With its highest horsepower and lowest suspension, the GT Speed is Bentley's most athletic production car. But what happens when you chop off the roof? Does it retain the qualities that make the Continental such a great ultra GT — its momentousness and poise — or is there just too much rarified air blowing into that sumptuous cabin? There's only one way to find out...
(Full Disclosure: Bentley wanted us to drive the Continental GT Speed Convertible so bad, they flew me to Las Vegas, from whence we embarked on a two-day, 695-mile road trip through Death Valley, Mammoth Lakes, Lake Tahoe, Sacramento and on to San Francisco. A portion involved driving in heavy snow, and so they also supplied enough Dunlop Winter Sport 3D tires to go around and a bound-by-law set of chains that, thankfully, stayed in the trunk.)
What's the best GT car you can buy? Even lacking empirical proof, there's a solid case for the 5,500-pound Bentley Continental GT Speed. It's quick, capable, chugs across the landscape like a Gucci locomotive and, reason be damned, isn't horrendous in corners.
Plus, it's a seriously fast car that can handle a wider range of road conditions than just dry, polymer-modified asphalt. But you already knew that, having caught James May and rally driver Kris Meeke taking a Continental GT Speed on a dirty, mostly-sideways run over the Hafren Sweet Lamb stage of the WRC Wales Rally on TopGear last year.
We get our own take on how the Continental GT Speed Convertible handles gnarly conditions as the snow comes down in cantaloupe-sized flakes along California's US-50 in the Sierra Nevada. Armed with those clawing Dunlops — not, thank all that's holy, the standard Pirelli P Zeros — the center-Torsen-equipped GT Speed Convertible elbows up and over Carson Pass like a peyote-fueled Mormon wagon train late for Easter. Manageable power plus a gross weight of over 6,000 lbs and good tires equals Hulk smash.
Of course, there's far more pleasure to be found in aiming and firing the GT Speed Convertible down long, eye-stretching swaths of SR 190 in Death Valley. The low rumble of the 616-hp W12 rises to a growl as the ZF eight-speed autobox kicks down from seventh to third in a single, algorithmic flick, the heavy chassis barely registering the discrepant pavement as we knock off 130, then 140.
Like it is on the GT Speed coupe, Bentley's twin-turbocharged, 6.0-liter W12 continues to be a marvel for speed work, with a few recent software tweaks to the Bosch ME17 engine software to boost turbo pressure and smooth out torque response. More than ever, the engine delivers massive midrange push that delivers breathtaking highway pulls. In Sport mode, the throttle goes aggro, gears hold deeper into the rev range and the exhaust switches to full blat.
You know what they say about telling how good a car is by how much faster it's going than you think it is? At 65 mph, the GT Speed plods along like Hank Williams Jr. taking the LSATs; at 140, it feels dead-nuts reasonable.
Were it not for the desert whoop-de-doos — which could easily reroute a car even as heavy as the 2nd Marine division into the sagebrush — you might keep your foot deeply into it, ending up on the high side of 200. And with the $545 deflector in place, wind noise with the top down will remain fairly negligible, even broaching triple digits.
For Bentley's top-line Continental, it's just another year, another handling tweak, trim-level upgrade, extra squeeze of horsepower. It's not the sexiest way to move the model meter, this "quiet march upward," but then, most things of legacy have manifested in the same way — grudgingly per annum, not in spring-loaded lunges every half-decade.
To some, this dogged continuance feels like a weakness. Even Aston Martin's been able to kick out eleventy new models since the Continental arrived 10 years ago. Others see the Continental's stolid endurance is its own kind of exclusivity — like a limestone-walled bank or signing cheques with a fountain pen, or writing postcards while everyone else is tweeting.
Of course the Continental GT Speed Convertible isn't for everyone — unless by "everyone" you mean NHL defensemen. It's not a sports car (but you knew that and adjusted your expectations accordingly, right?). Just as it ever was, It's a solidly-built GT for long-distance, high-speed, top-down cruising in temperate climes on quality highways full of long sweepers and decent pavement, or — if you've got the extra maintenance scratch — for pedal-down hoonage on snow-covered roadways or muddy rally stages.
All that assumes an alternate universe where such transportation options exist legally. And where gasoline flows like a mountain stream down the Sierra Nevadas.
The Continental's handsome muscularity remains divisive. There's that ever-present front overhang, a function of the big W12 slung out over the front axle, as well as the overall bulk that would take a wrecking ball to soften. With the top off, however, the Continental does lose some of the coupe's largess in the rear, giving it a more lithe comportment.
Dealer add-ons are one way to add more interest, though our tester didn't have the pricey Mulliner package, which includes a carbon-fiber splitter and diffuser and side sill blades. Still, as a rule, Continental GTs look better lower, and the GT Speed is set 10 mm closer to the ground than the standard GT, giving it a subtle, though noticeable, improvement in stance.
The Continental continues to sport the best interior in its celestial class, in terms of design, quality of materials, bespoke feel and — perhaps less so — ergonomics. (Those high-and-away shift paddles continue to confound drivers whose fingers are shorter than haricot verts.)
