Driving a Bentley at 200 MPH, on Ice
Aiming for the World Speed Record in a Continental Convertible
There's a good chance you might be overwhelmed by the various automotive awards presented each year. There's an even better chance that you simply don't care because you can't figure out how all these award winners are chosen.
With that in mind, we started the Inside Line Most Wanted Awards. Our winners are chosen for one simple reason: They're the cars, trucks and vans that we like the best. Not the best new vehicles or the ones with the fastest quarter-mile times (although that does help). Nope, these are simply our staff favorites, the cars we would buy for ourselves, the ones that we remember even after getting behind the wheels of hundreds of vehicles throughout the year.
The Selection Process
Our selection process is extremely simple and there is only one real rule: Inside Line must have tested the car or truck by December 1, 2010. And there's only one hard category: Instant Classic. The other five winners are chosen in a free-form fashion. In fact, every single car and truck on the market is eligible for all six slots. There's no price cap, and no nonsense about having to be a new model or a redesigned nameplate. Essentially, we could honor any car or truck we want.
But we don't want to award six supercars either, so we've drawn ourselves a few guidelines. In an effort to keep it real, we attempt to choose a vehicle for each of the following needs: speed, luxury, hauling, commuting and family. However, the editors are not obligated to award a vehicle associated with each. If the Inside Line editors want to award supercars only, we still have that o
"Now I will be the most scared I have been since we started the project," says Juha Kankkunen. The four-time World Rally Champion clambers into the Bentley's passenger seat in the middle of the frozen Baltic Sea. We're only 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, with Finland to the east and Sweden to the west.
I buckle up the six-point harness, adjust my HANS device and flick open my visor. This specially tuned Continental Supersports convertible is about to become the world's fastest ice-skate. Juha's here for an attempt on the Guinness World Speed Record on ice, and I'm about to sample his charge.
Hitting the Ice
I engage 1st gear and slip out onto the purpose-built track. Even with all-wheel drive, the traction is comically bad. You have to cajole the throttle like you might a reluctant child. In the real world this car will do zero to 60 mph in just 3.9 seconds, whereas here it might take 3.9 minutes.
Tweaks to the 6.0-liter W12 have increased output from 630 horsepower to "around 650," which is 600 more than you need when it's 31 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. It's powered by E85 ethanol, which is more potent than traditional gasoline, and the rev limiter's been raised to allow a higher top speed. There's a full roll cage, subtle spoilers front and rear, special wheel covers and a parachute that will only be used in an emergency.
First gear is hopeless so I short-shift to 2nd and start to gain some momentum. The ice is more than 2 feet thick and covered in a dusting of snow, which makes it hard to read. Roll cage or not, I've no wish to hit the snowbanks. At best we'd smash up the car. At worst, we'd be pitched into a terrifying barrel roll. I once set a world record for driving blindfolded at 155 mph. Scary for sure, but at least I had grip.
The Bentley's moving around on the bumps and I'm making tiny corrections to the wheel. The ice's natural camber is also throwing us to the left and right. Kankkunen admits he's brushed the snowbanks on a couple of runs. "You must be gentle with the throttle," he shouts through his full-face helmet. "If not the car will slide." Well, that's comforting.
It's a Slippery Sucker
Doing 200 mph on a test track in this car is easy, but this is different. This is unnerving. I'm not convinced I'm fully in control. It feels more like sledding than driving. It's fast and fun but I can't really steer and I'm not quite sure how I'm going to stop.
It's ridiculous, but it's a hell of a rush. The speedo needle swings past 100 and then 120 mph as I grab 4th gear. Now the adrenaline's flowing and I'm starting to feel the rhythm of the ice. We're skating together — the Bentley, Kankkunen and I — across a frozen sea at more than 2 miles a minute.
