Bentley Symphony of Speed – defying physics on track with the Continental GT Speed and Bentayga

Bentley Symphony of Speed – defying physics on track with the Continental GT Speed and Bentayga

Press releases and official communication are typically full of grand claims, and we – the people who process the information – have become desensitised to the hyperbole. Every new model is the best of its kind, great in all departments, game changer – you get the drift.

Glance through Bentley’s press materials and you won’t be blamed for thinking that the luxury carmaker is yet another strong believer in its own products.

When the Speed variant of the third-generation Continental GT was unveiled in March this year, Bentley called the new range-topper the ultimate combination of luxury and performance in a Grand Touring package.

“The new Continental GT Speed represents the very pinnacle of performance grand touring… The world’s most luxurious Grand Tourer is now truly more capable than ever before, with a new sportier edge which will appeal to performance-focused drivers,” said Matthias Rabe, member of the board for engineering at Bentley.

Note “most luxurious” and “performance-focused” in the same sentence. Now, cars, like most things in life, rarely tick opposing boxes – the most exciting cars around aren’t the most fuel efficient, vice versa, while a spacious people carrier can’t possible be very nimble. Such is life.

But if any carmaker can bring together disparate qualities, it’s Bentley. Crewe has form when it comes to making its ultra-luxury cars drive like much smaller, sportier machines, and this uncanny ability to blend leather and wood with supercar performance was on full display at Bentley’s Symphony of Speed event in South Australia last month.

Like how the original Boxster saved Porsche a quarter of a century ago, the Continental GT propelled Bentley into mainstream consciousness when it surfaced in 2003. Over 65,000 units were sold in the following 15 years over two generations, a huge number for a carmaker of Bentley’s size. The first model of the modern Bentley era was a true landmark car.

Bentley Symphony of Speed – defying physics on track with the Continental GT Speed and Bentayga

But to be honest, I was never been a big fan. To my then young eyes, the Mk1 was a tall and narrow bar of soap, and the second-generation was a small evolution in terms of design, carrying over the classic double cockpit-style dashboard as well. The big shift came in 2018 with the third-generation GT.

While still instantly recognisable as a Continental GT, today’s 2+2 has more dynamic proportions (wheelbase is longer by 105 mm, marginally wider too), and a cabin that’s thoroughly modern in tech and layout, but still sumptuous in materials and execution, which you’d expect in a Bentley. In contrast to modern supercars, which have become a bit loud and distasteful, this grand tourer is pure class.

Enter the Speed, which turns up the wick of the 6.0 litre twin-turbo W12 engine by 24 PS to 659 PS, while torque is maintained at 900 Nm. The 0-100 km/h time is a tenth faster at 3.6 seconds, while top speed is up 2 km/h to 335 km/h. Minute yes, but mind you, we’re coming from a very high base. How high? Today’s W12 makes 60 Nm more torque than the previous-generation Speed (642 PS/840 Nm).

Bentley Symphony of Speed – defying physics on track with the Continental GT Speed and Bentayga

Speaking of the old Speed, it came with a torque converter automatic transmission. The Mk3 GT has replaced that with an eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox, with retuned software for the Speed that enables it to shift twice as fast in Sport mode, while also holding onto gears for longer and downshifting quicker to keep the W12 in its power band. The Speed also boasts “greater exhaust character” during start-up and when downshifting.

The powertrain improvements are welcome – and needed for a performance flagship, however fast the base car already is – but it’s the chassis work and gizmos that are the most noteworthy. It’s one thing to make a heavy luxury car go fast in a straight line, another to make it carve corners competently.

All-wheel steering, first seen on the Flying Spur, makes an appearance here. In the limo, AWS – which turns the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the front wheels in low to medium speeds, and in the same direction as the fronts at high speeds – works to reduce turning circle and enhance high-speed stability. Here, the system is significantly more active in the car’s handling character, Bentley says.

Bentley Symphony of Speed – defying physics on track with the Continental GT Speed and Bentayga

For the first time in a Bentley, an electronic rear differential provides increased lateral grip, improved stability, and enhanced on-throttle adjustability. The traction control and torque distribution of the Active AWD has been recalibrated in all modes to provide a different character from the regular Continental GT, Crewe claims. Sport mode has been calibrated with a more rear-biased torque-split in all driving scenarios.

Also on are Bentley’s three-chamber active air suspension with adaptive damping, and Bentley Dynamic Ride. The latter is a 48V active anti-roll control system that features electric motors within each anti-roll bar to resist lean. In their firmest setting, the motors can deliver 1,300 Nm in 0.3 secs to counteract cornering forces and keep the body level. All these combine for a “level of agility unlike any other Bentley road car”.

Also, the Speed’s ESC can be switched off, but no such shenanigans for us, as it was a dark and rainy day at The Bend Motorsport Park, which is located around 100 km south-east of the South Australia’s state capital, Adelaide. The Bend is Australia’s newest circuit, and its 7.77 km GT Circuit is the second longest permanent race track in the world after the Nurburgring Nordschleife.

