What is it?
The Bentley Continental GT has had to contend with the whiff of nouveau riche hanging around its exhaust pipes since it arrived in 2003. The once cordial and symbiotic Rolls-Royce and Bentley marques were traditionally purveyors of enviable, hand-built chariots for the well-heeled gentleman or lady.
However, in the aftermath of the break-up of Rolls-Royce and Bentley - which was inevitable after Volkswagen had scooped the company from under BMW’s nose in 1998, only to find it didn’t have the licence to use the Rolls-Royce name – there was huge pressure to engineer quickly a new, cheaper car. One that would hopefully sell in numbers hitherto unimagined by anyone at the old Crewe factory, rejuvenate the brand and begin to recoup VW’s investment.
The result was the Continental GT, essentially a mass-produced model built using a VW Phaeton chassis with a new body. It was and still is constructed in Germany rather than at Park Ward, then shipped to Crewe for assembly and sold to a mostly cash-laden, burgeoning group of individuals who fancied something sporting a Bentley badge, with a bit less stuffiness.
And it wasn’t just voyeurs that were sniffy at the Continental’s more mainstream build methods and get-rich-quick patina. I was selling Bentleys at the time, and took a group of expectant customers on a factory tour guided by one of the old-guard workers. He firmly nailed his colours to the mast that afternoon.
Asked by one of the soon-to-be-owners why he’d spent well over an hour waxing lyrical about the Arnage line, then perhaps 30 minutes at best viewing the GT’s build process, our man unashamedly exclaimed in full-on Cheshire drawl: "Well, we have two companies here. Bentley on this side, and VW over there. And I work for Bentley."
But for all his and everyone else’s lamenting of the changes at Crewe, there’s no doubt that the Continental has, in all its forms, not only saved Bentley from ruin but also transformed it into a huge success.
That success is like the proverbial runaway train, so here we are, 12 years on, looking at the latest incarnation: the 2016 model-year Continental GT Speed. What’s new? As with the rest of the Continental GT range there’s rebooted styling, led at the front by a remodelled bumper and slightly smaller grille. The most distinguishing features are the new ‘B’ motifs incorporating an air vent on the reprofiled front wings.
At the rear there's a reskinned boot-lid and a wider-looking bumper that on the Speed and V8 S models incorporates a more pronounced diffuser. There’s also new wheel and exterior colour choices, while inside you’ll find a different steering wheel, a more sensuous knurled finish to the gearshift paddles and the addition of a SIM card that enables onboard wi-fi.
Most notable is the cylinder deactivation that’s been introduced on all the W12 engines. This switches from running on 12 cylinders to six for better efficiency when you’re on a light throttle and above 3000rpm. Don’t get too excited though: the Speed will still slurp fuel at an enormous rate, but at least it should get you farther between fill-ups.