2022 Bentley Continental GT Speed First Drive - An unlikely Nostradamus

The new Bentley Continental GT Speed may be helping close out a golden age of big gas engines with equally big personality, but its legacy is more than just power and profligacy. On paper, it's an amply over-endowed love letter to one of the British automaker's enduring successes, with over 100,000 W12 engines built since 2003. In practice, though, the GT Speed paints an unusually prescient picture of what we might expect from Bentley's fast-approaching future.

It's more than fair to say the Continental GT has been a huge success for Bentley. While the shapely coupe may no longer be the company's best-seller – overtaken there by the Bentayga SUV – across its three generations it has helped shift the British marque's reputation away from mere old-school luxury.

The 2019 Continental GT W12 demonstrated it was still the benchmark grand tourer, pairing effortless power with style. Come the 2020 V8 version, meanwhile, and Bentley showed the Continental had plenty of dynamic credibility, too. Now, the 2022 Continental GT Speed is here to blend them both: a fitting flagship as the British automaker approaches the end of a long era.

You can have the GT Speed in coupe or convertible form, and as always the scope for customization is effectively endless. Beyond Bentley's standard and extended range of paints, cabin trims from wood and leather through to carbon fiber and knurled metal, and an optional carbon fiber exterior styling pack, the talented Mulliner team can pretty much deliver anything your imagination – and wallet – can stretch to.

Some things do consistently set the GT Speed apart from its Continental siblings. The special 22-inch wheels – in a choice of three finishes – are most obvious, but there's Speed badging on the front fenders, dark mesh for the grilles, twin oval tailpipes, and a new sports sill design. Inside, more Alcantara has been used, with a special Speed color split and matching embroidery, Speed tread plates, and a Speed fascia badge.

Nobody does cabins quite like Bentley, and it's hard to find flaw with the Continental's accommodations. Yes, some of the tech may be borrowed from Audi and Porsche, but it's been beautifully integrated. All the switchgear feels solid and premium, and some of Bentley's more technical finishes – like 3D carved wood and steam-molded leather – are legitimately exciting at a time when the palette of luxury can seem somewhat staid.

Bentley's twelve-cylinder engine is an increasing rarity among even performance cars, too. 6.0-liters in size and twin-turbocharged, in GT Speed form it offers 650 horsepower from 5,000-6,000 rpm, and a hefty 664 lb-ft of torque from just 1,500 rpm up. As a result, 0-60 mph arrives in a mere 3.5 seconds in the coupe or 3.6 seconds in the convertible, and both Continental rocket on to a 208 mph top speed.

It's combined with the same ZF eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive as the other Continental GT models, though with some Speed refinements. Gearshifts are apparently twice as fast in Sport mode – not that they ever seemed laggardly before, quite frankly – and the car pushes more power, more of the time, to the rear axle.

The Bentley V8 may bring a sense of urgency, but it can't quite live up to this twelve-cylinder's personality. The W12 throbs and gurgles like tectonic judders through rich custard, gutters from the sports exhaust tamped down in Comfort mode but released to frolic like the unruly upper classes in Sport.

Other fast cars, when mechanically coaxed into more aggressive performance, tend to lose their ability to cosset as well. It's easier, after all, to shift the whole experience: everything gets firmer, every drive mode gets louder. What actually sets the Continental GT Speed apart so noticeably is, ironically, how familiar its Comfort and Bentley modes are.

Stick to those, and the big two-door remains the superlative grand tourer. Compliant and smooth; almost magically divorced from subpar asphalt. Power comes in lavish waves, its well seemingly endless, while the steering has heft but not undue weight. For a cross-country road trip there's little more compelling this side of a Gulfstream.

Bentley's changes have been primarily focused on the Sport mode, and it's there you unlock the GT Speed's upgraded talents and toys. The new all-wheel steering and recalibrated all-wheel drive combine with the electronic limited slip differential; the result is a more agile shifting of power from front to rear, and from side to side.

