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Story and Photos by Jack Baruth

Call us unfortunate; we missed the official press introduction of Bentley’s not-entirely-new-for-2008 Continental GT Speed. In doing so, we threw away a chance to drive the car around Spain at the kind of astonishing velocities the Spanish police are reportedly happy to permit. Perhaps we missed a bit more besides, judging from the suspiciously dreamy reviews given the car by The Press As A Whole. There may have been wine, and cigars, and even Bentley-branded vinyl windbreakers. A lack of complimentary windbreakers (in the sense that they were free, not in the sense that they would, in any way, flatter the wearer’s appearance) would not stop us from obtaining this vital story for Dubspeed Driven readers, however. We’d simply pose as Bentley customers and attend one of the customer preview events held across the country, perhaps sneaking in a quick test drive in the process. And so it was that, after driving onto the grounds of a small Ohio airport, showing our credentials, and walking into the private jet hangar rented for the occasion, we came face-to-face with The Ice Sculpture. This massive item of hilariously poor taste had been carefully fashioned into a winged “B”, all the better to shock, we suppose. For what seemed like minutes, we stood and started at it in disbelief.

“It’s an ice sculpture,” said a helpful Bentley salesperson.

“That explains the ice, and also the sculpturing,” we replied. A stunning young model, with the chirpy voice to match her perfect good looks, asked if we would like to have some Grey Goose poured into the top of the sculpture, which would direct the flow to one of two glasses positioned on either side of the “Bentley” logo. “No thanks, it’s a bit too… Guns and Roses,” was the best reply we could muster. All around us were typical – almost stereotypical – product displays: watches, tailored clothing (from Hong Kong, alas), and various other “luxury” items, each with its own group of chirpy models.

“Would you like a test drive?” was the next question.

“What, and miss the chance to look at some diamond-covered Breitling watches, examine the interior of the Bombardier jet helpfully parked inside for the occasion, and trade witty banter with a disturbingly pneumatic woman holding sample iPhones? Yes, let’s take that drive.” There was something bizarre about the whole environment of the “exclusive preview”, as if Bentley were trying far too hard to associate their product with other accoutrements of the New Rich – but during our time at the show, we observed a woman offhandedly command her husband to purchase a $30,000 ladies’ watch, and from our temporary resting spot in the lounge of the Bombardier Flexjet we listened to a fellow event attendee chatting very knowledgeably with the staff about the various revisions of software in his Flexjet. So perhaps the whole environment wasn’t as quite as unlikely as it initially seemed. There really are people who spend their lives using their fractional jet shares to fly to the watch shop.

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Still, it was a relief to be out of the hangar and seated firmly behind the wooden steering wheel of the newest Bentley-by-Volkswagen. Full disclosure time: Your humble author is the owner of two Volkswagen Phaetons. The Phaeton is famous for having utterly flopped in the North American marketplace, but that’s a half-truth at best. The $80,000 V8 and $105,000 W12 variants with VW badges were showroom poison, but the Phaeton is a platform twin with the outrageously successful Bentley Continental GT, GTC, and Flying Spur, which deliver basically the same car with more leather and a pair of turbochargers for between $150 and $210K. The Volkswagen and Bentley are built together in VW’s “Transparent Factory” in Dresden; in a bit of irony, US-bound Bentleys are assembled in Bentley’s original Crewe facility, while UK-market cars are often assembled in Germany. The Bentley costs twice as much as the Volkswagen while offering perhaps ten or twenty percent more content – and, of course, the famous Bentley badge. That badge is enough to ensure that the Continental GT outsold the Phaeton more than ten to one during the 2004-2006 model years. What do you get for an additional hundred grand? We’d find out.

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We can tell you what you don’t get over and above a Phaeton: the electronics are virtually identical, right down to the lousy navigation system and disingenuous tire-pressure monitoring system, the dash layout is the same, the seats and convenience features work the same way, and the OBD-II port’s in the same place, ready to accept Ross-Tech’s VAG-COM aftermarket programmer. Unfortunately, our Bentley rep didn’t much fancy the idea of us plugging in the VAG-COM to read a few codes. The “Speed” model has a brand-new steering wheel to replace the converted Phaeton wheel which is standard in the other models, but other than that it was familiar territory as we pulled out onto the local access road, moved the shifter into the Tiptronic gate, selected first gear with a pull of the left paddle shifter, and floored the throttle.

There’s the difference. The six-hundred-horsepower W12 is a little slow to spool, but when the boost hits there’s no doubt that we are in the presence of one of history’s great engines. Within ten seconds we’re sweeping towards the one-hundred-and-twenty-mile-per-hour mark on the speedometer, and that, regrettably, is where the fun has to end, because we’re on the frozen roads of Ohio and not the sun-drenched byways of Spain. As in the Phaeton, the transmission automatically grabs the next gear at redline, with a slight slur and automatic throttle lift to protect the mighty W12 from turning the transmission into a twenty-thousand-dollar can of metal shavings. With a couple of passengers on board, the Continental weighs an even three tons, but in the face of this motor, mere weight seems as irrelevant to the forward thrust as it does when leaving the runway in, oh, a Bombardier Flexjet. Did I mention that $1.3 million dollars will secure you a one-tenth share in such an aircraft, ready to fly you and your spoiled brat children to your second home in Naples, Florida at just six hours’ notice? Somebody mentioned it to me, so I thought I’d mention it to you.

