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First Drive: 2013 Bentley Continental GT Speed [Review]

by Mark Elias

Bentley\'s updated high(est)-performance coupe is put to the test.

Bentleys have long been intended for 'bahn-burning, and this latest 2013 Continental GT Speed is hardly any exception. As the highest velocity version of the British-built grand tourer, it's a sleeping bear of sorts that can snarl and growl with serious attitude when poked.

Befitting this brand's Volkswagen ownership, our time sampling the Continental GT Speed was in Bavaria, the land of lederhosen, wiener schnitzel and beverage glasses with "fill to” marks - not to mention a network of impeccably maintained high-speed expressways that feel like they were built specifically for this car.

Introduced at the 2002 Paris Motor Show and having sold more than 26,000 copies since, the Continental is clearly the most important vehicle to come from W.O. Bentley's humble little workshop in Crewe, UK. What to do for an encore? More power and more performance - and better fuel economy.

Still robust

The Continental GT is the brand's best seller ever, and while the United States remains its largest market, China is nipping at our heels. That relative sales success means that Bentley is the number one builder of 12-cylinder powerplants in the world, so it should go without without saying that the GT Speed's uprated W12 is a pretty special powertrain. Notably, more than half of all Continental GTs ordered come specified with the Speed package, which includes the kind of underhood - and underbody - modifications that live up to its name.

The Continental GT Speed's 6.0-liter (or litre, as the home market prefers) W12 has been massaged to 616 horsepower, a 49 pony jump, and 590 lb-ft. of torque, a 74 lb-ft. increase.

These upticks in performance come through a boost pressure increase (0.3 bar) and new engine management system, which, according to Bentley, can perform 180-million calculations per second. For reference sake, the "base” Continental GT's V8 engine continues in the lineup, producing a none-too-shabby 500 horsepower.

Power is transmitted to the GT Speed's all-wheel-drive system through a new ZF eight-speed automatic transmission with shorter gears in the first to fifth gear range, followed by a direct-drive (1:1) sixth gear that leaves seventh and eight as true overdrive gears. Intriguingly, the transmission also features block shifting engine management software that can skip several gears as needed for rapid acceleration. For those who prefer to row it themselves, paddle shifters and a +/- gate are, of course, on offer.

The suspension gets a good seeing-to with stiffer dampening to increase vehicular firmness as the speed increases, while a ZF-sourced Servotronic power steering system varies assist based on velocity. Throwing the gearshift lever into Sport mode realizes a sharper throttle response, quicker gearshifts with longer gear holding and a more aggressive exhaust note.

On the other end of the spectrum, cross-drilled iron rotors with eight-piston calipers in front and quads at the rear, do a perfectly capable job of bringing things under control after a spirited romp. Carbon ceramic discs are also available on order, just because.

Tipping the scales at more than 5,100 lbs., the GT Speed is positively a tank, but EPA figures of 13/20 mpg are impressive - all things considered.

Aggressively forward

The aggressive, almost forward-lunging posture of the year-old, second-generation Continental GT continues forth with the GT Speed. New cues help to separate it from other versions of the car like the dark tint radiator and lower bumper matrices. Also on board are rifled exhaust tailpipe finishers, chrome rear lamp bezels and new 21-inch ten-spoke alloy wheels in painted or dark tint. More than 100 paint schemes are available, but we reckon the team from Crewe will do just about anything you want to your GT Speed.

The interior offers refinements over the previous model year, but stay within the Mulliner Driving Specification, which include the diamond-tufted hides that make up the seating surfaces and door panels. Alloy pedals and other metal bits including the knurled sports gear lever are included with the engine-turned aluminum fascia and center console. These items can be substituted with carbon fiber or wood from the full catalog of Bentley veneers. Contrast stitching can be specified throughout the interior as an available option.

A stellar-voiced Naim audio system can substitute the anything-but-standard factory unit. New this year, because customers have requested it, a Queen's English-accented "attendant” reacts to voice commands because, after all, this is a Bentley.

Fun, fun, fun on the Autobahn

Loaded with a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality, the Continental GT Speed is capable of as much show and go that its commander can, uh, command.

Featuring traditional Bentley refinement, this everyday supercar is able to handle four occupants for, as we found, a rapid-fire jaunt across a ribbon-like autobahn that made us wish selfishly, that we were the only car on it that day.

Acceleration was blindingly fast, achieving 0-60 mph in four seconds flat. Zero to 100 mph came on at nine seconds, and we reached our top speed of 145 mph, which is admittedly far short of the GT Speed's top-end of 205 mph. At that velocity, 80 percent of the GT Speed's power is used to punch a hole through the air and in overcoming aerodynamic drag. Regardless, the car's stability was unbelievably rock-steady as the hidden rear spoiler deployed at 90 mph to provide 275 lbs. of downforce. The steering offered a direct and communicative feel of the macadam underneath and allowed for effortless corrections as needed. The end result was a run with absolutely stellar road feel and no hints of roughness or jerkiness. It was so impressive that we felt we were doing no more than 60 mph - at least with our eyes closed (which, admittedly, only happened with each blink).

Being able to hit the Autobahn and its stretches of unrestricted speed zones is a feeling akin to total nirvana, save for that errant curtain-sided big rig that decides to do a quick lane change to pass a slower moving vehicle. Seeing such an impediment to a personal best pulling into your tunnel-visioned line of sight makes you thank your higher power du jour for the abilities of the GT Speed's platter-like brake rotors. That, and of course, the engineering prowess of the gang at Crewe.

Leftlane's bottom line

Bentley continues to offer the Jekyll and Hyde of motorcars, a supercar that masquerades as a grand-tourer, for those whom only the best will do.

In that stratum, cost is usually of trifle consequence, but still there are limits. Only 120 cars will be delivered to the U.S. market this model year, so be prepared to wait in line.

2013 Bentley Continental GT Speed base price, $215,000.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.

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