IAIN ROBERTSON 

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It is almost unwarranted that a car linked to gap-toothed caddishness, via gadabout Bentley Boys and more recent Germanic inferences should become an object of automotive pleasure as Iain Robertson acknowledges GT Speed’s sense of pride.

When Messrs Pischetsrieder and Piech set out their pitched battlelines for overall control of Rolls-Royce-Bentley in 1998, while the conjoined brands had cost VW around £479m, VW sold the RR rights to BMW for a mere £40m, in what could have been a cataclysmic disaster for both. Yet, it was not to be. Rolls-Royce has gone on to greater things, while Bentley has been shooting ever since for the stars. Both brands have traded on their amazing pasts but have also earned the rights to gilt-edged futures.

Back in 1931, when receivership forced WO Bentley’s company into being subsumed by Henry Rolls’s similarly upmarket brand, it was mostly clear that both would survive and, even though Ettore Bugatti regarded Bentleys as little more than fast tractors, a mutual engineering respect existed among the roguish brands. However, while Rolls were whisper quiet, the Bentleys were quite the opposite. They were linked to an equally rich market but, while the Roller was to be driven in, the Bentley, ever the more affordable, was to be driven.Bentley-Continental-GT-Speed-5

Separating the brands proved to be a deftly coordinated masterstroke by the Millennial Teutons. That latter cinching point would seal their fates and, while Alan Sugar probably takes the helm of the Rolls from time to time, he would look totally out of place barking instructions from the Bentley’s driver’s seat. Linked inextricably to the world of celebrity that has grown concurrently throughout the New Millennium, both brands have deviated, while retaining headquarters in their notional motherland; Crewe, Cheshire, for Bentley and Chichester, West Sussex, for Rolls-Royce.

Personally, I have regarded Rolls invariably as overbearing and imperial but always respectable. Bentley was every time the more accessible, naughty, younger brother, even through the 1960s, when much of the differentiation lay with height of grille and a simpler ‘Flying-B’, to the sculpted ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’. Fortunately, the brand separation has allowed two well-defined marques to emerge and, although massively different to the original Continental Coupe, the latest GT Speed from Bentley is a car refined by its racing involvement. Its character is epitomised by the large diameter headlamps packed with crystalline LEDs that flank a bank statement radiator grille of finely woven, gloss black mesh.

Strangely, by running on massive 22.0-inch diameter silvered alloy wheels that fill the wheel cavities, the GT Speed’s side elevation looks more compact and road hunkered than ever. However, it is also, after more than 20 years, one of the most readily recognisable profiles in the world. Reminiscent of coach-built Conti coupes of the 1950s, the current shape has lost none of its allure and terminates in an elegant tail possessing (now) a single oval LED taillight signature on either fender. It is both handsome and sporting in equal measure.Bentley-Continental-GT-Speed-2

However, there is space within that profile to carry four large adults in the lap of hand-stitched, quilted leather and Alcantara luxury. Perhaps it is a little fussier indoors than we have come to expect, although the quilting is less intrusive and, on the test car, broken up by a two-tone red and dark grey colourway. A large section of the carbon fibre dashboard that carries three instrument faces powers out of the way to reveal a large format touchscreen for the sat-nav, hi-fi system and minor controls. The wide-based centre console that divides the cockpit into four individual seating zones, complete with their own climate controls, contains the customarily engineered switches and the selector for the automatic transmission.

Although the screen graphics are familiar Audi style, both ahead of the driver and at the top of the centre-stack, they are Bentley dedicated and fully adjustable to suit the driver’s whims and needs. Both multi-directional, powered front seats provide unerring levels of support and comfort and the driver can settle into the chair, to be hugged warmly, or chilled appropriately, dependent on selected settings. The pair of rear seats are as bolstered boldly as the fronts, and, while legroom will be a little compromised by taller front seat occupants, head and shoulder room is more than adequate. There is also a decent boot behind the rear seat, into which four bags of golf clubs can be dumped.

By tradition, the Continental is powered by the outstandingly reliable W12 TSi engine (effectively a pair of VR6 units stitched together) that develops a wholesome 650bhp  and 664lbs ft of torque. It is enough to whisk the well over 2,350kg coupe from 0-60mph in a McLaren-taunting 3.5s, to a maximum speed of 208mph. Yet, it is the car’s remarkable road poise that warrants comment. Boasting a new electronically managed steering system that provides superior feedback to the driver’s fingers and a speedy response to input, it combines with the car’s three-position (Bentley, Comfort and Sport) chassis dynamics adjustability to impressive new standards of control.Bentley-Continental-GT-Speed-3

All four wheels are driven and an active steering facility turns the rears in the opposite direction to the fronts for even nimbler handling. In Sport setting, the drive is biased more rearwards for an extra sense of fun and the new electronic rear differential enhances the overall control, balance and compliance of the chassis, which makes it even more engaging for the driver. A 48v ancillary supply powers the anti-roll bars to provide near zero-roll and maximum stability, regardless of road surface quality. It is only by driving the car and adjusting the various settings that a press-on driver can appreciate the wealth of control now available. Grip levels are simply stunning.

As with the suspension, the 8-speed automatic transmission’s characteristics are also driver managed and accompanied by a tuned exhaust system that emits from a muted grumble to a glorious wail, dependent on throttle depression. Adding to the car’s efficiency (20.8mpg; 308g/km CO2) is the ability of the engine to shut-off six cylinders in high-speed cruising circumstances, while the ‘stop:start’ facility works imperceptibly around town.

Conclusion:        Bentley has reinforced the Continental’s role as the consummate luxurious sporting coupe, with the introduction of the most malleable GT Speed model, accompanied by a £179,000 price tag.

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