When you’re hitting the Squaw Valley slopes with one of the world’s best extreme skiers, it helps to bring an extreme car.
Chris Davenport, meet the Bentley Continental GT Speed Convertible. You two actually have a lot in common. Power, style, uncanny grip and control. Did we mention the speed?
Davenport’s risk-taking resume includes pioneering, never-before-attempted descents on runs from Alaska’s Denali to Colorado. He’s skied the perilous East Face of the Matterhorn, plunged off 100-foot cliffs, been swept up in avalanches and survived. He won the 24 hours of Aspen endurance race in ‘98, speeding with U.S. men’s teammate Tyler Williams at up to 97 mph down the mountain, getting crucial leg massages on the lift up, and blasting down again — for 24 hours, covering 77 laps and more than 251,000 feet of vertical distance to top all competitors.
Bentley, for its part, has topped its over-the-top self with the $238,700 GT Speed Convertible. The world’s fastest four-seat droptop sprints to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds, clocks 100 mph in 9.8 seconds and peaks at 202 mph. To flout physics so rudely in a 5,500-pound British dreadnought takes serious motivation. Specifically, a twin-turbocharged, 6.0-liter W12 engine with 616 horsepower. That engine, as gearheads know, is essentially two Volkswagen V-6’s conjoined into one 12-cylinder, deep-lunged monster. Just as crucially, the Speed adopts the silken eight-speed automatic transmission that saves both fuel and time in 500-hp, V-8 versions of the Continental coupe and convertible.
Like Bugatti and Lamborghini, Bentley has blossomed under the financial and engineering wing of its VW/Audi owners. After a few rough years for all ultra-luxury brands, Bentley sales are booming again, up 23 percent in America last year. China is actually poised to pass America as Bentley’s biggest market in 2013, a position that will only be bolstered if Bentley – as seems certain – forges ahead with plans to introduce an SUV.
With the thermometer reading a balmy 61 degrees when I depart from San Francisco, skis in hand, my first move is to drop the Bentley’s cloth top and crank up the optional, $7,300 Naim audiophile system. Destination: Squaw Valley, Calif., site of the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Performance aside, the Bentley is all about handcrafted details, the kind that make people shell out a quarter-million dollars for a burly car whose back seat can barely fit two boarding-school kids: The body’s elegant, complex slabs of aluminum, formed by air pressure in a process called superforming; the unblemished hides sourced from Bavarian bulls; the royal scepter of a shifter, capped with knurled metal. Made-from-scratch, mirror-matched wood veneers are part of the 200 labor hours required to produce each car. Don’t forget Bentley’s signature diamond-quilted leather, or the nifty organ-pull vent closures.
Choosing among endless options and bespoke add-ons must be half the fun of a Bentley. My first tester matched a Moroccan Blue exterior and roof with contrasting Imperial Blue interior leather, carpets, seatbelts and dark-stained burr walnut trim. Carbon-ceramic brakes added $13,875, part of roughly $40,000 in options that kicked the total to $277,955. (A $610 removable wood eyeglass case that fits into the center console was a neat touch). I also drove a sweet, smoky-gray Thunder model with two-tone saffron and gray leather; and gorgeous “engine spin” machined aluminum trim inspired by dashboards of vintage Bentley LeMans racers. Perhaps straight-grained Fiddleback Eucalyptus wood is more to your liking? Picky sheiks or ballers who don’t love any of 115 available exterior colors can naturally order a custom shade, or outfit the cabin with truly bespoke features.
With style assured, our Bentleys were also prepared to rock snowy mountain roads, with standard Audi-based all-wheel-drive, 21-inch Dunlop winter tires and a set of tire chains in the trunk, just in case. Rushing east on U.S. 50 from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe, we brush off not snow but slow traffic: As we climb the Sierra Nevadas, the Bentley’s eight-speed transmission instantly kicks down three or even four gears when I mash the gas, making short work of dawdlers on long passing lanes. Ripping downhill runs are equally drama-free, thanks to the Bentley’s mammoth brakes and roadholding. It helps to have front brake rotors measuring 16.5 inches in diameter, larger than the entire wheels on some cars.
Not all is perfect. Audi continues to save its latest, greatest navigation systems and interfaces for its own flagship models, and the Bentley’s hand-me-down unit is graphically dull and easily flustered. There’s actually a 6-CD player in the glove box, for people who still remember CDs. The lacrosse-stick, column-mounted paddle shifters could be better positioned.
But whether you’re cruising, flying or just preening in the Bentley, nitpicks vanish like minivans in the rear-view mirror. Coincidentally, as white-frosted peaks rise into our view, the audio system chimes the mischievous opening of Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King." And as we roll toward Lake Tahoe and Squaw Valley, the Bentley makes clear which car will be ruling the local roads and valet lines this weekend.
Compared with “lesser” Continentals, the Speed engages the driver more directly. Its adaptive, driver-selectable suspension feels a bit more locked down, and there seems a touch more heft to the steering. But luxurious isolation is still this car’s stock in trade. Even with the top down, the engine’s sound is so sunken and distant that it might as well emanate from the 1,600-foot depths of Lake Tahoe. Pushed hard into corners, and the Bentley begins to betray its girth and heft: This is still a massive GT, or grand tourer, more than a ton heavier than a Corvette or Porsche 911. Yet for most drivers, the Bentley still pulls off one hell of a sports-car impression.
I romp the Speed up to 135 mph, and the car practically yawns at the ease of it all. Yet systems are working to ensure reliability and safety for Americans who dare to set an autobahn pace. The W12 engine was tested at max throttle for a total of 400 hours, the equivalent of covering 80,000 miles at more than 200 mph. Wheels, tires and the cooling system are designed to handle all-day travel above 200 mph, even in 100-degree-plus temperatures. (If only the police and Prius drivers would cooperate). To avoid aerodynamic lift at super speeds, the Bentley automatically lowers its body by 0.6 inches at 112 mph, and another quarter-inch as you approach 160 mph.
Settled in at the wine-centric Plumpjack Squaw Valley Inn, we trade the Bentleys for another dazzling high-speed guide: Chris Davenport himself. On the Squaw Valley slopes, the 42-year-old Davenport guides us at our own serene pace, even when he might prefer to rip it up at epic speeds. Car business is the last thing on our minds when Davenport and I pair up for the run back to San Francisco. (Though the Naim audio system’s subwoofer eliminates the Bentley’s ski pass-through to the trunk, requiring my skis to squeeze in between driver and passenger).
Davenport was bound for Jackson Hole, followed by a trip to Chile to run his Superstars Camp for expert racers. There’s also a Cat skiing adventure in Canada, guiding Silicon Valley hotshots from the likes of Facebook and Google.
“It’s the natural beauty, and the sense of control you can have at such speeds,” Davenport says. His most extreme ski runs may appear death defying, and sometimes are; but preparation and attention to detail are critical. Without control, he says, speed is useless – a lesson the Bentley delivers on every dip, bump and icy stretch of this journey.
“You’ve got so much potential energy, but you’ve got to temper it.”