In 2003, the year we reviewed the first Bentley Continental GT, Dave Brailsford took over as performance director of British Cycling, where he became known for the phrase, “the aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained the working philosophy to the BBC as breaking down every aspect of riding a bicycle—from pedals to the best pillows for the best sleep—and improving each aspect 1 percent to achieve a significant cumulative improvement.
The shepherds of the Bentley Continental GT have mastered marginal gains, punctuated by the occasional leap. When we reviewed the first GT Speed in 2008, it weighed 5180 pounds, made 600 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque from a 6.0-liter twin-turbo W-12 engine, reached 60 mph in four seconds, and could hit a claimed 202 mph. Thirteen years later, the 2022 Bentley Continental GT Speed weighs a claimed 5011 pounds, makes 650 horsepower and 664 pound-feet from an updated 6.0-liter twin-turbo W-12, launches from a standstill to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, and runs out of steam at 208 mph.
The design or performance of other cars may have evolved further or faster, but if any automaker knows what it has, it’s Bentley. The formula worked in 2003, and as we discovered in Sicily behind the wheel of the newest Continental GT Speed, it works just as well today.
The third-gen Continental made a leap in looks, turning the previous model’s enforcer physique into that of a pentathlete. To create the Speed—which is available as a coupe or a convertible—24 more horses joined the W-12’s corral, then Bentley’s wardrobe department put a dark finish on the grilles, added a carbon-fiber splitter, reshaped the side sills, and fit a unique set of 22-inch wheels. Marginal, indeed.
The Speed’s roughly $50,000 premium over the standard car is wasted money in everyday driving. As in the standard GT that makes the same torque, copious shove hustles 2.5 tons of Anglo-German matériel, and copious hides turn that matériel into a hush room at a private London club. The triple-chamber air suspension with adaptive damping and 48-volt active anti-roll bars separates the driver from worldly unpleasantness like Welsh Guards protecting Windsor Castle.
On Sicily’s narrow, tangled road network, the potholes and bizarrely uneven pavement were seen but not felt. Desperately uncouth surfaces compelled a roar from the Pirelli P Zero PZ4s—275/35R-22 in front, 315/30R-22 in back—but there’s only so much thunder one can conceal after putting 5000 pounds on low-profile rubber with contact patches as big as elephant feet.
The challenge for this new Speed was that when Bentley wanted to make this Continental GT better, as engineer Nigel Hamlyn told us, “We’d maxed out all the tools we had.”
So engineers made a leap, increasing this Bentley’s tool set. A reworked, more rear-biased all-wheel-drive system ordinarily sends 90 percent of the W-12’s torque to the rear wheels, but up to 36 percent can be sent to the fronts to make the most of the available traction or to counteract oversteer. The Speed also borrows the rear-wheel-steering system introduced on the Flying Spur, with 4.1 degrees of max steering lock for improved handling and low-speed maneuverability. Brake-based torque vectoring remains on the front axle, but at the rear, engineers added an electronic limited-slip differential (eLSD).
As a result, the newest Speed the first of its kind to wag its tail in the language of an enthusiast. Squirting out of a tight exit into another switchback, a combination of generous throttle and steering lock gets the rear steering and eLSD to snap the back around. The best bit came in a flat open area we could treat like a skidpad, ladling on throttle until the more forgiving ESC gently fed the backside into a Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift stance. Jolly good stuff.
This remains a big GT, though, not a sports car. Letting the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic shift for you, even in the now quicker-shifting Sport mode, means trying to time steering and pedal inputs to the twin-scroll turbos going full boost. Better to take over shifting and keep the turbos spooled, even if it means being so high in the rev range that the W-12’s usually threatening rumble turns into a gravelly yelling. And forget about theatrics such as pops on downshifts and overrun; Bentley has largely tuned out such excess.
Bentley set up a twisting course at an abandoned NATO base—derelict nuclear-missile silos and all—to give us a proper go where retaining walls and police wouldn’t ruin the day. Sadly, our minders placed “BRAKE NOW” signs so conservatively that generous application of the optional carbon-fiber discs left enough room after stopping to take an Uber to the corner. The 17.3-inch front rotors with 10-piston calipers clearly are the product of someone at Bentley HQ who loves singing, “I like big brakes and I cannot lie.” Stomp on them and their comical stopping power will have your eyes bulging like Wile E. Coyote’s, not to mention the eyes of any drivers behind you.
The Speed’s new dynamism is the payoff for years of marginal gains plus this latest little leap. And that brings us back to British Cycling, which had won a single Olympic gold medal in the 95 years before Brailsford took over. The team rode five years of marginal gains to eight golds in the 2008 Olympics. From 2007 to 2017, according to James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, Brailsford’s national and BSkyB trade team riders won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured five Tour de France victories. He is now, unsurprisingly, known as Sir David Brailsford.
There’s no individual at Bentley to confer a knighthood on, and there are no gold medals for making an excellent GT more excellent. But the crew from Crewe has shown just as well as Brailsford how much can be achieved by doing just a little bit more, everywhere.
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