At the same time, there's the automaker's first implementation of drive mode-based ESC. Rather than a single set of overarching electronic controls that apply to each mode, the settings in Sport are dialed in for more enthusiasm. Or, with a short press of the ESC button, you can switch it off altogether; this is a Bentley you can drift, or do donuts in.

It all requires some further recalibration, this time of your own expectations and senses. The GT Speed never feels like a small car, or a light one; this is no Miata or even a 911, doing its level best to hide either scale or presence. That you can provoke it into going sideways, then, isn't so much the surprise as how manageable that actually is.

It's not that the limits aren't clear, they're just far, far beyond what you'd expect for a $274,900 luxury coupe or a $302,400 convertible. And, like a big animal, the GT Speed responds best to determined, confident inputs, particularly when it comes to the prodigious brakes. Bentley's standard iron anchors aren't exactly undersized on the regular Continental GT, but the GT Speed offers a carbon-ceramic package and they feel positively planet-stopping.

Bentley could've brought me to a track to show me all this, but instead it gave Comiso Air Base perhaps its most unlikely reinvention as the strangest autocross I've ever experienced. The sprawling facility on the island of Sicily began its life in 1935 and played a key role in the Second World War; was reborn as a nuclear missile base during the Cold War and played host to 112 Cruise missiles alongside 2,000 military personnel and their families; and then saw a third epoch as home to Kosovar refugees in the late 1990s.

For the past few decades, though, Comiso has been abandoned. What once was all crisp concrete and military precision has been softened with trees and vines; the contours of the facility blurred with neglect.

Having scythed a path through nature's attempts at reclamation, Bentley scored a course that snaked between the residential buildings and the nuclear silos; cut through the echoing garages and skirted the empty swimming pool. On domestic-scale streets, liberated from the fear of pedestrians stepping out or other cars appearing, the GT Speed could demonstrate exactly what its creators have achieved here.

It felt, for want of a better description, as though I'd stumbled into a Bond movie, or maybe a new addition to the Bourne series. Suddenly forced to give chase through a city, the incongruity of the GT Speed's howling sports exhaust reverberating off the looming walls and buildings that made the idea of slipping off course seem a whole lot more fraught than losing your line on a race track.

My takeaway – beyond the fact that I will be asking for an abandoned air base for my next birthday – was that the GT Speed is no one-trick pony, only good primarily for a straight line. Sport mode exposes the sum of Bentley's changes here, in the unmistakable way a 5,011 pound coupe can suddenly hustle. Whether, in fact, that's around a corner or when going sideways.

Bentley's gasoline days, of course, are numbered now. Rather than dragging its heels and trying to ignore the transition to electrification, the company opted to embrace it with a far more aggressive plan than most in the luxury vehicle space. Come 2025 we should see the first all-electric Bentley; by 2030, electrified will be the status quo.

It'd be reasonable to ask, then, why Bentley has clearly put so much effort into the new Continental GT Speed and its lavishly oversized gas engine. Beyond, that is, the fact that it clearly has an audience for outlandishly potent luxury cars, and one with deep pockets.

What I can't help but think about, though, is that the GT Speed's true triumph is in how it overcomes weight. Not by stripping it out, or curtailing performance to accommodate it, but by making it an inherent part of the overall experience. That's important, because EVs are generally heavy beasts.

Bentley's future electric models won't have a twelve cylinder gas engine under the hood, but they will have sizable battery packs: that's an inevitability, if the automaker is to deliver on range and yet still include the plentiful creature comforts it's known for. So while the drivetrain may be different, and the weight located in different places, the lessons learned here seem directly relevant to making hyper-luxury EVs that can still be considered drivers' cars.

For all its heft, for all its artisan detailing, the 2022 Continental GT Speed doesn't lumber, it dances. And though the future for Bentley may be changing dramatically, and very soon, the steps it has choreographed here feel just as relevant in the coming electric age.