Test drive: Bentley Continental GT Speed
Bentley's Continental GT Speed isboth fast and luxurious.Mark Sharp heads to Germany to feel the power
As daredevil skydiver Felix Baumgartner was falling from the stratosphere at over 1,120km/h, I was packing my bags for Germany to try out Bentley's fastest ever production car - the appropriately named Continental GT Speed.
While not expecting to break the sound barrier, it was a first chance to see just how capable the new grand tourer is on the free-wheeling autobahns around Munich.
With almost a dozen of the large coupes waiting in a piazza outside the German city's airport - in hues ranging from sober grey to a sunny yellow - passers-by may not have even known that these handsome hulks were classed as sports cars.
Even a Bentley engineer, referencing Ettore Bugatti back in the 1920s, joked: "We do make lovely trucks."
To gain some perspective, another "fastest ever" 12-cylinder car, the new Ferrari F12berlinetta, is 775kg lighter than the 2,300kg GT Speed, but its top speed is only 10km/h faster. This is why Bentley says its Continental range offers two cars in one - giving their owners a taste of both luxury and speed. The 2013 model - the GT Speed joined the Continental stable in 2007 - pushes it all the way to 330km/h. Unveiled at Britain's Goodwood Festival of Speed in June, the car has been engineered to push the range's sporting credentials to the maximum.
The two-door, four-seat coupe is powered by Bentley's huge W-12 engine, a six-litre twin turbo that generates 625 horsepower and 800Nm of torque. An all-wheel drive, the torque is split 60/40 in favour of the rear for a sportier driving feel.
Bentley says there has been a 7.5 per cent improvement in aerodynamic efficiency over the previous model. As a result, it enjoys eight per cent more downforce than a regular Continental GT.
The chassis has also been given a makeover, including stiffer air suspension and revised dampers, and this GT sits 10mm closer to the road than its siblings.
The fine-tuning also makes the GT Speed cleaner and more economical. Bentley says it has achieved a 15 per cent cut in CO2 emissions versus the previous model, and the car is 12 per cent more fuel-efficient.
Its beefy body, with bulging haunches, runs on 21-inch wheels. To set it apart visually from other Continentals, it has a darkened grille and lower bumper grilles, and elongated oval exhaust pipes. It boasts of its power with "W12" signage on the fenders.
The cabin is a staple hand-crafted Bentley haven, with diamond-quilted leather in a choice of colours. Wood veneer has been replaced by a more modern looking carbon fibre, however. There's a sports gear knob and speed pedals, and the usual circular dials and air vents that render a clean and deceptively simple look. An eight-inch screen that's part of the infotainment system has a satellite navigation system that allows owners to input their own favourite destinations.
For the test drive, the satnav is set for the municipality of Berchtesgaden, in the Bavarian Alps just south of the Austrian city of Salzburg. At a distance of more than 200 kilometres, it offers motorists the thrill of unbridled speed on the autobahns and winding country roads in the alpine foothills.
Sink into the soft leather seat, take the seat belt that is thrust forward in its holder, and press the start button. The familiar throaty hum kicks in, and with a flick of the handbrake lever the journey begins. We are warned to strictly stick to the speed limits and under no circumstances to tailgate.
Speed is not unlimited on the autobahns - it's reduced to 70km/h in built-up areas and 120km/h in other places. But where the signs have diagonal black lines striking out the number, it's an open road. And there's no hesitation, with the GT Speed capable of sprinting from a standstill to 100km/h in 4.2 seconds. With an enthusiastic grunt, it launches effortlessly into overtake. Flying up the highway, law-abiding German motorists politely change lanes to let the Bentley pass.
At 150km/h, a rear spoiler is automatically deployed that adds an extra 125kg of downforce, pinning the car more firmly to the road. As it catapults from 150km/h to 270km/h in a few seconds, the shadows of roadside trees create a mildly alarming stroboscopic effect, and the G-force sucks you into the bucket seat. An acoustic layer between double-glazed side windows reduces engine noise in the cabin. So it's still possible to listen to the soothing classical music Bentley has programmed into the eight-speaker audio system.
An Audi A8 makes way, helping to truly get a handle on the GT Speed's power. Audi's flagship model, a favourite of government officials and company executives, has a top speed of 209km/h.
At around 250km/h, the car's superb performance and handling can be felt. Any minor wobbles on an uneven road surface are rapidly corrected. The engine screams but never feels like it's near the end of its tether. And it isn't. But pushing it any further, on a highway full of other motorists and truckers going about their business, doesn't feel like a wise move. It's hard to blank out images found days earlier when Googling "autobahn deaths".
Of course, there's more to performance than just speed, and it's comforting that the car's "block shifting" eight-speed transmission allows you to smoothly bypass sequential downgearing when suddenly reining in the engine.
The highway soon gives way to a more varied route nearing the Alps. The foothills are dotted with farms and picture-perfect villages with onion-domed churches and chalet-style homes. There is no indication of the 5cm of snow that fell three days earlier, except atop the ever-visible peaks under a clear blue sky. Road conditions are perfect.
The big Bentley now navigates narrow, tree-lined lanes that constantly wind and zigzag. It can still effortlessly jet past a too-leisurely motorist when the horizon is clear, but caution is called for. There are numerous blind bends, one-way stone tunnels and the occasional fallen boulder.
So I ease off the throttle and soak up the scenery. It's a chance to enjoy the Speed in a tamer mode and simply revel in its luxury, though it's still fun to throw it round the sharp corners. And it's never too big to pass an oncoming vehicle.
We stay overnight at the InterContinental resort in Berchtesgaden, nestled under craggy peaks such as Kehlstein. On the ridge line lies the "Eagle's Nest", a chalet built as a 50th birthday present for Adolf Hitler. Presumably it was a summer retreat, as the hills don't look very hospitable at this time of year. Sadly, there is no time to race the Bentley up to the mountain because, after breakfast, it's time to shoot back to Munich.
The GT Speed launches in Hong Kong in December. Its price has yet to be confirmed.