What seems like the tiniest difference to the casual onlooker can seem like a world apart when you're close enough. And when you're a development engineer at Bentley, even the smallest kilometre per hour top speed and acceleration differences are of paramount importance. No Continental could ever be described as slow, but some, by necessity, are less slow than others. After all, if these differences did not exist in the model range, there would be nothing for potential customers to aspire to.
It's something I have to keep in mind while driving the new GTC Speed. Because, initially, I cannot tell the slightest difference between it and the standard W12 model. Seriously, unless there was someone timing me with a stopwatch, I'd be utterly stumped when it came to the matter of telling them apart. But they are, indeed, different. At least when it comes to the oily bits.
Physically, there is hardly anything at all between this current range-topper and the recently introduced "entry-level" V8, so Bentley has seen fit to attach some rather naff chrome "W12" badges on the Speed's flanks, lest an owner be upset by the hotel valet or camera-toting car fan mistaking it for the lesser model - something that I find rather sad.
The Continental GT received a major (and overdue) facelift two years ago, becoming lighter and crisper in its styling, as well as its handling. The handling improvements were mainly down to revised suspension geometry and an increased proportion of torque being sent to the rear wheels, instead of being split evenly between the axles. The result, most people agreed, felt properly sporting while retaining the cosseting refinement befitting a Bentley.
Some, however, think the "standard" W12 is too hushed, possibly too aloof in its feel. They crave a little coarseness to go with the notion of a Bentley as a sports car, and into this nuanced world of subtle differences in perceived perfection arrives the GTC Speed, on offer for a significantly greater cost than the regular model. The 6.0L, twin-turbo engine gains an extra 50 horsepower, making 625, and various other changes make the GT look more aggressive and feel a little harder around the edges. It also manages to squeeze out another 11kph - something that Bentley says is on tap even in our 40°C summer temperatures, which must be reassuring for the region's well-at-heel boy racers.
W12 badges aside, you can identify a Speed by its darkened grille, 21-inch wheels and the 10 millimetre-lower ride height that goes with the air suspension's firmer settings, stiffer bushes and anti-roll bars. The ZF automatic gearbox now has eight forward ratios, and the exhaust system has a partial bypass when in Sport mode, making more of its expensive-sounding noises.
So the GTC Speed costs more and goes a bit more, but is it actually a better Bentley? Or is it just a way of boosting Bentley's profits, given that it's unlikely to cost much more than the normal GTC to make? In some regards, the Speed is improved; in others it's worsened, so it depends on what you like.
First, the negatives. The accelerator pedal's action can be annoyingly abrupt, and sometimes the engine doesn't slow down the instant that you lift foot from pedal. Eight gears are too many for an engine with such a broad spread of huge pulling ability (800Nm of twist is significant), so you tend to use the paddle shift on twisting roads to stop the constant up- and downshifting that's especially irksome in Sport mode. Eighth gear does give a very restful and relatively frugal cruise, though, with just 1,600rpm showing on the rev-counter at 110kph.
Sport mode also brings a deep exhaust resonance just below 2,000rpm, which hurts your head. But the asymmetrically beating idle is quite lovely and there's an invigorating blare as the revs soar, punctuated by fluffs and sputters each time the throttles are eased. As for the suspension, a separate Sport mode makes the ride unnecessarily busy without improving the Continental's already excellent four-wheel-drive handling. The softest Comfort mode works best, leaving the three firmer stages largely redundant.
If, however, you resist the temptation to explore the Sport modes that coerce this Bentley into being something that it isn't, you can enjoy a still-sonorous exhaust note and just revel in its monstrous power. You can marvel at the wieldiness of a car so hefty, feeling the torque pouring through the rear wheels but altering its flow forwards once the tail is loaded up. And, if you get to know it for long enough, you can probably relish the fact that the Speed has a small amount of personality lacking in the regular item.
The Speed is billed as the ultimate Continental GTC, at least until the next Supersports version arrives. So it's all the more troubling for the ultimate Bentley status-seeker, then, that the cheaper, less-powerful but lighter-footed and ultimately more-entertaining V8 version is still the best model of the lot.
Price, base / as tested Dh1.08 million / Dh1.11 million
Engine 6.0L, twin-turbo W12
625hp @ 6,000rpm
800Nm @ 1,700rpm
Fuel economy 14.9L/100km
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