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How nimble can a Bentley Continental GT Speed really be?
Big car on small road should be a recipe for disaster. Instead it’s delicious.
The Antrim Coast road doesn’t really go anywhere. It wends its way from the ferry port of Larne, about 40mins north-west from Belfast, up along the northern coast of Northern Ireland to tourist trap central – the Giant’s Causeway and eventually to the golfing town of Portrush. Once you get up past Ballycastle (a gorgeous fishing village from where you can see Scotland on a clear day) it’s a nightmare of tourist buses and impatient bikers trying to live out their Joey Dunlop fantasies.
Head back the road a ways though, back down south east past the tony village of Cushendall, and you have the best part of the Antrim Coast Road. It’s an unusual road in that you can’t really turn off it once you’re on it. From Larne to Cushendall the road really does cling to the precipitous coast and tall cliffs and headlands have prevented the construction of more than a couple of tributary roads that lead inland. The trick is to get there early…
Look at the map, or better yet look at the road itself and you will instantly think it to be pure hot hatch territory. A VW Golf GTI would be mega along this road. A Fiat Abarth 500 hilarious. A Ford Focus RS utterly unstoppable. Just as well I’ve brought a Bentley then.
The Continental GT Speed is not a car that springs instantly to mind when you think of ideal vehicles for Irish roads. Where the tarmac is mostly narrow and often slippery, the thought of piloting an enormous, enormously expensive bright red Grand Tourer should, probably, be furthest from your mind. So why was I here? Simple – the car was mine for a few days, the road is not far from my house and it’s about as close as you’ll get to the Cote D’Azur’s corniche in my neck of the woods.
Now, you have to remember that neither Ireland nor Northern Ireland are wealthy countries, and driving an expensive car is apt to get you stared at, not necessarily with approval. The combination of red paint, the sun glinting off the turned aluminium dashboard and the incessant bellowing coming from under the football-pitch-sized bonnet had me up and out early, then, to experience the road before the disapproving glancers got up and about.
About that bellowing – it was coming from no ordinary engine. Bentley has been using the mighty W12 engine (which has, since it was created in 2002, essentially been two Golf VR6 engines on a common crankshaft) for more than a decade, but it shows little signs of its age other than some antediluvian Co2 figures. In standard form, it’s good for 550hp+ but this was not a standard car, this was the Speed. That’s a Bentley nameplate whose roots stretch back to Barnato, Birkin and W.O. himself and it’s no affectation. Ronseal-like, the Speed does what it says on the tin. Mind you, 635hp will do that for you. Yup, 635 horses, or slighty more than the epochal McLaren F1 had when launched in 1993. OK, so the Bentley weighs a bit more than the McLaren (a ‘bit’ meaning about two and a half tonnes, all-up) but that’s still a more than impressive figure.
It allows you to overlook such things as the old-fashioned infotainment package (no USBs nor Apple CarPlay here…) and back seats that are only suitable for uncomplaining amputees. It also allows you to get this 2.5-tonne car from standstill to 62mph in 4.1secs.
That bald fact does little to describe how the Bentley goes about its performance, which I can only liken to being struck from behind by a 1920s express train travelling at full wallop. It’s not just the acceleration, it’s not just the addictive, wonderful noise (which sounds like an afterburning jet engine being thrown into an exploding bass guitar factory) it’s the sheer weight of the thing, the sheer impressiveness that all that weight, that grandeur, that country-house on wheels can be made to move like that.
You’ll be expecting the performance on the Antrim Coast Road to be all straight-line, no cornering, right? Like an eighties F1 turbo car, go like hell with the wheels pointing ahead, brake like a maniac for a corner, trickle around and then go like hell again? I was expecting that, but the Bentley confounded me. The steering, which you expect to feel light and detached is actually bursting with feel, sensation and feedback. Turn into a sharp corner at high speed and, instead of Audi-style plough-on understeer, you get poise, precision and actually surprisingly delicate handling. You expect a blunderbuss, but you actually get a rapier. A rapier fired from a bazooka, it’s true but still…
Up through the still-abed villages of Glenarm and Carnlough and the road opens out for a bit, and the hemming-in effect of the cliff faces changes from claustrophobia to sounding board, reflecting the noise of that mighty 12-pot back at you. For a car supposedly best suited to either Autobahn or Aix-en-Provence, the GT Speed proves itself astonishingly adept as an Antrim road warrior.
Time to turn around, time to slow down, time to drink in the glorious sea views out toward Scotland. Chastened, the Bentley settles down from world’s priciest hot hatch to comfy boulevardier. Quite a road. Quite a car. Quite an unexpected combination.
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