contain itself; its driveline rumbles and vibrates with menace, waiting to be unleashed like a hunting dog straining to be let loose.

Finally, a police car rolls up alongside us. I flash my lights at the BMW once more. This time, the BMW pulls over, just as the traffic diminishes and the speed limit is removed. The vacant left lane unfurls before me. I bury the throttle. The Bentley sets its sights on the gray ribbon reaching skyward to the Bavarian Alps. The car lets loose with a brutal intensity, all four wheels pouring out the power with ease.

 The car is used to this. I am not.

 I grin helplessly as the scenery blurs and the speed climbs. I glance at the speedometer: 160 mph and climbing. My heart races as I listen to the engine at full throttle, singing its mechanical symphony with an intensity that would make Richard Wagner jealous. This is driving with the volume set to 11. I am in heaven.

 Almost, as it turns out.

 As I am reaching the crescendo, gunning for 205 mph, an Audi A2, in a fit of passive-aggressive driving, pops in front of me to slow me down. Once more, my heart leaps into my throat. Not from the thrill of speed but from the fear of obliteration. I jump on the brake pedal and massive ceramic brakes go to work, slowing the car to a mere 95 mph.

This exercise in acceleration revealed the GT Speed’s true personality.

The mechanical fiddling by engineers has had a big impact on the car, lending it an aggressive edginess that seems out of place in a car where everything else has been buffed to a relentless sheen. This begs the question: Does the GT Speed have too much power? Is it overkill? The answer lies in driving the new Continental GT V8. The GT V8 was introduced in mid-2012 and is the Speed’s mirror opposite. Instead of adding power to the standard Continental GT, the GT V8 subtracts it.

Not that you’d notice. After all, this car’s twin-turbocharged V8 is still a member of the under-five-second, zero-to-60 club and is more than capable of getting you in trouble with the constable. Most drivers will never notice the extra half-second while driving to 60 mph, nor the 20 mph on the top end. Instead, you’ll appreciate the refinement with which the new GT V8 dishes out its speed.  Its exhaust note is perfect, mellow and deep, without the aggressive quality of the GT Speed. The V8’s driveline seems much more appropriate for this car’s station: that of the opulent grand touring car.

Some may object to a Bentley that lacks 12 cylinders. For these buyers, the “grand” in “grand touring car” seems to imply 12 cylinders, as it has for decades. But it’s hard to ignore the V8’s superior efficiency, especially at the pump: It returns an extra 2 mpg in city driving, 4 mpg on the highway. Given the price of the car, fuel economy may seem a minor concern. But one suspects that tightening government fuel economy standards may make the choice for you in the not-too-distant future.

Thanks to the Continental GT’s all-wheel-drive system, which funnels 60 percent of the car’s power to the rear wheels, grip is very strong, particularly in corners. At the same time its 2½-ton curb weight makes hustling through corners a bit of a challenge. In that regard, the Continental GT is no different from other cars. After all, there are plenty of less-expensive cars that can scorch blacktop. Where the Bentley differs, and what few cars offer, is that it can transport you this quickly in such opulent surroundings.

I n a Bentley, most of your surroundings are crafted by hand.

The care with which the car is assembled can be seen at the factory in Crewe, England. It seems less like an outpost of a giant multinational corporation than an oversized craftsman’s workshop. It takes 37 hours to cross-stitch a single Continental GT seat, 15 to hand-stitch the leather-wrapped steering wheel. The 10 bull hides required to fully line a Continental GT interior are closely inspected for flaws. (Cowhides are not used; they typically have stretch marks.)

Sixteen hours are required to assemble the GT’s 12-cylinder engine.

And it can take Bentley’s woodworkers weeks to source and select the proper premium wood veneer. Nineteen leaves of veneer are used to create the 17 wood-trim panels in a Continental GT. The veneers are book matched and given five coats of lacquer by robots, one of the only places in the factory where robots are used. After three days of curing, the wood is polished by hand. Bentley workers check the finished instrument panels to ensure the book-matched veneer doesn’t inadvertently form an unsuitable image. (Don’t ask about the skull incident.)

Once the approximately 620 components are ready, it will take 150 hours to build the Continental GT, using 5,800 spot welds and 669 self-piercing rivets. Then the Continental’s body spends 22 hours in metal finishing to ensure a flawless finish once painted.

Bentley builds in a day what most automakers build in less than an hour.

The relaxed tempo and hand-built construction easily allows for customer customization. You can make your bespoke Bentley painted to match your favorite nail polish or have your cabin fitted with a humidor. The company will accommodate you to a point. Don’t bother asking for your new Continental GT’s interior to be trimmed in alligator skin or have a lap-dance pole installed. When requested, the company refused.

Then again, you may not want something bespoke.

The Mulliner Driving Specification, standard on GT Speed, optional on others, features seats, door trim and rear quarter panels of diamond-quilted perforated leather. The cabin headliner is also finished in leather. Bentley emblems can be embroidered on the headrests at extra cost. It’s aromatherapy at its finest.

And let’s not forget its agelessly stunning sleek shape. It’s what attracts most buyers in the first place. Then, once a prospect is behind the wheel, the automobile’s effortless speed closes the sale. With its new powertrains, the Continental GT is very fast, able to handle the high speed of the Autobahn. But it is no sports car; it’s too large and too heavy.

Instead, consider it one of the world’s fastest, most exclusive and most comfortable grand touring machines, regardless of which engine you choose.