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When it’s time for the fun to come to an end, the brakes are grimly effective. Finally, and not exactly before time, Bentley has seen fit to end its braking anti-Americanism. Overseas, most Continental models come with proper fixed-caliper brakes, made by Brembo and also supplied on – you guessed it – the Euro-market Phaeton W12. Here in the United States, the Phaetons and Continentals make do with ATE sliding-caliper affairs, and as my recent Phaeton trackday at VIR demonstrated, they aren’t quite up to the job of repeatedly stopping the big cars from high speed. But the Continental GT Speed (is it called the CGT-S?) has the proper brakes. It would be reason enough to spend the additional forty grand for the model, if you couldn’t source the Brembos from overseas for $3500 and install them in an afternoon, which you can. No word on whether 50 Cent has bothered to upgrade the stoppers on his.

Speaking of the additional forty grand, it’s worth noting that the CGT-S has a few other upgrades from those sad, workaday $165,000 Continental GTs you see every day at the McDonald’s. The Speed is delivered in “Mulliner Driving Specification”, which means quilted leather everywhere and a few suspension upgrades to boot. The dashboard is rendered in a delightfully touchable turned-metal finish. The front airdam is angrier-looking. The wheels are even bigger. There’s a “Speed” logo on the doorsills to prove to your neighbors that your willingness to spend a buck exceeds theirs. And, of course, there’s that additional fifty horsepower. The Bentley Boys on site offered us a drive of a standard Continental GT just in case we weren’t certain that the extra fifty horsepower were noticeable, but the truth of the matter is that outside of Dubai, there won’t be any GT – versus – GT Speed drag races to settle the matter. Both cars are tremendously fast.

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In the corners, the Bentley drives exactly like a VW Phaeton. Cruising down the road, it’s just like a Phaeton. Truth is, the Bentley is just like a Phaeton pretty much any time you aren’t summoning the twin turbos to work. It has nifty cast-aluminum eyeball vents instead of the Phaeton’s nifty eucalyptus-wood sliding vent covers, and the abysmal nav system (did we mention how bad it is? Tell you what, why don’t you drive one for fifty thousand miles and see if you don’t start reflexively shaking any time the word “nav” is mentioned) says “Bentley Infotainment” instead of “Phaeton Infotainment”, albeit in the same font. The selection knobs have an additional chrome ring, and the window switches are chromed, and the shifter… yes, it’s chromed as well. None of this is a particular indictment, because the Phaeton was designed to be the world’s finest luxury car and it didn’t miss the mark by much, but if the reader is hoping for a solid declaration of distance between the Bentley brand of Viagra and the generic equivalent, we regretfully are unable to provide it. It’s a great car, and it’s very fast, and it’s very solid, but anybody who isn’t absolutely drowning in extra cash can go down to their local auto auction, buy a 2004 Phaeton W12 Premiere Edition for $37,500, enjoy the same basic experience, and pocket over one hundred and fifty grand.

With your savings, you could buy a Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG. We had the pleasure of driving one a few weeks before this test. It was the previous-generation car, and it was not the perfect equal of the Bentley in quietness and smoothness, but it did a couple of things the Bentley does not. To begin with, it punches you in the stomach the moment you hit the throttle; there’s no wait for a turbo to spool. The thrust of the engine is delivered more quickly, more loudly, and with a considerable amount of additional drama. The Mercedes is a thousand pounds lighter than the CGT-S and much the better for it. Without the corrupting influence of a few hundred horsepower delivered through the front axles, the steering is purer and more communicative. The interior isn’t close to the inhuman leather-lined perfection of the Continental, but it’s not bad, and of course the new CL coupe is much better in that respect than the one we drove.

Something’s gone a little wrong. Traditionally, Bentley has been a provider of often tragically flawed but tremendously characterful cars. The Mulsanne Turbo and its descendants are very far from perfect, even in Arnage T trim, but they feel genuine. They have mysterious rattles, fabulously non-ergonomic seating positions, and indecipherable air conditioning controls. Ettore Bugatti characterized them as “the world’s fastest lorries (working trucks)” and a traditional Bentley deliberately plays to that image.Unfortunately, the Continental GT Speed will never be mistaken for the world’s fastest lorry. Instead, it’s the world’s fastest Volkswagen, a 5300-pound Volkswagen with the power of three GTIs and the torque of nearly four base Rabbits. Our particular test example was not made in Dresden, but it preys upon the mind that it could have been, and it would be exactly the same.

At the conclusion of the drive, we returned to our 2006 Phaeton V8 and drove off, feeling very little difference until we floored the accelerator and received only three hundred and thirty-five horsepower in response. The navigation system shared the same stupid insistence that there was a fast-food restaurant in the middle of the street, the heated seats were just as hot despite having been activated by a chrome-deficient roller, and the view out the windshield felt equally majestic despite our having shelled out a trifling sixty-eight thousand dollars – hardly more than the additional cost of “Speed” specification.

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Of course, no heads turned as we crawled through rush-hour traffic. Instead of being important people in a Bentley, we were simply people in a VW. One look at the badge on the trunk and it was pitifully obvious that we were not the type of people who drink Grey Goose from ice sculptures while flashing a diamond-encrusted gold Breitling from the cuff of our custom-tailored (in Hong Kong, alas) shirt. What those pitying eyes failed to see, however, was that we had left the event with our own small dose of swag – a silver (tone) Bombardier Flexjet pen. It’s for sale; we’d also entertain the notion of trading, but you’ll need something sharp – like a nylon Bentley windbreaker, perhaps?

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Jack Baruth

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