Majestic cruiser or gentleman’s racer? Our man slips behind the wheel of the most powerful Bentley yet and hits the Riviera.
In the hills behind Nice sits the small village of Saint-Paul de Vence which, in the 1940s and ‘50s, was home to a buzzing community of artists. When away from the canvas, they could be found sipping pastis or tucking into a magret de canard on the sprawling terrace of their local hostelrie and bistro, La Colombe d’Or. Soon, La Colombe d’Or became a discrete destination for those in the know, not so much for its comfort food or comfortable beds, but for what hangs on the walls; Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Matisse – paintings accepted from the artists as payment for room and board before they became the marquee names of 20th century art.
It’s the kind of place you go to make a statement: not only am I wealthy, I also have style. The Bentley Continental GT Speed is the ideal motor to arrive there in.
A distinguished bonnet elegantly hides an almighty, road-shattering muscle. Its 6.0 W12 engine produces 616bhp and, most impressively, 590 lb-ft of torque. It’s like the Bentley boys have strapped their Regency chest of drawers and Louis XVI chaise longue to Usain Bolt’s back.
I pick the car up from Bentley’s Monaco workshop on the rue de la Turbie above Cap d’Ail. It was a hairpin on this road, just metres into my journey, where Princess Grace met her untimely end. Given this car’s potential for arriving at corners far too quickly, it’s at the forefront of my mind.
The GT Speed is not only the most powerful production Bentley ever, it’s the quickest by some margin. Zero to 62mph in 4.2 seconds, which is Lamborghini quick, in a four-seater weighing 2,350kg. Top speed is 205mph. That’s 3mph faster than the latest Gallardo LP 570-4 Superleggera, and the Ferrari 458 Italia.
As a result, the trip to La Colombe d’Or doesn’t take long. The Bentley’s understated brand of grandeur is well-suited here, where Yves Montand and Simone Signoret threw their 1951 wedding reception, and where David Niven called home for a spell.
I wonder how much the art on the dining room walls must be worth. The Miro above my table alone, the Maitre d’ informs me, is valued at £4m. I’m sure the paintings are alarmed, but if one were to bash the waiters over the head, what would stop you scoring the greatest art heist in history? And with its spacious boot, four seats and eye-watering performance, the GT Speed would be the perfect getaway car.
Maybe another time. For now, the boot of the Bentley is free of Chagalls and shotguns. Instead I take a more leisurely trip to Portofino, just under three hours away on the Italian Riviera. Once off the A12 autoroute you hug the Mediterranean coast, passing through pretty villages and harbour towns, holding your breath as you beep the horn around blind rock faces and tight switchbacks. The vivid blue sea, glorious belle époque villas, and glittering yachts seem designed to distract your attention from the road.
It is grand prix weekend 150km down the coast in Monaco. Portofino’s peaceful harbour offers the ears a little respite before the screaming rasp of Formula One cars take to Monte Carlo’s Beau Rivage. It’s my destination after lunch, with the promise of some after-race action aboard Flavio Briatore’s yacht. Despite its discrete lines, the GT Speed steals many envious glances. The steep rake of the walnut dash and glovebox is reminiscent of the old ‘80s Continental. The chrome buttons for air vents are like trumpet valves. The leather is swooping and two-tone. Dispelling the antique illusion is its Naim audio system, commanded by a large LCD touch screen, which is a snip at £5,000.
Slot the eight-speed transmission down to “sport” mode and the engine’s base note becomes much more demonic. The car turns from serene to boisterous, like the moment after the whistle sounds at the Oxford-Cambridge boat race.
Paddle shifting is the self-catering option, and it doesn’t feel right, pulling at these oversized levers at the wheel. This is meant to be a four-wheeled Hotel de Paris. Some things are best left to the private butler. Instead, I suggest cruising in “drive” and the normal engine setting, enjoying a squeeze of torque when you need it. Technically there’s enough of it to drag an A380 out onto a runway.
Though the handling is impressive for such a heavy car, it’s still a heavy car (despite Bentley slicing 35kg off its kerb-weight). The car’s power and solidity are reassuring, but the chassis doesn’t inspire a huge amount of confidence. To help matters, at over 95mph a little spoiler pops up at the back or you can summon it yourself at the touch of a button. The car looks better with it down: like solar panels on Blenheim Palace, it brings benefits but it seems out-of-character.
Ultimately, this is not a supercar. This is a luxury coupe (or convertible, which is surely the preferred option, and available later this year) and that’s the way it should be driven. It’s designed to waft. It does so better than any other two door car I can think of. Special window seals and double glazing keep road and wind noise to an absolute minimum, creating a very refined cabin.
Refined is not the word you would use to describe the scene on Briatore’s 63-metre trawler-expedition style yacht, Force Blue. The Gumball 3000 rally is in town and the fun-loving supercar owners – including David Hasselhoff, who has ditched Knight Rider’s KITT for an Audi R8 – are reveling at a wild party. DJs LMFAO are performing a riotous set, with front-man Redfoo standing on tables, pouring vodka down peoples necks. There are naked bodies, break dancing, giant inflatable zoo animals, aerial acrobatics, champagne spraying; a standard night at Chez Flav, no doubt.
Once again, the Bentley looks at home on the quayside. It’s something of a social chameleon, at one with both the nouveau riche hell-raisers and the La Colombe d’Or’s more tasteful environment.
Pick your stereotype: the eccentric tweed-wearing aristo; the perma-tanned Riviera playboy; the blinged-up sheik; the footballer looking to add to his collection of supercars; Paris Hilton in a pink one. All of them want a big purring engine. If they’re going to have a Bentley, they want it to be the best Bentley. And that’s exactly what the GT Speed is.
La Colombe d’Or costs from €250 a night; 06570 Saint-Paul de Vence, Alpes-Maritimes +33 4 93 32 80 02; la-colombe-dor.com
THE BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT SPEED
6.0-litre twin-turbo W12
8-speed automatic with paddle shift