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The Clarkson review: Bentley Continental GT Speed (2013)

Clarkson

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I don’t understand why people get so cross when politicians do a U-turn. Would you rather they were so consumed with towering self-belief that they ploughed on regardless? Because I wouldn’t. Take Michael Gove as an example here. The education secretary expressed a desire to change the way exams were run. There was much brouhaha from interested parties. And, having listened to their objections, he’s decided to abandon his plans. What’s wrong with that?

If I were a politician I would constantly express a desire to invade and conquer France. I’d explain that it simply isn’t morally correct for such a lovely country to be in the hands of the French and, as a result, I’d ask the armed forces to work up some kind of plan.


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And what they’d do is talk me out of it. They’d explain that we simply don’t have the muscle, and that even if we did, the United Nations would impose all kinds of unpleasant sanctions. So that eventually, and much to the relief of just about everyone, I’d announce that we would be invading and conquering Spain instead. Technically that would be a U-turn. But it would also be an example of common sense.

It’d be the same story with cats. I’m afraid that if I were prime minister I’d announce that they must all be executed. This would prompt a great deal of debate and eventually I’d be forced to say, “Oh, OK. Your cat can live. Just so long as it doesn’t leap into my lap and show me its anus.”

This is because I am wise. Unlike His Tonyness, who was not. He was so wrapped up in his own self-importance that after he’d decided to invade the Middle East, no amount of reasoning would cause him to back down. And look where that got us.

So, no. We need to stop criticising politicians when they make U-turns and start congratulating them for being open-minded and flexible. Which brings me neatly to the Bentley Continental GT.

I was first shown this car shortly before it went on sale in 2003 and I’m afraid I was at a loss. The designer was standing there, all wide-eyed and expectant, but I simply couldn’t find the right word. “Amazing” is what I usually use when presented with a hostess’s terrible pudding or an actor’s disastrous new play. But “amazing” didn’t really work with the Conti. “It’s awful,” I said.

And it was. I’d never seen a car that managed to be both bland and ostentatious at the same time. And there were some details that looked plain wrong. But still, the styling was a triumph compared with the way it drove. It may have had a mighty W12 engine but there was absolutely no sense that it was doing anything that a much less wasteful V8 couldn’t achieve. It was just there, like a big piece of  Georgian plumbing, turning fuel into absolutely nothing interesting at all.

What’s more, the four-wheel-drive system removed any sense of finesse and the suspension settings had plainly been chosen by June Whitfield. Well,  not necessarily by June herself, but someone of her ilk: someone with no interest in cars whatsoever. As a result, the Continental GT felt like a big, useless, thirsty waste of leather and aluminium. I hated it and said so.

Then came the customers. Bentley gave one to Mrs Queen and was probably hoping for James Bond. But what it ended up with was Jay-Z, Mario Balotelli, Paris Hilton, Xzibit and Steven Gerrard. A shocking array of people you would not like to have round for dinner.

Small wonder the depreciation was so bad. A new Bentley would look good in your exclusive gated community. But the entire appeal of this car was wanton consumption, so nobody wanted to be seen dead in a used one. Which is why you could, and still can, pick up barely run-in examples for about 6p.

As the years crawled by, Bentley took the cash from its increasingly terrible customer base and spent it on a raft of technical improvements. None of which did anything to change my mind.

There was, for instance, the Continental Supersports version, which was intended to be a pointy racer. But it was no such thing. Because you can’t make a go-kart if you start out with a lorry. It was, frankly, an idiotic car.

But still Bentley kept on going. And last year announced a new, lighter, more economical V8 GT. It was just as fast as the W12 but did 10 more miles to the gallon. And it made a dirty sound when you accelerated. And I liked it.

Of course, the customer base didn’t. Because footballers, rappers and the stars of various sex tapes are not given to saying, “Please may I have the second- most-expensive Rolex?” Or, “Yes, I like this hideous house very much. Especially the fake pillars. But do you have anything that is easier to heat?”

So, to keep them happy, Bentley has fiddled with the W12 version to create what it is calling the GT Speed. The suspension is tweaked, as is the twin-turbo W12, so that now, with a flat-out maximum of 205mph, it is the fastest Bentley yet. Plus, according to my televisual colleague James May, who recently took one rallying on Top Gear, it’s the best.

He’s wrong, of course. It isn’t as good as the V8. But I will admit he does have a point. First, unlike almost any other fast car, it rides properly, steering a hitherto unexplored path between the wallowy detachment of a Rolls-Royce and the youthful and sometimes misjudged harshness of a BMW, Jaguar or Aston Martin.

Then there’s the gearbox. Other manufacturers are moving at breakneck pace towards the double-clutch systems that make it easier to pass EU emissions legislation. But Bentley has stuck with a traditional automatic, albeit with eight speeds.

Don’t think, however, that because it’s soft and fitted with a slushmatic that it’s a slouch. I put my foot down on day one and, so savage was the acceleration, I never put it all the way down again. This is a blindingly quick car.

And it’s good value too. The new Aston Martin Vanquish is nudging £200,000. The Bentley is just £151,100. Not cheap. But for what you get, not bad at all. Certainly it comes with a lot of toys. And while many of the buttons and knobs are handcrafted and chromed and very Bentleyish, the fact is that behind the scenes, it’s pure Volkswagen. Which is another way of saying, “It’ll all work.”

Sprinkle into the mix four seats, a commodious boot and a body that isn’t as big as it seems and you end up with a pretty compelling car. So here comes the U-turn. In the past you would see someone cruise by in a Continental and you would think, “You bought that because you know nothing about cars, you are not interested in driving and you wanted simply to tell your friends at the golf club you have a Bentley.”

Now, though, things are different, because if I see someone cruise by in a Continental GT Speed, I shall think, “There’s a chance you bought that because it’s a bloody good car.”

 

Verdict ★★★★☆

For people with as much money as sense.

 

Factfile

Bentley Continental GT Speed

Release date:
On sale now
Price:
£151,100
Engine:
5998cc, W12, twin turbo
Power:
617bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque:
590 lb ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission:
8-speed automatic
Acceleration:
0-60mph in 4sec
Top speed:
205mph
Fuel:
19.5mpg (combined)
CO2:
338g/km
Road tax band:
M (£1,030 for first year)
Dimensions:
L 4806mm, W 2227mm, H 1404mm

 


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