First Drive: 2008 Bentley Continental GT Speed

2008 Bentley Continental GT Speed First Drive

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2008 Bentley Continental GT Speed Coupe

(6.0L W12 Twin-turbo AWD 6-speed Automatic)

It should come as no surprise that when Bentley asked owners of the Continental GT what changes they'd like to see, the overwhelming response was, "Don't change my GT. Give me more of what it already is."

As you wish: the 2008 Bentley Continental GT Speed. More power, more poise, more control — just what you expect from the astonishingly successful Continental GT.

Not unlike the speed merchants at Mercedes-Benz AMG, the Bentley engineers turned up the knob of the Continental GT's performance past maximum all the way to 602 horsepower and 203 mph. The 2008 Bentley Continental GT is a profoundly better car in every way that matters to enthusiasts like us. It's more, and always in a good way.

At Speed
We're rocketing across the desertlike Spanish landscape toward Cadiz, and Dr. Ulrich Eichhorn, Bentley's chief engineer, is happily riding along as the GT Speed carves through the low sere hills and then bursts up to 100 mph on the short straights.We're chatting about a Roman aqueduct that we passed some time before when Eichhorn says, "I like to see that you are using trail braking into the corners; the Continental GT likes this sort of technique very much. Also, you are not making any midcorner corrections with the steering. With this new car we have worked hard on the steering to improve."

Then we can sense Eichhorn smile as he says, "Most of all I am impressed that we can have a nice conversation. We are going very quickly along this road in a place far from home. But to drive fast does not take all your concentration. You can enjoy the drive also. That is the Bentley way."

More Power
Some might think the Continental GT's twin-turbo W12 already has enough muscle with 552 hp and 479 pound-feet of torque. Yet the GT Speed is more powerful still, thanks to its upgraded turbo W12 with 602 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque. Bentley says 60 mph should come up in 4.3 seconds, a 10th quicker than before. And Bentley claims that the GT Speed will eclipse the conventional GT's top speed of 198 mph with a 202-mph blast.

The W12 engine's ability to make 9 percent more power and 15 percent more torque is due to much more than tweaking the boost output of its twin low-inertia turbos. Nearly all engine internals have been reengineered to reduce mass, including the pistons, connecting rods and even the timing chain. Once combined with a recalibrated engine management system, the power has climbed — coincidentally, so has efficiency. Fuel economy and carbon-dioxide emissions are both improved by 3.5 percent (as if this matters in a coupe that carries a gas-guzzler tax of $3,700).

More Speed
You can sense that the engine revs more freely and the speed piles on more quickly the longer you dare put the throttle on the mat.

The standard GT has a kind of incongruous acceleration, and it feels a bit like a locomotive with a resolute, unstoppable urgency. In contrast, the GT Speed actually feels quick. Before you might expect it, the tachometer needle swings in a blur up to the 6,500-rpm redline and the six-speed automatic gently supplies yet another ratio and even more speed.

Envision yourself in this car perched atop an Olympic ski jump. Imagine what it would feel like to stand on the throttle all the way down the incline. Just at the bottom, as the twin-turbo W12 sends its prodigious power to all four tires and the GT Speed reaches the lip of the jump, you look down and see the speedometer deep into triple digits. That's what the power feels like.

More Brakes
Bentley responsibly supplies gargantuan vented, cross-drilled brakes to match the prodigious power of the GT Speed. First offered as part of last year's Diamond Series package for the Continental GT, the industry's largest carbon-composite brake discs (16.5 inches in diameter up front and 14.0 in the rear) are clamped by eight-piston calipers and deliver a lifetime of fade-free stopping power.

The pedal feels firm, yet is easy to modulate. We notice only a slight tendency for initial grabbiness and squealing, which is typical of this type of rotor material. These exotic brakes also reduce unsprung mass and rotational inertia by 50 pounds on the front axle alone, thereby improving steering response and handling.

More Poise
Since its introduction, the Continental GT has been enslaved by the physical consequences of so much weight over its front axle. But no more. With the Speed GT, it appears Bentley has retained the services of Dr. Faust, who until recently has been busy suspending the laws of physics over at Porsche.

There's a newfound delicacy and dexterity to the Continental GT Speed thanks to a masterful reworking of both the steering and the self-leveling (front and rear) air suspension system. The steering effort itself is noticeably lighter, yet it offers far more feel of the road. Grip from the monster-size Pirelli 275/35ZR20 tires at each corner is predictably high, but it also makes itself available in a linear fashion that's easy to exploit.

The best part, however, is discovering that the direction of the weighty beast can be gently manipulated with the throttle. Now that's control.

More Control
Keeping track of the GT Speed's 5,200 pounds at triple-digit speed is a daunting task, and a new-generation Bosch 8.1 electronic stability control system processes four times quicker than before.

More important for us, the GT Speed's new, higher handling limits have led the stability system to be more permissive. In fact, there's a new Dynamic mode laced into the ESP that will allow more wheel slip at higher speeds than previously was possible.

As before, the new car features four discrete modes of suspension firmness, but they're more recognizable through the seat of your pants.

More Work
All this deserved praise might lead one to believe the Continental GT Speed is perfect, but there are a couple areas for improvement. Our prototype examples all suffered from obtrusive wind noise sneaking through window seals, although our hosts assured us that this is being addressed prior to the car's general release in November.

The infotainment center stack hasn't changed since the Continental GT's introduction in 2002 and we think it's time for its replacement. The navigation screen is too small, the other systems are not intuitive and there's no iPod or aux input jack. A derivative of Audi's current MMI setup would do nicely.

And because this is a grand touring car, capable of devouring immense amounts of real estate at biz-jet speeds, it should have some sort of automated crash notification system like those found in other luxury cars.

More Money, but More Fun, Too
The Bentley boffins have done exactly as they were instructed. The 2008 Bentley Continental GT Speed is more powerful, more poised and more controlled. The exquisite Continental GT now has a sharper, more assertive disposition that still doesn't compromise the car's effortless ability as a grand touring machine.

Including the ludicrous $2,595 destination and delivery charge plus the non-negotiable $3,700 gas-guzzler tax, the 2008 Bentley Continental GT Speed will set you back $206,285. That's $24,000 more than the 2008 GT's MSRP, but when you consider that the exotic brakes represent a roughly $20,000 option on the GT, you might as well spend another $4,000 and get everything else, too.

It's hard to complain about a sexy all-wheel-drive Bentley. It appears that not many people are. In fact, since its introduction in 2002, Continental GT owners have been busy not complaining for want of power, panache or prestige. As a result, Bentley is enjoying its best sales year ever. The German-owned, British-assembled brand is on track to sell more than 10,000 Continentals this year, including the two-door GT, convertible GTC and four-door Flying Spur.

After driving the 2008 Continental GT Speed, it's easy to understand Bentley's success.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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