Bentley's PR department is in an enviable position. While other automakers need to launch an entirely new model, or at the very least a major face lift in order to appear on our radar, all Volkswagen's ultra-luxury subsidiary needs to do is come up with another trim level and a different engine control unit for home-page visibility. Just take the 2013 Continental GT Speed convertible—which will make its in-the-metal debut at the Detroit auto show later in January—as an example. Oh, did we mention that Bentley claims it’s the fastest four-seat convertible in the world? That could have something to do with all this fuss, too.
Actually, the changes that set the Speed apart from the standard GT convertible are not trivial. The twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter W-12 engine not only emits an intoxicating soundtrack, it also makes a stunning 616 hp, up from 567. Maximum torque is 590 lb-ft, served up at a low 2000 rpm. That translates to ear-to-ear-grin–inducing levels of performance. Bentley claims that the sprint from zero to 60 mph takes a mere 4.1 seconds; 100 mph comes up in 9.7 seconds, comfortably below the 10-second marker that defines the performance elite. And another exclusive marker is surpassed as well: This convertible tops out at a lofty 202 mph. The W-12 is mated to a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic—a highly competent unit that can skip gears upon the driver’s request—featuring two column-mounted paddle shifters.
The Speed version also sets the internal hierarchy straight again. While the standard W-12 is quicker than the recently launched V-8–powered Continental on paper, real-life performance seems to be superior in the GT V-8. The Speed, by contrast, will enjoy a comfortable margin between itself and entry-level eight-cylinder. By the same token, it also guzzles a lot more gas: Bentley is estimating fuel-economy numbers of 12 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway. At this price point, hoping for average consumption in the middle-teens probably isn’t a big deal, but the Speed will require more-frequent refueling than the V-8 will, and that‘s an annoyance on long journeys. Thankfully, the tank holds a generous 24 gallons.
Given this convertible's claimed 5500-pound curb weight (that’s 385 pounds heavier than the coupe), the superior performance is all the more remarkable. Yes, Bentley took out some weight when the second generation of the Continental was launched in 2010, but only so much can be done to lighten a platform that’s shared with Volkswagen’s fantastically over-engineered Phaeton. (Internally, this model is referred to as a very major face lift; budget restraints kept the brand from creating an entirely new vehicle for the second-gen Conti.
Hustling over tight country roads is not the Continental's preferred domain, but when asked, it can go through the motions impeccably, while not necessarily gracefully. The suspension is stiffer and 0.4-inch lower than in the standard Continental, and the stability-control system is reprogrammed to allow more slip and earlier re-application of torque after an intervention. And, importantly, the car rides on high-performance tires and massive 21-inch wheels. Just don't expect miracles from this platform with a heavy W-12 engine up front. The all-wheel-drive system is rear-biased with just 40 percent of the power routed to the front wheels. All that said, ambitious drivers likely will experience considerable understeer and faster-than-normal brake wear.
Thanks to: Car and Driver