No nation has ever mastered eccentricity as well as the British, and in this age of downsizing and hybridisation there’s something rather whimsical about installing a hugely powerful but wallet-crunchingly thirsty W12 engine into a motor vehicle.
Not that the type of buyer in the market for a £150,000 vehicle would give practicalities such as fuel costs much of consideration. The key question is whether this W12-powered Bentley is an anachronism in today’s motoring world or a decadent motoring delicacy to be savoured like fine art or wine.
The Continental GT Speed manages to combine prodigious power with pleasing docility and sublime comfort. With the automatic transmission left in standard ‘D’ mode, the engine produces a soft burr and excellent levels of sound insulation filter out road and wind noise.
It’s remarkably easy to drive, with the electrically assisted, speed variable steering feeling light and precise through town. On standard 21-inch wheel rims the ride is composed and the air suspension mops up most of Britain’s road scars.
It means that whether you’re behind the steering wheel or reclining in the leather seats in the rear, the Continental GT Speed has a wonderfully composed way of ensuring you arrive feeling just as relaxed as when you set off.
The big Bentley is air-sprung at all four corners and four suspension settings, ranging from the softest Comfort through to the stiffest Sport, can be selected from the menu on the infotainment screen. The differences between the softest and stiffest settings are noticeable, but the two incremental stages don’t really offer such significant differences to the extent that you’ll be forever ferreting around in the menu to select the optimum setting for any given piece of road.
Best to leave it in Comfort for cruising and occasionally switch to Sport for fun, although bumps and ridges are definitely more noticeable in the latter.
If the mood takes you, you can unleash the GT Speed’s aggressive side by pulling the gear lever into ‘S’ for Sport mode.
You could snick the lever left to enable manual shifts via the stubby paddles, although the short-of-finger might struggle to reach them, particularly when the steering wheel is at an angle, because the paddles are mounted to the column and don’t move.
Engage Sport mode and the W12 takes on a more aggressive snarl and the gearshifts become more urgent. The acceleration is simply immense; flatten the throttle from a slow speed and there’s a momentary pause as if the W12 is taking a deep breath before it explodes with a gushing torrent of forward motion. It doesn’t build speed as much as hurl it all at you in one go; within the blink of an eye you go from sedate cruising to scenery-blurring pace.
For a car with such a large presence, the Continental GT Speed hides its weight surprisingly well during cornering. It’s mass means it can never feel as nimble as a thoroughbred sports car, but it does feel very stable and has to be pushed hard to elicit any understeer.
Through fast, wide sweeping bends the steering weights up nicely and traction of the four-wheel-drive system offers tremendous levels of grip and balance, encouraging you to power through and out of corners with confidence.
Our test car was fitted with optional carbon-ceramic brakes, which do a brilliant and consistent job of slowing down the mass of 2320kg from high speeds, but cost an eye-watering £10,610. It would have been nice to have a set of those included as standard on the version of the Continental GT that’s the designated performance flagship.
After a while, though, the thrill of Sport mode can wear thin; the engine’s droning blare can become tiresome, the more sensitive throttle makes fluid driving more of a challenge and the more aggressive gearshifts offer a nudge in the back as an insistent reminder that the Continental GT Speed prefers to be fast cruiser as opposed to a sports car.