Just when you think the dynamic possibilities of a 2.3-tonne GT car have been pushed to their limits, the goalposts move again.
The thing is, we’re well aware of how good the standard W12 Bentley Continental GT is to drive. It’s far more nimble than something of that size and weight has any right to be – the luxo-coupe corners in a flat and composed manner with an abundant supply of grip and traction. Until you push just a little far, and you’re reminded that the laws of physics do indeed still exist, no matter how successfully the Conti makes you think it’s bending them.
The three-chamber air suspension and active anti-roll bars do a fantastic job up to a point, but beyond it, you will get a healthy dose of understeer. And that’s within the constraints of a public road – Bentley’s decision to hand a bunch of journalists some Continental GT Speeds at Silverstone’s full Grand Prix circuit seemed like a fish-out-of-water scenario that’d merely highlight what the car can’t do rather than what it can.
But with the Speed not certified for use on UK roads until September, it seemed rude not to get an early preview. Plus, the Speed has some extra tricks up its sleeve. Firstly, the all-wheel drive system has been rejigged so it favours the rear wheels more than in the regular W12 Conti, secondly, there’s a new electronically-controlled rear differential, and finally, it has a rear-wheel steering system. Yes, the Flying Spur has the latter too, but this one’s described by Bentley as being “significantly more active”. Fabulous.
All of this stuff comes together to sharpen up the Continental significantly. We’ve taken big, lardy things on track that don’t belong there before, but this isn’t the same experience. There isn’t that sound of tortured front tyres or the disappointingly low cornering speeds.
In fact, you can take stuff far faster than you might expect, and the Speed just clings on. It took a couple of laps to recalibrate my expectations, letting the Continental properly deliver on its promise of being “the most dynamic Bentley road car in history”. We’d need to get it on a windy B-road to really suss out the lower-speed operation of the all-wheel steering, which turns the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the fronts, but when they’re steering in unison on the faster bits, the GT feels incredibly stable and confidence-inspiring.
Ambitious entry speeds will inevitably result in understeer, but the rejigged all-wheel drive system is more than happy to counter that with a loss of traction at the other end. And that’s even with the electronic stability control fully on – it’ll happily move around nicely however the electronics are set.
New for the speed is something Bentley calls ‘Charisma Dependent ESC’, which adapts to how you’re driving. ESC Sport is a nice stepping stone to turning everything off, allowing the back end to hang out pretty far before the car gently nudges you back in line. Go without, and big, childish skids are possible. And even spins, if you suck at drifting and are trying to get some yaw for the camera. I’m told…
As for the Speeds’, erm, speed, there’s less of a gap between it and the regular model than there is with the chassis performance. An additional 24bhp isn’t much of a difference when the starting point is 626bhp, although the new output of 650 does lop two tenths off the 0-62mph time for a new figure of 3.6 seconds.
The engine is as unusual as ever, sounding more like an especially muscular V6 than something with 12 cylinders. You never really need to rev it out, especially with peak torque of 664lb ft available across a bigger spread. Peak power meanwhile is felt from 5000-6000rpm. A big, wide track like Silverstone blunts some of the sensation of acceleration, but we were certainly arriving at the end of the straights at a scary rate.
Thankfully, the brakes are bloody huge. The biggest in the world, in fact, with the optional carbon ceramics measuring 440mm in diameter up front. As is the case with the 33kg heavier steel brakes, the fronts are squeezed by 10-piston calipers.
The cool-down lap gave a chance to enjoy the Continental’s main party piece, which is the cabin. It’s not all that different to any other Conti, save for an increase in Alcantara usage along with some Speed badging, but why fiddle with the recipe? It’s thoroughly lovely in here, with smart Bentley details like the metal organ stop vent controls and diamond-quilted leather sitting neatly alongside bits borrowed from elsewhere in the VW Group.
Given the choice, I’d have happily nipped through one of Silverstone’s giant pit garages, left the sprawling track facility, and kept driving. To where, I don’t really know, but those miles would have surely passed with ease.
That’ll be the GT Speed’s true strength, which we’ll get to explore another time. For tearing up a big F1-spec circuit meanwhile, a job it doesn’t need to do, the Speed does a stellar job.