By: John Simister
London - A few weeks ago I reported on Aston Martin's new Vanquish. This week it's the turn of the Bentley Continental GT Speed, and my next two reviews will report on two more new automotive creations also aimed at the well-heeled.
The thread that binds all four: they are British. Never has there been a more potent sign of our indigenous motor industry's reinvention.
With the exception of the Vauxhall factory in Cheshire, the badges on the record numbers of mass-market cars emerging from British factories are Japanese. So the cars that now carry the flag for British design and engineering, even if the companies themselves are now mainly foreign-owned, are high-end luxury items admired the world over.
So, what is this Bentley Speed? It's the ultimate version (so far) of the latest-generation Continental GT, and rather tellingly it has a pair of small W12 badges.
They are there because if you're buying a status symbol, it's important to ensure its status is unambiguous. Until recently all Bentley Continental GTs had complex and very powerful W12 engines, but then a simpler, more frugal V8 model arrived and suddenly insecurity was rife.
What if you had bought the expensive version and people thought you hadn't? Well, there's no need to worry any more. Thanks to those badges, everyone will know your car sits at the top of the pile.
That said, do we really need the Speed?
You might argue that the regular W12's 423kW, 318km/h maximum speed and 4.6-second 0-100km/h time should be sufficient. But maybe Sir or Madam finds the standard car too quiet or aloof in feel.
Having paid all that for remarkable refinement, they might crave a little coarseness. In an attempt to provide this, the Speed has an extra 37kW, making 460kW, and can reach 330km/h, passing 100km/h en route after just 4.2 seconds.
Apart from the badges, you can identify a Speed by its dark-chrome grille and huge 21-inch wheels. The automatic gearbox now has eight forward gears, and the exhaust system has a partial bypass “Sport” mode so it can make more of its expensive-sounding noises. The SA price for the Speed has not been released, but in the UK it costs £151 000 (R2 141 180) against £136 710 (R1 938 547) for the standard W12 coupé. But given that the latter costs R3.4-million in South Africa, it will most certainly nudge past three-and-a-half bar.
Should you boost Bentley's margins in this way?
In some ways the Speed is better, in others worse, so it depends on what you like.
I found the abruptness of the accelerator pedal's action annoying, and sometimes the engine wouldn't slow down the instant I lifted my foot. Though eighth gear does give a very restful and relatively frugal cruise, having eight gears is too many for an engine with such a broad spread of huge pulling ability, so I tended to use the paddleshift manual mode on twisting roads to stop the endless upshifting and downshifting that is especially irksome in the Sport mode.
Sport mode also brings on a deep exhaust resonance at low engine speeds which drills through your head, while a separate Sport mode for the suspension makes the ride unnecessarily busy. Sounds a little pointless so far, then.
But if you leave off the Sport modes, you can enjoy a still-sonorous exhaust note, complete with muffled fluffs and sputters when you ease off. You can marvel at the wieldiness of a car so hefty, luxuriate in the comfort of the taut but compliant Comfort suspension mode, and relish the fact that the Speed has a personality lacking in the regular item.
Trouble is, I still prefer the lighter-footedness of the 4.0-litre V8 version. Who cares about badges anyway?
BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT SPEED
ENGINE: 5998cc, W12 cylinders, 48 valves, twin turbochargers, 460kW
TRANSMISSION: Eight-speed paddle-shift automatic, four-wheel drive
PERFORMANCE: 330km/h, 0-100km/h in 4.2 sec, CO2 338g/km
-The Independent on Sunday