Bentley’s new GT Speed is a car for all seasons

Bentley has squeezed even more power from its incredible W12 engine, but does anyone actually need it?

The new GT Speed has been visually tweaked, but the results are subtle, such as a sharper front splitter. James Lipman
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It would appear that the car industry has yet to invent luxury windscreen wipers. The reason I know this is that the Scottish rain is trying so hard to penetrate the windscreen of the Bentley I'm piloting that, even on the fastest setting, the wipers are losing the battle against the Celtic tsunami.

I use the word piloting as intended, as on a number of occasions I actually fear that we may end up being washed away, out into the Atlantic. Scottish rain is incredible. It hits you like steel rods and forces its way into any possible opening with such ease you’d think it was a living organism. Luckily for me, the Bentley remains watertight, as you’d rightly expect for such a royal chariot.

The glorious road in front of me writhes into the distance like an angry eel, leading me ever farther down the A83 to the most southerly point of the musically famous Mull of Kintyre.

Exploring the limits of the car, of any car, in these conditions would be both reckless and pointless, so, for once in my life, I simply sit back to enjoy the ride. It’s at this point that the radio station informs us the south of the United Kingdom is basking in the mid-20s, with bright blue skies. Ah, bonny Scotland.

We’re actually heading to a spot a little before the very bottom of the peninsula, battling through the deluge to the tongue-twisting RAF Machrihanish. Well, I say RAF, but it’s actually now just a civilian facility after the RAF sold it back to the local population for a rather reasonable one pound. The facility boasts one of the longest runways in the UK, at more than three kilometres in length.

There’s good reason for the base having such an expansive runway. Before being decommissioned, Machrihanish was the rather secretive hiding place for the famous Vulcan bombers and their nuclear payloads. It also allegedly housed the United States Navy Seals and was a refuelling point for the futuristic Stealth Bombers. But perhaps even more interestingly, the runway was a designated emergency landing spot for Nasa’s Space Shuttle, should it find itself over Europe in need of a quick landing.

So why, you may ask, are we driving through torrential rain to a semi-­secret ex-air force base on a remote tip of Scotland? Well, the latest version of the flagship Bentley GT Speed is the fastest Bentley ever built, with a 0-to-100kph time of just 4.2 seconds and a top speed clocking in at a whopping 331kph. Clearly, we can’t investigate this on public roads.

The car plays host to the monstrous, 6.0L, W12 engine, which the company has perfected since its introduction in 2003. Bentley has made more than 70,000 of them in total, making its Crewe factory the world’s leading 12-cylinder power unit producer.

Watching one of these engines being assembled at the factory is worth a day of your life on its own. Standing there, as two engineers insert the 12 offset pistons, is strangely satisfying. Two pistons share one journal, with one offset to the other. Each has a different balance weight and the top of each piston is also angled to cope with the tight angles of the heads. This is engineering way beyond my normally reasonable comprehension.

The complexity of the geometry to ensure each piston arrives at the right time, and at the right angle, would require a doctorate and a serious protractor – but by doing this, the designers have ensured that the W12 is incredibly compact. It measures just 652 millimetres in length and is almost perfectly square in both width and height. This means that it takes up less space than a normal V8 and actually almost the same amount as an average mass-produced four-cylinder engine.

With a bit of tweaking, the company has managed to increase both the power and the torque, while also lowering the emissions. Power is now up to 626hp, with torque now peaking at an arm-bending 820Nm. That’s an incredible increase of 212hp and 270Nm of torque from the Continental GT’s original W12 motor.

I suppose that it all makes sense really. The Pyms Lane buildings in Crewe, where the engines are still assembled, were originally built to manufacture the famous Merlin V12 aero engines that powered the legendary Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft. The walls of the build area seem to have an intrinsic link to raw power from a dozen ­cylinders.

Back at the runway, the rain has thankfully abated and left me with both a clear windscreen and a clear 3km stretch of tarmac. The rules are quite simply to floor it and see how fast you can go, before the poor Bentley representative accompanying you shouts to let you know that you need to start braking.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about the W12 is the total lack of peaks and troughs as you accelerate. It simply pulls like an electric motor, without even a hint of each gear ratio robbing you of that peak torque. It’s always “at the peak”. This engine only knows one way to work – full on. The needle hits somewhere about the 190mph mark (306kph), and with the weather closing in, I’m denied a second run. That’ll have to do for me, which is fine. On the road, top speed is all highly irrelevant anyway, plus with the way the engine was pulling at 300kph, I’m inclined to think Bentley’s claimed top end might even be a tad conservative – the company does have a reputation for playing down its performance statistics.

Because that magnificent engine has so many cylinders, the automatic gearbox fades into the background, as you don’t notice the shifts. But with 12 pots bouncing up and down, it also makes it smooth and docile at low speeds. And that’s the trick when you’re making a gentlemen’s express. You can’t be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none – you need to be master of the whole lot. At this end of the market, the customer expects it and rightly so.

Will owners of an older GT Speed be able to tell the difference with this new model? Probably not (unless they own an ex-RAF base), as it’s subtle, rather than a slap in the face. The turbine-esque engine is just so good for this sort of car. There are no histrionics and no fuss, just power, delivered in the dreamy rush of fresh double cream sliding from the edge of a spoon.

There are some small visual tweaks as well, but, as is almost always the way with Bentley, you’d be hard pressed to spot them. The new GT Speed gets a sharper front splitter, which, along with the side skirts and rear diffuser, is now body colour-matched. There’s also a dark tint to the lights, bright work and polished alloys. What’s very un-Bentley are the red brake callipers and small “Speed” badges. What would W O Bentley himself say about that were he still alive? Actually, he’d probably quite like them.

There are some minor enhancements to the interior as well, which is gilding the lily a little. No one can touch Bentley on its cabin trim, but, for the record, you get a new colour split reserved just for the Speed. This can then be topped off with contrasting stitching. The interior also gets Speed logos in the headrests and on the passenger fascia.

But perhaps the most interesting thing that pops up during my drive is that, regardless of that ample power unit under the bonnet, the joy of the latest GT Speed is in the chassis, suspension and AWD system. A combination of granite build quality, massive grip and very clever electronics, it holds on to the road like a limpet. There’s never a side scuttle, it doesn’t tramline with the road’s surface and, over water, it doesn’t seem to easily aquaplane. Where other supercars become a handful in the wet, the Bentley simply lowers its shoulders and pushes through the weather. Yes, it’s the battering-ram approach, but it works so well.

Sitting on the edge of Loch Lomond, taking in the stunning scenery, the Bentley looks perfectly at home. The success of the GT is built around its versatility. This car works in hot desert, in green lanes and down Rodeo Drive. That’s something not all cars of this type can boast. It does speed and luxury so well, but I do question the need for even more power. I guess technology and demands from customers for ever bigger numbers never stand still.

Rain or no rain, the W12 and the V8-engined Bentley GTs are quite different now – and that’s the key marker. You now get to choose between a more eager and rabid eight-pot engine and a silky, warp-speed 12. I’ve always thought life is all about choices, so if you find yourself in the enviable position of being unable to decide between these two options, relax in the knowledge that it’s a very nice problem to have.

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