FORTUNE:
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Building a better Bentley

Fortune's Sue Zesiger Callaway was devoted to her Bentley Continental GT. Till she met its slimmer, sleeker new cousin.

By Sue Zesiger Callaway, Fortune

bentley_2008.03.jpg
With 600 horsepower, the 2008 Speed is the fastest production Bentley ever.
BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT SPEED
PRICE: From $200,000
ENGINE: 600-hp W12
0--60 MPH: 4.3 seconds
TOP SPEED: 202 mph

(Fortune Magazine) -- Good relationships run on honesty, so it is high time I tell you the truth. For all the vehicular pleasures I have shared with you, dear reader, the one I have not is what I drive daily. The answer is ... a Bentley Continental GT.

Lest you think Fortune overpays me, know two facts: First, I bought it used. Second, in my priorities book, the best-spent bucks are on wheels -- meaning I'd sleep in a shack to drive a great car.

And that's what the Continental GT is. In fact, it is the greatest car I have ever owned. The GT is a rare, multitalented delight; it is all things to all me's. Sue the racer digs deep into its 552-horsepower W12 engine.

Sue the professional loves its understated elegance. (How many cars built today are beautiful enough to make even valet parkers jump to attention?) Sue the mother puts two car seats in the back and a double stroller in the trunk. Sue the former Jaguar exec and corgi owner loves the Britishness of its gleaming wood veneers.

Sue the German-car aficionado appreciates that its Audi/VW underpinnings work to perfection (VW Group now owns Bentley). When I want aggressive, the GT thunders forth -- very Daniel Craig. When I want debonair, the GT calms down into suave Jude Law. (For all you blokes, that translates into Elizabeth Hurley and Helen Mirren.) Simply put, the GT is my automotive ne plus ultra.

So imagine my feelings when Bentley announced the arrival of the more powerful, more capable Continental GT Speed. With 600 horsepower and a top end of 202 mph, it's the fastest production Bentley to ever hit the road.

I was driving home from L.A. on the 405 when I first saw it: Hightailing down the highway just ahead of me, it was almost exactly the same color as my beloved, inside and out (a delivery man was on his way to my house to drop it off). As I pulled up alongside, my gut twisted. It was like looking in the mirror -- and seeing yourself ten years younger and ten pounds thinner. Bigger, 20-inch wheels. Carbon-fiber ceramic brakes (the calipers inscribed with "Bentley" shining through the wheel spokes). A more upright and dominant grille. A lower stance.

The situation didn't improve once I stepped inside. The glorious Newmarket Tan leather -- a distinctly Hermès orangey-brown -- was festooned with enough crosshatching to please Coco Chanel herself. The new, more chiseled three-spoke steering wheel felt alarmingly sportier. The drilled aluminum pedals looked quite boss, and even the new Breitling clock seemed spiffier than mine.

Alas, the GT Speed was just as impressive in motion. I have spent thousands of my happiest miles in my GT -- I've often told friends that the car's grace and beauty are what save me from going postal in L.A. traffic. In the Speed, all the grace remains, accented by even more oomph delivered even more quickly and seamlessly.

In my car there is a slight lag between squeezing to full throttle and launch; in the Speed, the pause is gone -- there's just immediate, mind-bending, velvety response all the way up to redline. The 553 foot-pounds of torque (a 15% increase over my car's) doesn't hurt. And the carbon ceramic brakes grab like a racecar's without the harshness I have felt in other cars.

The ride itself is still fit for royalty, but thanks to improved suspension and damping, you can drive it even more aggressively without shaking its poise. How does Bentley accomplish that? I could give you pages of technical answers, but suffice it to say it's some expensive magic -- and unlike anything else you've driven.

I was almost afraid to get back into my car. At first, my Saddle interior seemed browner, duller compared with the Speed's. There is no start/stop button, no quilting on the seats. But when I turned her on, the wildly sexy bass note of the W12 thrilled me for the nth time. True, the $200,000 Speed is a step up in every category, but only baby steps.

My "old" girl (which is $176,000 new) can still trounce most other four-seaters on the planet. There's a reason Bentley has sold more GTs than any other car it has ever built, 16,328 to date. I have only one piece of advice: Do not drive one unless you plan to buy one -- it will spoil you for life.  To top of page

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