Slicing through California's Central Valley at 80mph in the Bentley Continental GT Speed Convertible, with Gould's 1970 recording of Mozart's Piano Sonata No 11 emanating from the Naim audio system (a $7,300 option), a driver can appreciate not just the voices of the piano and its player, but a third and even fainter element: the soft, rhythmic creaking of the folding chair that Gould used during concerts and recording sessions.
Sound quality of this sort from a car stereo is one thing. Sound quality of this sort in a vehicle that can vault from a standstill to 60mph in 4.1 seconds, on to a top speed of 205mph, is another matter entirely.
The Speed Convertible is the newest member of Bentley’s Continental GT line, and by its maker’s watch the fastest four-seat convertible in production. It retains the same brutish yet civilised shape first unveiled at the Continental GT's Paris motor show debut in 2002, but has received numerous enhancements, primarily beneath the bonnet.
There lurks an upgraded version of the W12 engine that has powered Continental GTs – and, for a brief but glorious time, Volkswagen Group peers like the sleeper VW Phaeton sedan – for a decade. In Speed tune, the twin-turbocharged 6-litre unit generates 616 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque, reflecting a not-so-insignificant increase from the already staggering 567hp and 516lb-ft of the base 12-cylinder GT. (A V8-powered GT, introduced in 2012, generates 500hp and 487lb-ft of torque.)
Tarmac-chewing hardware like this deserves a suitably long, varied road trip: San Francisco to Los Angeles and back, taking in the inland valley’s Interstate 5 and the coast-hugging Highway 1. A preproduction model dressed in a demure shade of metallic brown called Dark Cashmere was presented for the drive, its key fob emblazoned with a flying “B”.
A first, tentative foray into downtown San Francisco was less than enjoyable, given the usual mix of distracted motorists and oblivious pedestrians, but a crucial confidence-building exercise. Driving a car with a suggested retail price of $241,425 ($270,215 as tested), a state of relaxed assertiveness is preferable to a state of abject fear.
Roughly 100 miles south of the city, there was opportunity to produce some awe. With the eight-speed ZF automatic transmission in Drive mode, the Bentley is whisper-quiet at highway speeds, the W12 loafing along at 1,200rpm in top gear. But depress the “B” on the sharply knurled shift knob, pull the lever into Sport and a deep, rasping burble from the exhaust indicates that the erstwhile boulevardier has transformed into a very different animal.
Pull over. Wait for the horizon to clear. Plant the drilled alloy accelerator pedal into the optional $400 deep-pile carpet. In the time it takes to blurt out one’s expletive or prayer of choice, the speed limit has been obliterated. The car is just getting warmed up, and it is abundantly clear that the bulk of its potential will go untapped, leading to fantasies of its unrestricted, Autobahn-storming performance. Paul Williams, Bentley's director of powertrain engineering, was called on to share some thoughts about the Speed at speed.
“It's very planted, dead stable,” he said. “At 150, 160, you can almost take your hands off the wheel.” Asked about top-down performance, Williams was equally matter of fact. “You can do over 200 miles per hour with the hood down. We engineer it to do that, and sign off on those criteria.”
Daydreams of European superhighways aside, the Bentley made swift and pleasant work of I-5 South. With the cloth lid off, wind noise was little more than a soft ruffle. Yellow-petalled wildflowers blurred by the roadside. Sunlight glinted off a glove box finished in deeply lacquered dark fiddleback eucalyptus. A wondrous mechanism built into the heated and cooled, hand-stitched leather driver’s seat kneaded back muscles from sacrum to shoulder blade. Topping up at a watering hole on arrival in Los Angeles, the Speed revealed that it was averaging about 17 miles per gallon, a figure that would drop to 15mpg by journey's end.
After the beeline straightaway of I-5, a question remained: How would the two-and-three-quarter tonne machine cope with more technical terrain? The following afternoon, a high-altitude detour through Angeles National Forest provided an answer.
Intuitively, a car this big, this heavy, this plush would seem ill suited to whipping around curves edged with sheer drop-offs. Yet the harder it was pushed, the harder the Bentley gripped, its all-wheel drive 40:60 front-to-rear torque split rooting the 21in Pirelli P Zero tires to the road, its Electronic Stability Programme shaving off any rough edges and all the while, its self-leveling air suspension keeping things on a reassuringly even keel.
The sun hammered down, the W12's bronchial cackle echoed off the canyon walls and a nagging sensation that the whole scenario was somehow rather wrong only made it feel all the more illicitly right. Could it have been more right if the paddle shifters were mounted to the steering wheel rather than the column, so that while slaloming downhill through the twists the driver could squeeze off a downshift rather than fumbling with the directional signal stalk? Perhaps. But this is grasping at straws.
The next morning, after a bite to eat in Solvang, a picturesque Danish hamlet in the Santa Ynez Valley, it was time for the Conti GT Speed Convertible to go coastal. A few taps of the multimedia screen summoned Judas Priest's 1988 masterwork, Ram It Down, from the CD changer stashed in the glove box. The pipes growled hungrily, a heavy metal war cry erupted from the speakers and, as it barrelled toward the Pacific, the Bentley was once again utterly, entirely in its element.
To read about TopGear’s quest to breach 200mph in the Continental GT Speed Convertible, pick up the April 2013 issue of the magazine.
Vital stats: 2014 Bentley Continental GT Speed Convertible
- Base price: $241,425, including $2,725 destination charge
- As tested: $270,215
- EPA fuel economy: 12mpg city, 20mpg highway
- Drivetrain: 6-litre W12 engine; eight-speed automatic transmission
- Major options: Carbon-ceramic brakes ($13,875); Naim for Bentley Premium Audio System ($7,300); adaptive cruise control ($2,730); rear-view camera ($1,190); massage seats and seat ventilation to front seats ($930)
A nagging sensation that the whole scenario was somehow rather wrong only made it feel all the more illicitly right.