I hit 150 mph, then my bottle runs out. This is Kankkunen's toy, not mine and I don't want to break it. "You only really use the brakes below about 200 km/h [125 mph]," says my co-driver. As I press the middle pedal, it's not hard to see why. The rear end squirms and I have to apply a correction. The antilock braking system tries to help but it's all but useless. It takes miles to stop.
We reach the end of the run and swap seats. The original "Flying Finn" is incredibly laid-back. "I have been driving on ice since I was 7 years old," he says. "This is what I know." His test runs have regularly exceeded 200 mph.
This is Kankkunen's second assault on the record. Back in 2006 his friend Kari Makela concocted a plan to break the existing record of 184.14 mph, set by a Bugatti EB110 in 1995. To succeed, they'd have to complete a flying kilometer in opposite directions. "It was a crazy idea," says Kankkunen, "so of course I said I'd do it."
The duo contacted Bentley, borrowed a Continental GT coupe and set a new record of 199.86 mph in March 2007. "It was a huge achievement, but we knew Juha wanted to average 200 mph," says Ash Mason, Bentley's special project engineer. "There was unfinished business."
Four years later and with a new model to push, Bentley is back on the ice. The choice of a 5,115-pound behemoth typically found in the hands of L.A. agents might seem odd, but there was some logic at work. "The ice is rough so air suspension is very important," says Kankkunen. "The weight of the car stops it moving around too much and of course, you have to have four-wheel drive."
The original record car used studded tires that cut deep into the ice. This time, though, Kankkunen must make do with normal winter tires. "Studs might have offered more grip, but there's also more rolling resistance and that affects the top speed," reckons Makela, who's in constant radio contact with the driver. The Pirelli Sotto Zero II 275/40R20 tires are rated to 200 mph in normal conditions, but ice is different. Mason admits they're "taking a step into the unknown."
Trusting the Finn
With less ultimate grip, the team must rely on Kankkunen's otherworldly car control. In a practice run, the telemetry revealed he held a constant slide for over 2 miles at 190 mph. "The control is not a problem," says the coolest driver on the planet, "but every slide costs momentum and a few mph." In practice, Kankkunen has already raised the record to 205.48 mph, but now he's trying to go even faster. The team reckons a 208 mph average is possible...maybe.
It's all about working the margins. Even the temperature makes a difference. If it warms up a few degrees, the air density will diminish, the car's aerodynamics will improve and the humidity of the ice will change, offering more grip. The difference could be crucial.
The track is about 98 feet wide and is carved into the frozen wasteland normally known as the Baltic Sea. In the summer, the nearby city of Oulu is a beach resort, but if you're swimming in these temperatures you're in big trouble. Using snowplows the team carefully constructed a 10.3-mile track, only for it to be destroyed in a freak snowstorm. They built another, but it's not exactly straight. A subtle kink means the driver must change direction at 190 mph. "I think maybe they had one vodka too many," says Kankkunen.
My drive has thrown the rally star's efforts into sharper focus. The difference between 150 mph and 200 mph in these conditions is colossal. "At 200 mph you are travelling almost 90 meters [295 feet] a second so you have to look ahead, read the ice and then decide how you're going to react," he says.
The Finn might now be on the high side of 50, but he hasn't lost his mojo. I sit next to him as we hit 160, 170 and then 180 mph. He's making big corrections to the wheel, rotating it left and right through what must be 50 degrees. It's amazing to watch. Kankkunen admits he's experienced serious wheelspin at over 190 mph, so throttle control is everything. Below our feet, you can hear the tires doing battle with the ice. They're just barely hanging on.
He gently lifts off, lets the car's natural momentum subside and then leans on the middle pedal, stopping us neatly in front of the makeshift pits. He takes off his helmet with the air of a man who's been for a casual Sunday drive. I ask if he ever gets scared in a car. "No, never."
Going for the Record
I clamber out and stand on the sidelines as Kankkunen completes more practice runs. A huge digital display shows the average speed across the kilometer. The timing beacons were borrowed from the Finnish Traffic Police and then verified by the man from the Guinness Book of Records.
