The sun is finally setting on W12 production. The latest Speed is one of your few remaining chances to buy it new
By Stephen Dobie / Monday, 6 March 2023 / Loading comments
Impressive numbers have always been intrinsic to Bentley’s W12 engine. Measuring six litres in capacity and offering 635hp and 664lb ft in its current tune, it’s the beating heart of the firm’s modern-day line-up. But its biggest number might also be its most jaw-dropping – 105,000 have rolled off the production line since it first appeared in the 2003 Continental GT, a chunk of those making their way into upper-scale Audis and Volkswagens. But no more: production ends in early 2024 and you’ll have to be exceedingly quick off the mark to secure one of the final build slots.
It’s with this backdrop that we’ve driven the new Flying Spur Speed, one of the final applications of this 21st-century powerhouse. And the car may actually be grateful for its emotive backstory. Back in 2008, the Speed badge was fixed to the first Spur to officially hit 200mph, ensuring easy headlines. Its return feels more like a rebranding, the stock W12-powered Spur leaving the range as the Speed takes its place with some new stitching, suede-effect trim and black detailing but no hike in performance.
Not that it’s any less imposing for it. Picking up a 635hp, 207mph baton from the standard car means it still lives up to its suffix, even if it’s not bringing any epoch-shifting pace. Still, just to be sure our first go would prove as boisterous as possible, Bentley invited us not up the road to Crewe, but across the ocean to Colorado. The 2,500m highs of the state’s ski resorts, in fact, with temperatures in negative double digits and oxygen canisters nearby for any altitude-based wobbles. This means yes, plenty of snow and ice to slide around on. The W12’s retirement party was never going to be a sombre affair.
I’ll get the silly stuff out the way first, because it’s least relevant to how most (all?) Bentleys are driven. But given the prodigious traction its cars offer on road, the chance to forcibly liven things up allows a better exploration of the Flying Spur’s active all-wheel-drive system than we’re used to. Speed versions of the Continental GT and Bentayga were on hand for comparison too – tough day, etc. The former’s short wheelbase and all-wheel steer made it the most inherently agile and precise, but the SUV slapped a broader grin on my face from the outright lunacy of being able to throw it around at will and with little fear of the bumps and ruts around the closed-off course.
The Spur predictably strikes a lovely balance between the two, though, with standard all-wheel steer but 345mm of extra wheelbase over its two-door sibling. Longer, more satisfying slides are the result and a better demonstration of its Sport mode’s rear bias (a minimum of 69% of power goes to the back axle, often more) is unlikely to present itself. Nevertheless, it is away from the confines of the cones that this car truly satisfies.
Out on Colorado’s largely well-gritted roads its grip borders on the astonishing, helped by a set of SottoZero winter tyres which downgrade the standard 22in wheels to the 21s pictured here. But the Speed isn’t beyond a bit of mischief if you pop the ESC in its Dynamic mode and drive with a little exuberance. All recent Bentleys have done a jolly good job of virtually shrinking their bulky weight figures and the story doesn’t change here.
There’s agility at its core and just enough feel and feedback bubbling through the wheel and your bum to allow you to hustle it like a bona fide sports saloon, only with the bonus of more sumptuous ride quality. I’d argue the V8-powered S version would be a better handler, but the fitment of a W12 hardly blunts the front end’s response – modern Bentleys were built around this engine, don’t forget – and it revs freely enough to encourage you to keep the ZF eight-speed auto in its sportier map. You can pull the paddles too, of course, but the car upshifts for you at the redline and generally makes such smart and incisive decisions, I only seemed to slow things down by blundering in myself.
It sounds good, too. I think the V8 is a bit gnarlier but there’s a muted classiness to the growl of the W12, a linear ascent in its tone before an endearing wuffle through the powertrain as an upshift is executed. No gratuitous gunfire on the overrun, either. The second you lighten your foot the noise drops right off and a gentle hush resumes. At a freeway cruise you only really hear the meeting of winter tyre and slightly unkempt road surface. Leave the gearbox in Sport and it’ll be cruising two ratios shy of top, but you might only notice via a glance at the digital instrument gauge.
The ability to offer both fun and utmost finesse runs right through the car, its character changing with each twist of its knurled drive mode knob. This really does feel like a limo where you’ll feel short-changed stuck in the back seat – despite the rear quarters being predictably plush. Speed specification adds a few new materials and flourishes, too, most notably the use of Dinamica Pure around the steering wheel rim, a faux-suede that’s 73 per cent recycled, adding a little more clout to Bentley’s big sustainability push. Sure, this is a 19mpg car, but the Cheshire factory’s been carbon neutral for years and is currently home to half a million bees. Really…
That sustainability push will only gain a stronger tailwind when W12 production ends after a notable 21 years, the resulting spare hands and build slots being busied with more hybrids as Bentley continues towards its electrification goals. If you really want to mark the end of this particular era then perhaps you’re already putting the finishing touches to the spec of your near-£2m Batur; all 18 examples get a blockbusting 750hp tune, the twin-turbo’s highest ever output reserved for a coachbuilt special. But for a mere tenth of the price – all things being relative, of course – the Flying Spur Speed is far from a shabby alternative.
SPECIFICATION | 2023 Bentley Flying Spur Speed
Engine: W12, 5950cc, twin-turbocharged petrol
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power: 635hp at 6000rpm
Torque: 664lb ft at 1350-4500rpm
Top speed: 207mph
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