Need a car for the Mojave? This could be it
Engine: 6.0 litres, 12 cylinders, twin turbochargers
Power: 616bhp @6000rpm
Torque: 590lb ft @2000rpm
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Top Speed: 202mph
If you think Death Valley a place with a forboding name, you should look at the names of some of the places it contains. Here you’ll find Hell’s Gate, Deadman Pass, both Coffin and Funeral Peak as well as Desolation and Starvation Canyons. The driest place in North America, it’s really not kidding. It gets quite warm here too. So warm in fact that 100 years ago the temperature hit 56.7deg C (134.0deg F), the hottest reliable reading so far recorded anywhere on the planet. Sat on the floor of the Mojave Desert, it is also the lowest place in North America, at certain points almost 300ft below the level of the sea. What kind of car would you bring here? Well, it needs to be open because in February the temperature is usually around 25deg C (77deg F). It needs to be fast because most roads cut a line straight for the horizon allowing nowhere for State Troopers to hide, and it needs to be reliable: breaking down out here doesn’t even bear thinking about. It should also be comfortable: the Mojave occupies an area larger than Scotland and Wales combined and the distances even between one one-horse town and the next can be quite bewildering to someone brought up with British horizons.
All of which explains why there’s probably not a better car in the world in which to explore this place than Bentley’s new Continental GTC Speed despite its design comprising most of the things I don’t want in a fast car. As I have pontificated before on these pages, fast cars should be closed cars and open cars should not have been designed to be anything else first. I’ve never driven a convertible I thought inherently superior to the coupe upon which it’s based. I don’t like heavy cars either, and this one is heavy to the tune of 2495kg, which is Rolls Phantom territory. I’m not that taken by the car’s styling, the relative lack of character of its 6-litre, twin-turbo motor or the understeer-inducing characteristics of its all-wheel drive system either.
And yet if you use this Bentley to cruise hundreds of miles in this part of the world at a range of speeds from a dead crawl to the really rather ambitious, it picks up its petticoat and vaults these hurdles as if they scarcely existed. Which, of course, is why Bentley brought us here. What the drive enabled me to see was just how wide a range of environments this car worked in. We started in San Francisco, ambling through the narrow streets and steep hills that so characterise this small and charming city. If you just want to woofle along on part throttle while the whole world looks at you — probably the prime motive for buying such a car — the GTC is beyond serious criticism.
We then headed out over the Golden Gate and sat in heavy Interstate traffic en route to Sacramento. I always find a reason to get frustrated in these conditions, whether it be the knowledge of how slow we’re going coupled with how far we have to go, or the appalling lane indiscipline of a large minority of American drivers. But not today. Far from making you want to cut an inelegant, swerving swathe through all this mediocrity, the Bentley encourages you merely to give into it. The seats are so comfortable and the ride quality so good you soon find yourself sitting back, elbow out, sunglasses on — a cardboard cut-out caricature of a convertible Bentley driver.
The route to Death Valley from there is not exactly direct because the Sierra Nevada is in the way and presents a challenge no car and driver combination would tackle at this time of year. We went the only way we could: up to Lake Tahoe and then south through the mountains to Mammoth Lakes before plunging down to the Mojave.
Irritatingly, the Bentley wasn’t annoying me at all. On the contrary, as I found myself driving for hour after hour at altitudes you’d not normally reach in a light aircraft, in temperatures that fell far below zero and stayed there, the sheer quality of its engineering was impossible to miss. The wind management, to cite just one of the more obvious examples, is extraordinary. With nothing more than a shirt and light pullover to protect me from the weather, I’d expected this entire component of the journey to be conducted with the thick fabric roof up. In fact thanks to the way the wind is directed away from the interior and thermo-nuclear seat heaters, you can drive your Bentley GTC top down across a frozen wasteland in complete comfort. And if you put the roof up the car becomes a coupe so far as refinement is concerned. The route down to the desert was fun, losing 8000ft here, gaining most back again and then dipping down to below sea level, all in not much more than a couple of hours. At last here were some corners, enough for me to be impressed by the way the car handles, at least by the standards you might expect of a 2.5-tonne convertible. It’s stable, accurate and even gives something back through the steering. But it also conveys the sense that anything else you might call a rival from a Mercedes SL to a Ferrari California or Aston DB9 Volante would all provide far more fun than the composed but hardly indulgent Bentley.
Bentley always says its customers aren’t bothered by the weight of their cars but I suspect that’s because Bentley has never shown them how much better they’d be without it. If, like its rivals, Bentley ditched the four-wheel drive hardware and fitted some lightweight seats and body panels, the weight of the coupe version of this car could dip below two tonnes in a trice and drive like no Bentley in history.
I digress. We made it to the kneeweakening beauty of Death Valley where if you’re careful, you can find out a little about the real potential even of a 616bhp monster like this. Oddly enough, and despite four-wheel-drive traction, it doesn’t feel that quick from rest, perhaps because of the colossal inertia that must first be overcome. But from around 50mph onward it is just majestic, sweeping through gear after gear (it now has eight) with that kind of inexorable relentlessness you’d never find in a lighter car with the same power to weight ratio.
I liked the GTC Speed more than I’d expected, which may say as much about the environment in which I found it as the car itself. Certainly my view that the ‘basic’ V8 coupe is the best Bentley remains unchanged and it would stay that way even if there weren’t a £44,000 price differential between them. But if, unlike me, fast convertibles are your thing, this journey did reveal a car that works everywhere from the hubbub of the city, the drone of the motorway, the cold of the mountains to the heat of the Mojave desert. Were you to conclude that of all the cars to which it might be compared the Bentley is the one you’d least like to drive but most like to own, I would understand where you are coming from. If I lived in California, I might even agree with you. CI