It flashes up 321 km/h (200 mph) as the Bentley blasts past. At these speeds on ice it produces what sounds like a sonic boom, followed by a huge rooster tail of misty snow. The team stands transfixed by the track, watching first the car and then the clock. One of those watching is Derek Bell. The five-time Le Mans winner and Miami resident is now a Bentley ambassador and is here to lend his experience and keep us entertained. "It's such a different thing," he says. "I'm just not used to a car moving around like that. In racing we correct the car as soon as it steps out of line. But in rallying you're happy to go with the slide. This is Juha's world, not mine."
Kankkunen completes a couple more runs and returns to the pits. He's not happy. The temperature's too low, the ice is too hard and the track's deteriorating. In these conditions, there's no hope of bettering the 205-mph average achieved earlier in the week.
There's a slight sense of anticlimax, but it's still mission accomplished. Kankkunen has topped 200 mph on ice and Bentley will celebrate by launching its "most powerful model ever" at the 2011 Geneva Auto Show.
As a stunt to launch a new car, the ice world record is undeniably silly, but it would be wrong to demean the skill, commitment and sheer bravery of those involved. Kankkunen might have spent his entire life driving on ice, but this is still an epic achievement. The "Flying Finn" is now an honorary "Bentley Boy."ption.
The voting process involved 11 IL editors locked in a room. No spreadsheets were used and no blood was shed. We simply presented our best arguments and then raised our hands to take a vote. In the end, we ended up with a list of six truly great cars and trucks. Ladies and Gentlemen, the 2011 Edmunds' Inside Line Editors' Most Wanted Award winners are:
Cadillac CTS-V Wagon
Stop being such a wuss and go get yourself a 2011 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon. There's not another machine on this planet that will at once liberate your manhood with gratuitous powerslides and satisfy your domestic needs by carrying a toddler, a ladder and a dog. Seriously. Go now.
Cars like this only come along once in a generation. By adding a wagon to its CTS-V line, Cadillac has produced a machine with the personality and performance to satisfy the hardened car enthusiast, while simultaneously acknowledging that people with the means to afford such a vehicle have real utilitarian needs. But it's more than that, because if this were just about being fast and practical we'd have picked an Evo and not a Cadillac.
The CTS-V Wagon is about attitude. It's about pure American muscle and it's about making a statement. There are few cars that are faster. And there are plenty more practical cars. But there are no cars that flip a middle finger to convention as convincingly as the Cadillac CTS-V Wagon.
We want one. Badly. — Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor
Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
REEEPEAT! Yep, this is the second year in a row that the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor has made our Most Wanted list, a feat that speaks to its long-term awesomeness. While the custom Fox Racing shocks, 35-inch BFG all-terrain tires and straight-out-of-Baja styling had us swooning last year, the Raptor now comes with the engine it should have had all along — the 411-horsepower, 6.2-liter V8.
But forget the numbers. This truck is all about character. Plant the throttle and the 6.2 bellows with an exhaust note that will scare Prius drivers back into the right lane. In the dirt, the Raptor spits rocks from all four wheels like an eager puppy chasing a ball on a hardwood floor.
Consider the Raptor less a real vehicle — though it seats five and is more than comfortable enough for daily use — and more a goading partner in crime. It wants to have fun, wants to be bad, wants to take you out all night and force you to make excuses to your wife. The Raptor is that college friend who everyone knew was bad news, yet we would follow to the end of the Earth.
In a year dominated by boring alt-powered "of the years," the Raptor earns our enthusiastic salute to fun and freedom in a time of rationality and reason. — Mike Magrath, Associate Editor
Chevrolet Corvette Z06
That's right, if we're spending our own money, we'll take the 2011 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 over the 638-hp ZR1. Not just any Z06, though, as ours would have to be equipped with the Z07 Ultimate Performance package that's new for 2011. It lifts key chassis hardware from the ZR1, namely the magnetorheological adaptive dampers (Magnetic Selective Ride Control), Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires (285/30R19 87Y front, 335/25R20 94Y rear) and carbon-ceramic brakes, and the effect is transformative.