Available trimmings still range from the high-tech look of turned aluminum, piano black and carbon fiber to a more traditional range of woods. My new favorite is the blond Tamo Ash, whose intricate grain looks like if you licked it, you'd wake up a week later in an abandoned house wearing nothing but a sarong made of melted gummi bears.
Also, the convertible top not only holds back the elements, but also blocks sound and fury. With the top up, there's no sensory clue the thing above your head isn't solid metal. Significant acoustical damping and insulation is the key.
Mostly thanks to its gargantuan weight, the GT Speed's quickness, while not the most shocking in the world numbers-wise, feels historically significant, like the moon falling out of a Greek god's fist into a hammock of golden thread.
As the top-line Continental GT, the Speed comes tuned with the highest horsepower number available from Bentley's W12. That is, 616 hp and 590 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm — which happens to be right around where the revs level out at 130 mph in seventh gear.
There's a lot of mass to move, but the GT Speed still gets to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds — officially — which sounds slow in relation to, say, the Porsche 911 Turbo — which is nearly 2,000-lbs lighter (!) and has around 100 lb-ft fewer torques, but still only beats the GT Speed to 60 by around eight tenths of a second. Plus, Bentley reps coyly that the GT Speed's number is conservative. We'll just see about that.
What does it take to stop a really fast car that weighs more than three tons gross? You could try a tailhook and arresting wire, but that's not practical for daily use. For $14,000 you can get a set of monster carbon-ceramic brakes with eight-piston (!) calipers that could draw down a Blue Whale from the speed of light. And it'll do that in less time than it might take to light a Cohiba from the $325 cigar-lighter-ashtray combo.
And, let's just say you happen to spy a radar-wielding park ranger coming over a crest. Between the chassis hardware and self-leveling air shocks, stomping the brakes won't upset the car too much — a little wiggle at really high speeds, of course — nor much incriminating nose dive.
Like all other Bentley Continental GTs, weight is both the GT Speed's condition and its brand promise. It does heavy like the Lotus Elise does light: expected and controllably well. The self-leveling air shocks, matched to that earthward-pulling density, gives the Speed GT the ride quality of a littoral ship steaming across a sea of white-chocolate mousse.
The GT Speed's body control in high-speed corners is always a surprise, but it's not quite as thrilling in close quarters — naturally. The Servotronic steering is crisp and loads accurately, but is still remote-feeling, partially by design (think of all that hardware and heft between the wheel and the road). Tossable? Well, maybe in the snow, or on a rally stage, but there's so much grip that you'll run out of bravery on the road before the tires run out of hold.
The ZF 8HP 8-speed automatic transmission is the current gold standard in automatics. The GT Speed uses the high-torque (90) version, as does the Rolls Royce Ghost and heavy-duty '13 Ram pickups. So it's got a pickup's tranny? Well, yeah, but the pickup doesn't have the Bentley's software that allows for responsive manual paddle-clicks, or those eighth-to-third block downshifts, or the sport mode that knows when to hold 'em. Also, cruising on the highway at 65 mph in eighth gear, you'd swear the W12 just gave up and went to bed early.
Sure, its nigh-on seven grand, but the optional Naim audio system is probably the best sound quality you can get in a car without squeezing a chamber orchestra into the back seats. That extra aural oomph comes in handy when the top's down and there's not much sweetness to enjoy out of the W12. Don't be a cheapskate; pay the money.
Sure, in the Speed GT as it is in most ultra-luxury cars, toys are an afterthought. And the Continental still suffers from toy lack. Is it more civilized that way? Perhaps. But new evidence suggests that societies thrive on play, not just a strict adherence to the Protestant work ethic. Maybe in future generations, car conglomerates won't save their most high-tech dashboard candy for their lesser-priced cars. For now, there's a decent nav system, 15G of music space, iPod, MP3 player and SD card connectivity, and available XM NavTraffic and Weather.
Well, yeah. You can get a stripper Bentley GT Speed for $238,100, or you can add a solid five figures' worth of high-priced goods — some useful, others for vanity — including that bitchen Naim stereo, a custom-fitted sunglasses case (that capitalizes the cupholders) for nearly $500, or a $275 valet key or the nearly $14,000 carbon-ceramic brakes and end up with a personalized victory float for $284,000.
Ultimately, what you get for the money is a car whose extreme weight is its selling point — and a chassis built to not only to handle it, but also to help it to thrive in the driving environment for which it's intended — a fantastically mondo, high-tech engine and the license to spend more money adding stuff. Are those things you can get elsewhere for less? Some yes, some no.
Engine: 6.0L Turbocharged W12
Power: 616 HP at 6,000 RPM/ 590 LB-FT at 2,000 RPM
Transmission: Eight-Speed ZF Automatic
0-60 Time: 4.1 seconds
Top Speed: 202 mph
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 5,500 LBS
Seating: 4 people
MPG: 12.5 City/27.2 Highway/19 Combined
MSRP: $238,700 ($284,580 As Tested)