Bentley ups the power on its fabled 6.0-litre W12 biturbo engine, fiddles around with the chassis and subtly alters the exterior styling and interior ambience to give us the most intense third-generation Continental GT yet: it's time for the new Speed.
In the metal
The Bentley Continental GT is a fine-looking thing anyway and so the discreet enhancements of the Speed specification do nothing to hurt its undoubted star appeal. The Speed has different side sills and lower detailing, a subtle '12' badge in its front breather gills, a tasteful 'Speed' logo on the upper front wings, black-tinted detailing for all of the external metalwork and lamp clusters, and large ovoid tailpipes.
An optional carbon package renders the front splitter, side skirts and rear diffuser in the material to further bolster the Speed's top-dog status, while there's also the possibility to fit an Akrapovič exhaust - this replaces the dual exits at the back with four smaller oval tips.
It looks magnificent on the outside, in our opinion, and once you climb into the car the flagship ambience doesn't falter. Two-tone leather hide has highlighted contours that mimic the Continental's exterior design (like the wheel-arch haunch and the swage line), while quilted leather upholstery and swirly-pattern metal fascia trim are both deeply pleasing on the eye.
Perhaps the coup de grâce is the Alcantara-clad wheel; Bentley does not call the Continental GT Speed a track car - in fact, it's at pains to point out that it's anything but (which will make the marque's choice of driving location look all the odder when we come to that section of the test drive). But once you're gripping an Alcantara wheel, you automatically set your preconceptions to the fact you're about to have a cracking drive.
So, while the Continental GT Speed doesn't overtly stand out from its V8 and W12 brethren, there's enough visual posturing from the big Bentley to allow those in the know to clock it's something special.
So, where did we drive this non-track car? At Silverstone. On the full GP circuit, no less, all 5.9km of it. However, there's method to Bentley's seeming madness. While admitting that a two-tonne-plus GT is not the ideal basis for a track-focused machine, the company is also proud to claim this is the most 'dynamic road car in Bentley's 101-year history'. Some epithet and one that means it should even surpass the super-rare Supersports models of 2009 and 2017.
This is because the Speed is a W12 Continental GT, intensified. Peak torque remains unchanged from the regular 6.0-litre model to this uprated machine, but when you've got a ginormous 900Nm of the stuff to call upon from just 1,500rpm, more twist from the 12-cylinder engine is simply not required.
However, maximum power has increased from the W12's 635hp to 659hp for the Speed. This sees the 0-100km/h time trimmed to a phenomenal 3.6 seconds, considering all the mass that has to get itself moving from a standstill to achieve that time, and the top speed rises to 335km/h. It is truly deserving of the 'Speed' nameplate, that's for sure.
However, the marque's engineers have gone to town on the chassis. Any third-generation Bentley Continental GT comes with torque vectoring by brakes, three-chamber air springs with adaptive damping and active all-wheel drive as standard, while the W12 models also gain Bentley Dynamic Ride (48-volt-powered active anti-roll bars). However, the Speed is privy to various chassis hardware that is not available on any other Continental, no matter how much money its well-heeled owner wishes to throw at the problem.
Thus, while the Speed enjoys all that you'd get on a W12 anyway, it also deploys rear-axle steering - as seen on the bigger Flying Spur saloon and adapted specifically for the Continental from that four-door's set-up - as well as an electronically controlled limited-slip differential and 'charisma-dependent' ESC.
This means its electronic stability and traction control systems are reprogrammed to act in a different, more sporty manner as you cycle through Comfort, Bentley and Sport settings on the car's drive-modes control dial. The Speed and the Speed alone also has the option of carbon-ceramic brakes. Fit these, and you roll with the biggest discs bolted to any road car on sale right now - enormous 440mm front rotors gripped by ten-piston callipers.
Serious stuff, we're sure you'll agree, for a car that is supposed to be wafting across continents in stately grandeur. And one of the reasons why we are, for now, only driving the new Continental GT Speed on track, rather than the road. You'll therefore hopefully understand and forgive us when we say we're not going to talk about how civil the car is around town or at motorway speed, because we cannot infer such things from going hammer and tongs around Silverstone.
However, on this showing the Continental GT Speed is a quite astounding performance car. You can feel the detail changes in the steering through the Alcantara wheel's rim from the minute you dial in even the tiniest bit of lock, and as speeds build through a sighting lap the Bentley keeps rigid control of its body movements with the utmost in decorum during weight-transfer phases.
And then, as we turn down the traction control levels and push the Speed into its more aggressive drive settings, you unearth an absolute gem of a chassis.
Turn-in on the Speed is keener and more direct than with the other Continentals, even the V8, and you get less of the sensation of corralling a lot of weight due to diminished levels of understeer. What's most wonderful, though, is how much the Speed likes to be steered on the throttle, thanks to a remarkably active rear axle.
Feel like you're pushing wide exiting a slower corner? Push that right pedal in and marvel at how gracefully such a big car transitions into elegant oversteer, courtesy of 900Nm coursing through its rear tyres.
Have the car leaning on its outside tyres through faster curves? Simply make minuscule corrections of your throttle input and steering angle and the Bentley will dance around in a delicate four-wheel drift.
It is so confidence-inspiring and approachable and challenging in equal measure that it can't fail to put a massive smile on your face. Sure, it's not Porsche 911 GT3-esque in the way it monsters around Silverstone GP's course, but it is far more capable and enjoyable than anything this big and cosseting has any right to be.
And the carbon brakes are epic. The Continental easily hauls in 240km/h and more on the circuit's longest Hangar Straight, which means massive retardation into the long right-hander beyond at Stowe, and further heavy braking is required at Abbey, Village, Brooklands and Copse during the course of a high-speed lap. Yet those discs never failed to bite with reassuring strength time and time again. You can stand on the left-hand pedal beyond what you think is the point of no return approaching a corner, and the Speed will scrub off lots of velocity in a dependable yet breath-taking fashion without any obvious stopping 'fade' or moments of buttock-clenching terror. Yep, no doubt about it: this really is the most dynamic car yet released into the public domain by Bentley.
What you get for your money
You gain the extra chassis equipment, the 24hp power increase, the exterior styling touches and the snazzier interior as part of the outlay for the Bentley Continental GT Speed, as well as the knowledge that you're buying into an even more privileged level of exclusivity than even the V8 or W12 models can provide. The counterpoint to this is that the Speed is likely to cost in excess of €375,000, which means it is awfully expensive to own and unlikely to ever be seen on these shores.
In recent times, we've come to the unavoidable conclusion that the Bentley Continental GT to have is the 4.0-litre V8 model, rather than the 6.0-litre W12. The former is just that little bit lighter over the nose and that touch nicer to listen to as it goes through its motions, meaning it becomes the default choice in the grand tourer's line-up.
Except... the Speed tips the balance back in favour of big-displacement thrills. Without sacrificing the baseline sensation of luxury and majestic refinement you'd expect on a Continental (and accepting we hardly tested these particular parameters to the limit on track), it's a far more exciting and rewarding car to drive at or approaching the periphery of its dynamic abilities than the other models in the range, and it feels like the one targeted most keenly at enthusiast drivers. Is it a track car? No, of course it's not; it's too heavy and opulent for that sort of malarkey. But is it a brilliant Bentley? Oh yes, absolutely. We can't wait to get the Speed out onto the public road at the earliest possible opportunity to find out more about this utterly beguiling machine.