It goes from being a scary-fast sports car with squirrelly, unpredictable handling at the limit to being a scary-fast sports car that's buttoned-down and trustworthy at 10/10ths. The upshot is that you can push a Z07-package Corvette Z06 much harder on a road course or back road without worrying that some midcorner bump will unload the rear suspension and deliver you and the car to an untimely demise.
Of course, the ZR1 still turns in quicker straight-line numbers, but the Z06's naturally aspirated 505-hp 7.0-liter V8 is a high-revving engineering masterpiece that is equally stirring to the soul. Oh, and it'll launch the Z06 to an 11-second quarter-mile, too. Moreover, the Z06 is lighter than the ZR1, and you sense this from the cockpit. It feels more direct and communicative, something we'll gladly trade a few tenths in the quarter-mile for any day of the year. — Erin Riches, Senior Editor
It's been a long time since we looked at a midsize family sedan and thought to ourselves, "That looks pretty damn good." The fact that we said it about the 2011 Kia Optima made it even more of a shock. Then we drove the new sedan and liked it even more. Why?
It's an affordable family car that looks, feels and drives a class higher. It's not sporty, but we don't really expect that from this kind of sedan. What we do expect are a comfortable cabin, excellent mileage and plenty of features. The Optima delivers on all counts, even if you have to give up a little backseat room to get that dramatic C-pillar.
Want more power? You can always opt for the turbocharged model, but we're fine with the standard 2.4-liter engine. It has plenty of power for daily driving and it delivers nearly 40 miles to the gallon on the highway. We know the idea of "wanting" a Kia might seem blasphemous to enthusiasts, but we can't all drive Raptors and Corvettes. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and buy something a little more sensible. Put in that situation, the Kia Optima is one sedan we would want. — Ed Hellwig, Editor
Last year, the Honda Odyssey disappeared from our Editors' Most Wanted list, but with a full redesign under its high beltline, the 2011 Odyssey renewed our interest. The new Odyssey is the closest thing there is to an eight-passenger sport sedan, and its road manners will win the heart of any car guy-turned-family man.
The 2011 Odyssey is bigger, offers more legroom and earns a 19 city/28 highway/22 combined mpg EPA fuel economy rating that trumps the outgoing model. Factor in a 650-watt amplifier stereo system with 12 speakers and a 15GB hard drive capable of storing 3,500 songs, and it's easy to see why once again, the Odyssey is the fun minivan in a vehicle class where nobody expects to have fun. — Kelly Toepke, News Editor
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG (Instant Classic)
Forget the gullwing doors on the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG for a second. Yeah, they're an unmistakable heritage cue from one of the most beloved classic cars of all time, but they're not the reason why we find this car so irresistible.
The real draw of this car is the engine. It may be the same 6.2-liter V8 that powered all AMG products before the twin-turbo V8 came along recently, but the way it's tuned in the SLS makes it a star. It not only develops 563 hp, it makes the kind of noises that only V8s can. It emits pure thunder at full throttle and then clears its throat with loud pops and crackles when you ease off. As one editor put it, "It's like driving the world's nicest stock car." It's unexpected from any car these days, let alone an exotic Mercedes.
And for those who aren't hypnotized by the sound of such a potent, unrestricted V8, the SLS is still a sight to behold. Yes, the doors are interesting, but even when they're closed this car has presence. Unlike the cartoonish proportions of the previous SLR, the SLS looks like a proper sports car. And with its all-aluminum chassis, it drives like one, too. It may not be the fastest exotic out there, but the SLS AMG certainly has all the makings of a classic. — Ed Hellwig, Editor