There’s something eerie yet serene about driving through Joshua Tree National Park in the desert a few hours east of Los Angeles. It’s vast and quiet, and apart from the occasional work truck or tourist-driven crossover, the stunning roads are typically empty and provide some of the best views in the country. It’s a mix of mountains and valleys, sand and weird greenery, all with a layer of heat shimmer added on top. As I quietly cruise past rows of beautiful cacti with my friends in the car and the windows down, it’s easy to forget that I’m in a $346,260 Bentley with 650 horsepower.
To simply evaluate the 2022 Continental GT Speed, which lays claim to being Bentley’s fastest and more luxurious car ever (at least until the Speed-based Mulliner W12 comes out), I could’ve just stuck to its natural habitat of swanky Beverly Hills just a few miles from my apartment — but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Beyond just the scenery being incredible, the desert roads around Joshua Tree are spectacular, too, perfectly smooth with a mix of meandering sweepers, long straights and tight corners. My weekend trip turns out to be the perfect adventure with the Speed, which — surprise, surprise — is phenomenal.
The Speed’s twin-turbo 6.0-liter W12 engine has been boosted by 24 hp compared to the normal W12-powered Continental, while torque remains the same at 664 pound-feet. Not too shabby. Bentley also gave the Speed’s eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission quicker shifts, the engine and transmission have new calibration for a broader powerband, and the exhaust system is louder on startup and more characterful when downshifting.
The Continental shares its launch-control system with Porsche, which is one of the easiest to use and one of the most intense to experience. Hold the brake with your left foot and stomp the gas with your right foot, and the Speed revs to 5,500 rpm. Press your head and body against the seat — you don’t want to get whiplash — release the brake, and the car leaps forward with ferocity. There’s barely a chirp from the tires as the Bentley reaches 60 mph in under 3.5 seconds, and it will do it over and over and over. Absurd acceleration is available in every gear and at any speed, just tap the throttle and suddenly you’re the king of the passing lane. Speed is an apt descriptor for this car, especially as it’ll hit a v-max of 208 mph, but its actual sense of speed is a bit off. The Continental is so cosseting and easy to drive fast that I’m constantly checking my speedometer to make sure I’m not deep in triple digits.
The Speed moniker describes far more than just straight-line performance. Despite weighing more than 5,000 pounds, this Continental absolutely hustles through corners thanks to a number of Speed-specific upgrades. New for the Speed are an electronic limited-slip differential, rear-wheel steering that turns the back wheels up to 4 degrees and a tweaked all-wheel-drive system that can send up to 93% of torque to just the rear wheels. The Speed also comes standard with Bentley’s three-chamber air suspension, adaptive dampers and 48-volt active anti-roll system. The suspension has a max ride height mode that’s equally as good for getting into steep driveways as it is for navigating remote dirt roads when you take a couple wrong turns. Ask me how I know.
Further helping the Speed disguise its weight are available 22-inch wheels wearing Pirelli P Zero summer tires, sized 275/35 up front and 315/30 in back. My test car also has the optional carbon-ceramic brake setup, which are the largest brakes on sale. The 17.3-inch front discs are clamped by 10-piston calipers, while the rear discs measure 16.1 inches and have 4-piston calipers. Bentley says the ceramics save 73 pounds compared with the standard brakes, and there’s none of the squeaking normally associated with carbon-ceramic brakes on road cars, but the brakes can be a bit hard to modulate smoothly.
All of this adds up to create a truly astonishing performer. The Speed’s steering is light and sharper than a normal Continental’s, there’s virtually no body roll or dive under braking and those huge tires provide seemingly endless grip. Linking tight, complex corners together is effortless, and the Speed never loses its composure. That doesn’t mean this big coupe can’t be playful, though. In Sport mode the Speed’s retuned stability control allows for increased amounts of slip, and you can turn it all the way off if you dare. It’s easy to achieve controlled slides in the Speed, and this big coupe is seriously satisfying to throw into a corner.
Only the true Bentley heads out there will notice the Speed’s styling differences compared to a normal Continental GT, and my car’s spec is about as subtle as a Bentley can get. The Speed has turbine-like wheel designs, darker grille finishes, new side skirts and some Speed badges — and that’s it. My test car adds on a $12,245 carbon-fiber styling package with additional splitter and diffuser elements, but with the blacked-out trim and deep Midnight Emerald paint, this Speed flies under the radar. Personally, I’d go for a bright purple color with chrome grille mesh, a red interior and knurled aluminum trim, but I like to stand out.
At least this Continental has an interesting matching interior. The Speed is offered with a multitude of three-tone color schemes that mix diamond-quilted leather and luxe Alcantara, and this one has Cumbrian green and Portland grey upholstery accented by cream stripes and trim. The standard piano black dashboard finish is pretty tame, but there’s more than enough brightwork and ambient lighting to keep the cabin interesting. The Continental’s highly adjustable seats have massage functions and are supremely comfortable, and the back seat is spacious enough that my friends didn’t complain a single time. That air suspension soaks up any road imperfections, and the only audible perturbances that reach the cabin is a bit of noise from the tires. It’s an experience worthy of the pricetag, apart from the Porsche-derived infotainment tech that’s now a couple generations old.
By the time my weekend in the desert is over and I’ve luxuriously wafted back to LA, the Speed has averaged 18 mpg over nearly 600 miles, 3 mpg better than the EPA’s combined figure — and that includes many full-throttle launches and, ahem, speed. It’ll easily beat the 20-mpg highway estimate, too, thanks to a cylinder deactivation system that shuts down half the engine. Sure, the Continental’s huge tank and California’s always absurd gas prices lead to big winces from my face and my wallet every time I fill up, but it’s still much more efficient and useable as a road-trip car than I expected.
There are a couple things that throw a bit of a wrench in the Speed’s appeal: Namely, other Continental GT models. The new Continental GT S comes with the Speed’s wonderful suspension setup (though it misses out on the Speed’s other performance bits), and its 542-hp twin-turbo V8 engine is more satisfying to wring out and sounds even better than the Speed’s W12. Even a base V8 Continental is nearly as good to drive as this Speed, and it costs almost $100K less than the Speed’s $280,225 starting price. No one is really corner carving in a Continental GT anyway even though it’s fun as hell to do so, and the Speed’s straight-line performance is only half a second quicker than the V8’s, which is not enough to be that noticeable.
But at the end of the day, I still really want the Speed. It’s a lesson in making excess work even when it’s unnecessary. The Speed-specific chassis upgrades really do make a difference — its performance is mind-boggling no matter what type of driving you’re doing, yet the Speed is equally good at being calm and comfortable around town or on a long drive. I can’t think of another high-end car on sale that has the same breadth of ability, apart from Bentley’s own Flying Spur sedan. When you’re playing in the realm of $200,000 cars, people want the best of the best, and the Bentley Continental GT Speed is just that.
My biggest takeaway from this Joshua Tree getaway is that superluxury grand touring cars like the Bentley Continental GT Speed are some of the most compelling candidates for going fully electric. As much as I would miss the W12’s drama and engineering, a similarly powerful EV powertrain would improve the Bentley’s driving experience in basically every way. Noise aside, the W12’s power delivery is so smooth and effortless that it already feels akin to an EV, and going electric would make the Continental even quieter and comfier. Bentley’s first production EV will be out by the end of the decade, and I say bring it on.