The internal combustion engine’s days seem numbered – especially the sorts of big displacement, many-pistoned numbers that performance and luxury marques like Bentley are famous for.
Bentley has never made a car with an engine displacement of fewer than 3 litres. You’d think, then, that the quintessentially British brand would be quaking at the knees at the prospect of having to electrify – but actually, Bentley has embraced electric cars quicker than most luxury brands.
You can already get a Bentayga or Flying Spur as a hybrid, and Bentley has also pledged that by 2030, they’ll have an electric-only lineup. Yet at the same time, they’re one of the few brands who are still producing cars with 12-cylinder engines, and indeed are the only car company that uses W12 engines. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, but also one that won’t exist for much longer.
By the way, that’s not a typo. We mean ‘W’. Effectively two of Volkswagen’s famous VR6 engines joined at the hip on a single crankshaft, Bentley’s W12 engine is unlike any other power unit in any other production car. Incredibly smooth yet rev-happy and dynamic, it’s an absolutely bonkers bit of engineering… Yet one that’s not long for this world.
That’s why when I was offered the chance to take a Bentley Continental GT Speed, one of the last vehicles in the world to use a W12 engine and easily the fastest on the market, around one of Australia’s best and longest race tracks – I lept at the chance.
And let me tell you this: if you have the means, and you’re not fussed about combusting a seriously excessive amount of dead dinosaurs, you should seriously consider doing the same.
Let’s talk numbers. The Bentley Continental GT Speed and its 6.0L twin-turbo W12 makes a full English breakfast amount of power with 485kW/900Nm, does 0 to 100 km/h in 3.5 seconds and has a more than adequate maximum speed of 335 km/h. Not bad for a car that weighs well over 2 tonnes.
The track? The Bend Motorsport Park just outside of Adelaide, Australia’s hottest new motor racing destination and the second-longest permanent race circuit on the planet behind the famous Nürburgring in Germany. While we weren’t driving its maximum configuration, we still had a generous 3.14kms on its West Circuit, which includes a nice long straight.
Putting my foot to the floor in the Continental GT Speed on that straight was a bizarrely serene experience, in no small part thanks to the brilliance that is that W12 engine. It’s counter-intuitively both buzzy and smooth at the same time. Bentley’s dynamic ride tuning has the perfect combination of grand tourer suppleness as well as sportiness; you feel connected to the road, yet not damaged by it.
Then, once you get it into the corners, you find that it handles better than cars half its size, thanks to a nifty four-wheel steering system and electronic rear diff. It was shocking just how much you could trust such a huge car through what were exceedingly difficult driving conditions.
It’s worth pointing out that we were running normal steel brakes, too: you can option carbon ceramic brakes on the GT Speed, but steel is better for day-to-day driving and is what most people will opt for – so to see them perform so admirably on track, which is not really what they’re for, was a pleasant surprise.
Indeed, that’s kind of the conundrum of the GT Speed. It’s not really the sort of car you would think about taking around a race track. It’s the kind of thing that looks good parked outside a 5-star hotel, if you catch my drift. Yet it can actually drift…
Bentley is unique as a brand in that it exists in the highest echelon of luxury marques, yet it’s also steeped in motorsports history. You’ve heard the old adage “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” – well, Bentleys are cars you can race on Sunday and then munch a few hundred clicks in down the motorway on Monday, in the absolute height of luxury.
So, while the Continental GT Speed is unbelievably capable around a track, it’s also an incredibly comfortable, refined daily driver. Take it out of sport mode and into comfort and you find out why motoring journalists use phrases like “a fist in a velvet glove” to talk about ultra-luxury sports coupes like this. Not only is the Continental GT Speed one of the most fun cars I’ve ever driven, but it’s also one of the most comfortable.
I mean, you’d hope so. It’s a bloody Bentley after all.
Now, the other number I neglected to list earlier was the Continental GT Speed’s sticker price. The beefy Brit starts at AU$568,100, but the MSRP of a car like a Bentley is kind of a theoretical thing; most people are optioning these things and appropriately, the Candy Red example I drove was more like AU$700,000.
That’s a lot of money. But then, is there any other car that can do what the GT Speed does? What else is as comfortable, as well-made, as good-looking, as feature-filled… And as capable at whipping around a windy bit of tarmac at 200km/h+? It can kind of do everything.
The only car that comes close to the Continental GT Speed is the Continental GT V8, which I also had the chance to test at The Bend. Actually, in some ways, the V8 is almost worth getting over the W12 Speed: thanks to its lighter engine, which is mounted further back in the engine bay, it has slightly more conventional sports car handling dynamics and is ‘only’ 0.4 seconds slower to 100. It’s a bit cheaper, too (although still not cheap).
The V8 also sounds better than the W12: 12-cylinder engines inherently don’t have the same sort of meaty exhaust note as a V8, although the W12 doesn’t sound bad by any means. But if you’re going to get this sort of car, you may as well get one with all the fruit, right? Plenty of car brands make V8s, but only one makes a W12, and won’t be making it for much longer.
That’s just it: the GT Speed is the last of a breed. This is the last and fastest W12 Bentley we will ever see. By the end of the decade, decadent petrol-powered land yachts like this will be no more. No doubt Bentley are hard at work cooking up something equally as sumptuous and speedy that sips battery juice, but even for dyed-in-the-wool EV lovers like myself, it won’t be the same.
In short: the Bentley Continental GT Speed is the perfect final chapter for the petrol engine. It’s the absolute pinnacle of petrol-powered motoring, in every sense. You owe it to yourself to try it – you just might have to win Lotto first…
Find out more about the Bentley Continental GT Speed at Bentley’s online showroom here.