The event was held at The Bend’s West Circuit, which is 3.4 km long and includes the track’s main straight and paddock, plus a pretty technical inner section. Imagine all that power and weight on an unfamiliar wet track, trying to have some fun while – and this is the most important – bringing the multi-million ringgit cars back to pits in one piece.

Just as the idea of huddling by the heater with a hot latte seeped in, my name was called and it was helmet on and off we go. First name on the list and first to go out with the GT Speed, but I needn’t have worried. Beside me was a racer who gave good tips on braking/turning points and the best lines to take, and my workspace was impossibly comfortable for a 335 km/h car. Plush seats with adequate support and heated everything is much better than the usual Alcantara-lined testosterone fest, IMO.

The W12 looks fearsome on paper and but it’s neither a very loud engine or a zingy, high-revving one. It does have bags of torque though, which means you don’t have to work it super hard. No issues in putting all that power to the damp ground either. The ‘easy’ theme continues with the gearbox, which is good enough for me to keep it in D, leaving full attention to placing the car in corners.

Bentley Symphony of Speed – defying physics on track with the Continental GT Speed and Bentayga

When you drive a GT or Flying Spur on the road, you’re constantly reminded of the car’s considerable size by the width of the lanes and other vehicles, but without such markers on track, it truly feels like a smaller car. Flat cornering and quick feet – a 2.3 tonne car has no right to be so nimble. Perhaps the only time the big B felt its size was when I stood on the brakes at the end of the main straight, from well over 200 km/h.

Fantastic as the GT Speed was, it wasn’t my favourite car of the day. To my own surprise, that car is the GT V8, the entry-level Continental, the supposedly poorer version with four cylinders less. Its 4.0 litre twin-turbo V8 puts out 550 PS and 770 Nm, which is 109 PS/130 Nm less than the Speed’s W12. The century sprint is dispatched in four seconds flat, which is four tenths slower than the Speed, while top speed is 318 km/h.

While the difference in stats isn’t insignificant on paper, a fast car is a fast car, and surely there’s no reason to feel inferior about a luxury GT capable of 4.0s and over 300 km/h. Without a stopwatch, it didn’t feel much slower from behind the wheel; if anything, the V8 felt more spirited.

The burbly V8 sounds more characterful and you’ll hear more of it in the cabin compared to the W12, even in the default Bentley mode and with helmet on. That said, it’s not loud like an AMG and is whisper silent when cruising.

There aren’t many visible signs that you bought a V8, just quad exhaust tips (ovals in the W12) and a small badge on the front wings. In any case, with so many trim packs, colours and limitless personalisation options from Mulliner, rarely are there two identical cars rolling out from Crewe.

We also had the chance to put a few laps on the Bentayga Speed and Bentayga S, and much of what we observed on the GT applies to the SUV too, taking into account its extra weight and higher centre of gravity. Speaking of that, I found the air suspension’s ride height changes amusing, as they greatly alter the look of the Bentayga and serve as a reminder of this car’s breadth – from off-road to doing 0-100 km/h in 3.9 seconds and 306 km/h max, while cosseting you with acres of leather and wood. Or carbon. Or engine-turned aluminium to match the perlage on your watch movement.

Bentley Symphony of Speed – defying physics on track with the Continental GT Speed and Bentayga

When it comes to making the finest luxury cars in the world, Bentley is on a rarefied level. It’s a tall step up from the best of the German premium brands, and the floor’s only other inhabitant is Rolls-Royce. Both British brands are famed for refined performance, the richest of materials, hand-built craftsmanship and personalisation, but Bentley has an ace up its sleeve.

A rich racing heritage. Walter Owen Bentley founded the company in 1919 with the ethos of making “a fast car, a good car, the best in its class”. Bentley went on to set speed and endurance records in the 20s, and dominated Le Mans in that era. In 2001, the men and women of Crewe achieved two things that encapsulates what the carmaker is about – they returned to Le Mans (and got on the podium) and built a bespoke limo for the late Queen Elizabeth II for her Golden Jubilee.

The Bentleys of today aren’t just about hides and veneers. Despite making no compromises in luxury, Crewe’s creations have supercar levels of performance and the dynamics to hold it all together. A Symphony of Speed in the Lap of Luxury. This duality, I’ve not seen in the industry.

GALLERY: Bentley Symphony of Speed

GALLERY: Bentley Continental GT Speed

GALLERY: Bentayga Speed at Bentley Kuala Lumpur

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Danny Tan

Danny Tan loves driving as much as he loves a certain herbal meat soup, and sweet engine music as much as drum beats. He has been in the auto industry since 2006, previously filling the pages of two motoring magazines before joining this website. Enjoys detailing the experience more than the technical details.




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