“Context,” it’s been said, “is everything.” Similarly, heavily curated experiences make me hyper aware when critiquing a car. Case in point: my first taste of the Bentley Continental GT Speed, which came at a press launch in sun-doused Sicily, where the air smells like limoncello and fairy tale coastlines are lapped by the warm Mediterranean. Focus grasshopper, and don’t let the Amaro sweeten your view of the quarter-million-dollar grand tourer.
Fast forward to a rainy December in Los Angeles, where I’ve been slated to spend some extended follow-up time in the GT on my own home turf. During the quiet season I’ll use the 2.5-ton coupe to run up and down my favorite canyon roads; fetch groceries; make bakery runs to procrastinate from writing… and each time the massive 6.0-liter engine has siphoned the brunt of its 24-gallon well, I’ll fill it up again and summon the thirsty 12-cylinder to gobble up the miles once more, just like a well-heeled owner would.
Super-luxury meets the subdivision
The $352,100 Continental GT Speed that materializes in my driveway is, funnily enough, finished in what might be my second-to-least favorite color: a hue Bentley dubs ‘Ice,’ which is just a few shades away from my all-time-nemesis-of-an-automotive-color, white. “Stay objective,” I tell myself, while quietly pining for one of the 9 shades of green available from the standard catalogue.
My tester arrives flush with $63,975 worth of options, among them a panoramic roof ($4,285), track-worthy carbon ceramic brakes ($15,855), a nifty rotating display ($6,490) and the gotta-have-it 18-speaker Naim sound system ($8,970). As otherworldly as it seems to pull up to your suburban home in $352,100 worth of steel, glass, and leather, the act becomes low key normal real fast.
Passersby remind you of its flash when you catch them snapping pics. On the other hand, its slingshot shape has a way of normalizing faster than you can say “borrowed time.” Despite its everyday layout (this is, after all, a sports coupe, not a scissor-doored hypercar), the Continental’s heft makes it feel significant. Yank the door open, and the weight of inertia makes it feel more like a rolling anvil than casual A-to-B transportation. Granted, this heavyweight can hurtle to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds and top out at 208 mph. But its structure feels reassuringly ponderous, in a way few other modern cars do. Tug that boat anchor of a door shut, and a soft close mechanism helps those final few millimeters by sealing you into the cabin. The cockpit’s high door sills and the wraparound dashboard make it seem like you’re not just driving, you’re nesting.
I find it takes a moment to reacclimate to the ergonomics; one man’s coziness is another man’s claustrophobia. The GT isn’t snug, but it’s close — there’s a fine line between sitting high enough to get decent visibility, but not so tall that controls don’t feel naturally within reach. Another packaging conundrum reveals itself when my 11-year-old slides into the back seat: the front passenger seat must scoot way forward, forcing my wife’s knees against the dashboard. While the Bentayga and Flying Spur are regal and roomy for more than two people, the GT feels like a massive two-seater with a pair of vestigial perches in the back.
Speaking of interiors, I’m not quite sold on the use of Alcantara in Bentley’s otherwise typically leather-wrapped interiors. The suede-like material was first used by the brand over a decade ago in the deliciously snorty Continental Supersports, but on the GT Speed it feels inconsistent with the model’s luxe disposition. For the record, the V8 S model incorporates another a suede-like material — Dinamica — which has a very slightly smoother feel than Alcantara. My loaner happens to be trimmed in piano black, which forms a panoramic rim around the front seats. Piano black is the most understated and smudge-sensitive option among the available trims, which include a glossy carbon fiber, a retro engine turned aluminum, and the obligatory selection of wood veneers ranging from traditional burls to more contemporary open pore options. I find the glossy black disappears unremarkably, drawing more focus towards the change-o-matic rotating screen which has been casually referred to as the “Toblerone,” whose triangular shape enables it reveal a 12.3-inch touchscreen or three analogue gauges (with a delightfully retro selection of outside air temp, a chronograph, or an old school compass — take that Google Maps!) Need a break from it all? The third option, a veneer panel, offers a spare alternative to information overload.
A spa on wheels
As particular as the Continental’s ergonomics are, its driving dynamics offer an insulated haven from the humdrum of lesser cars. Dip into the W12’s massive 664 lb-ft reserve of torque, and this Bentley’s big body disappears in a wave of effortless forward motion. The damping effect of the body’s mass and the seamless tug of the twelve-cylinder engine make it surprisingly easy to go surprisingly fast with surprising discretion. There’s a subtle bark when gunning it in Sport mode, thanks to adjustable exhaust valves. But it’s still possible to scoot along swiftly without drawing the ire of sound sensitive neighbors, a rare feat for car that’s not powered by electricity.
The Conti is also remarkably easy to spend hours in, with its air suspension smoothing out the road and sound isolation offering an ideal platform for the optional 2,200-watt Naim stereo. One day trip took me and the kiddo (who fits just fine in the front seat) from LA to Belmont Park, an oceanfront amusement park in San Diego. Not only were we able to listen to his favorite science podcasts at high freeway speeds without blasting the stereo, we arrived refreshed and renewed, like we had gone in for spa treatments before tackling the Giant Dipper, a raucously violent wooden rollercoaster that was built in 1925.
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I also explored the GT’s sporting side by piloting it deep into the Angeles National Forest, home to curvaceous mountain passes that delve into snowy climes when the winter storm pattern is just right. Though it doesn’t have quite the nimbleness of the V8-powered Continental, what it lacks in sharpness it makes up for in surefootedness. The twelve-cylinder doesn’t need to work very hard to whisk the GT up the mountain, and despite its plus-sized body there’s still some surprising agility available thanks to the wonders of torque vectoring, four-wheel steering, an smart rear differential, and adaptive air suspension. But unlike some sports cars with electronica rampante, the Bentley somehow feels warm, cohesive, almost analog in its intuitiveness. There’s soul behind that shiny piano black, a feeling that you’re driving a finely tuned, handcrafted machine that was made by humans. And despite the warm fuzzies that usually come with cars so passionate they eventually leave you stranded by the side of the road, the Continental GT just works. Not only was it competently quick up the mountain, by the time I reached snow-lined shoulders its all-wheel drive made it feel planted and secure. It also made this auto writer look casually badass, bringing a spendy sports car where mostly foolhardy offroaders dare to tread.
The end of an era?
Not to get too reductive (or expansive) about the experience of driving a Bentley for two weeks, but spending all that time behind the wheel of the GT Speed had an undeniably spoiling effect. Sure, its commanding price and imperious presence ought to be worth something — and there’s definitely a mindless cachet that comes with rolling in the Flying B. But my biggest takeaway had less to do with outward perception and more to do with details, more specifically touchpoints, button clicks and a general generosity of quality construction that meant every nook and cranny of the GT was finished in a way that spoke to quality. From a billet aluminum gas cap that feels reassuringly weighty and cool to the touch, to supple hides that extend from doorjamb to headliner, the Continental GT Speed feels thoughtfully executed in ways few new cars do. It also attains posh grand touring exclusivity in a world where countless competitors have dropped out, from the technically excellent Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe to the imperious Rolls-Royce Wraith, which will soon be replaced with the fully electrified Spectre. So while the Continental GT Speed is not a perfect car, it captures a unique moment in history that feels heavy with the weight of now. We won’t see any gasoline powered Bentleys, let alone twelve-cylinder ones, when the brand goes fully electric by 2030. It’s enough to make you fall that much more in love, even if it’s the wrong color and your kid barely fits in the back seat.
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