It’s easy to vilify a car like the Bentley GT Speed W12 as just another example of automotive ostentation – an exercise in four-wheeled one-upmanship in a country where the roads are either tolled or falling apart. And yet, the Bentley is a master class in seamlessly combining opposites into a convincing and aspirational whole. The only attribute it lacks is affordability. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
Here are some statistics to ponder on: one engine, made up by combining two V6s, each with three cylinders per bank, and four valves per cylinder, for a capacity of six litres. The resulting 12-cylinder engine is linked to an eight-speed gearbox. Output is 467 kW and 820 Nm, enough rapidly to propel 2,320 kilograms of motoring metal. The bottom line? R5 million.
The Continental GT Speed W12 is the performance flagship of the Bentley range. First released in late 2012, the original GT Speed was the fastest production Bentley ever built. Two years later, the marque has upped the ante even further, boosting power and torque, with commensurate gains in performance.
Admittedly, the improvements aren’t massive: power is up by 7kW, and torque by 20Nm, but the torque peak is now reached earlier, at just 1,700 rpm, which benefits tractability. Even fuel efficiency has actually improved, if ever so slightly, although I don’t think too many GT Speed owners are likely to lose any sleep about their Bentley’s thirst for premium unleaded.
The updates to the engine are accompanied by equally subtle but meaningful cosmetic changes. Most obvious are the colour-coded front splitter, deep sills and rear diffuser, while the big, 21-inch wheels get a darker tint. However, the muscular, almost brutal look of the GT Speed remains unchanged, and instantly recognisable.
The behemoth’s obvious focus on performance is also evidenced by its reduced ride height, and a stiffer chassis with uprated springs. The result is a low-slung, almost menacing look that links the bulk of a lock forward to the rippling eagerness of a champion sprinter.
The big meshed grille and the extended bonnet exude stern authority, while the steeply raked windscreen, the high shoulder line and those bulging rear fenders confirm the GT Speed’s dynamic intent. It may be big – and heavy – but there’s a real swagger in this Bentley’s step.
The interior shifts the attention away from hard-core horsepower to the finer things in life. It may be a two-door, but the GT Speed provides plenty of luxuriously appointed space, even for rear passengers. And despite the 21st century credentials of the drivetrain, there’s a welcome grandness to the interior that harks back to a swankier, more elegant era.
The cabin is a handcrafted space, resplendent in rich leather, and with idiosyncratic details such as the deep-chromed push-pull ventilation adjusters, and the beautifully turned out, knurled rotary adjusters.
The appointments aren’t just luxurious, they’re hedonistic. The seats are shaped just right for both comfort and support, and are electrically adjustable in every conceivable way, including for lumbar and thigh support.
There’s enough switchgear to keep an Airbus pilot happy, including a centrally located touch-screen display which provides an intuitive interface for systems such as the trip computer, tyre pressure monitoring, navigation and Bluetooth telephony.
British high-end audio brand Naim supplies the sound for the Bentley, and the multi-speaker system is impressive, delivering in terms of both power and clarity. But frankly, the best sound in the house is the rorty rumble emanating from the Bentley’s fat exhausts.
There’s nothing discreet about the loud, aggressive roar that emanates from those pipes when you mash the accelerator to the floor, reminding that the Bentley doesn’t wear that Speed badge for nothing. With 467kW and 820Nm on tap, it has every right to sound loud – and proud.
The eight-speed gearbox delivers the W12’s power to all four wheels. The all-wheel drive is a variation of Audi’s quattro system, and splits the power 40/60 front/rear by default, but can vary that split depending on traction requirement.
Not surprisingly, the Bentley’s drivetrain won’t win any economy runs. Although slightly more economical than the previous model, mixed-use fuel consumption comes to around 14,5 litres/100 km, but in reality, you’ll struggle to keep it below 20 l/100 km.
But then, if you want to save fuel, you’re more likely to buy a dinky Daihatsu. The Bentley is all about performance: wild, hard-core, eyes-wide open performance. Step on the loud pedal, and the GT Speed leaps towards the horizon. At 4.2 seconds, the 0-100km/h sprint time is rapid, but it’s the 321km/h top speed that will make your eyes water.
Because the big coupé weighs 2.3 tons, acceleration is not so much ferocious as it is insistent, but the blurring landscape confirms just how fast you’re actually going. Midrange tractability is devastating, ensuring that overtaking is utterly effortless.
In Sport mode, the auto gearbox works a treat, allowing firm and fast cog swaps using the shift paddles behind the steering wheel. If you opt for full auto mode, the gear changes calm down slightly and become so seamless that you hardly notice them.
Give the Bentley stick in a mountain pass, and the suspension really comes into its own. Quite surprisingly, there isn’t any real body lean to speak of, but you can feel the heft and substance of the car, especially when the G-forces start building through a series of sweeps.
The steering remains positive and responsive, however, and the all-wheel drive system optimises traction, so that those big 275/35 R21 tyres don’t have to work too hard. The big Bentley may be a juggernaut, but it’s never short of finesse, and when set to comfort mode, the suspension cossets its occupants in limo-style comfort.
The brakes deserve special mention. The standard system uses dinner plate-sized vented front discs with eight-pot callipers, while the rear 335 mm vented discs are not that much smaller. But my test steed was fitted with the optional carbon-silicone carbide discs, which are even bigger. And yes, they can generate enough deceleration to make you eyes pop.
So here’s the thing: five bar of hard-earned cash is a lot of money to lavish on a car, regardless of how wealthy you are. But the Continental GT Speed W12 is unique in its ability to combine lavish luxury with supercar performance, and traditional craftsmanship with high technology.
Add the exclusivity and the heritage of the Bentley nameplate, and the result is a very special, hugely appealing car that always delivers more than the numbers suggest. DM
Bentley Continental GT Speed W12
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas