The Bentley Bentayga's job is to be the fastest, most powerful, most luxurious and most exclusive SUV in the world. If it delivers, then it will end the Range Rover's decades-long reign.
This article was originally published in Wheels magazine.
WHAT IS IT?
The Bentayga is a large luxury SUV aimed at those who want the best, no matter the price, and it’s Bentley’s first. It's based on the Audi Q7 platform, but 80 percent of the parts have been changed to make it a uniquely Bentley experience, from the styling to the suspension, the engine to the exquisite, handcrafted interiors.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
Bentley claims no other SUV - indeed, no other car - has the breadth of capabilities of the Bentayga. The luxury British carmaker claims it is equally at home off the road as it is on it, and that it's the fastest SUV on the planet. We had to find out for ourselves.
The Bentayga's $425K price tag puts it a cool $100K beyond its nearest rivals, the Range Rover Autobiography, Porsche Cayenne Turbo S and Mercedes-AMG GLS63. But Bentley buyers are unlikely to cross-shop: they want the best, no matter the price.
Bentley's goal with the Bentayga was to create the fastest, most powerful and most luxurious SUV in the world. And they nailed it. A price tag of $425K puts it out of reach of 99 percent of the population, but for those who want the best, it guarantees exclusivity.
PLUS: Effortless, serene, powerful and plush; competent on the road and off it. Quick, too
MINUS: The price; some features should be standard
THERE’S something perversely wonderful about being a hooligan in a $425K SUV on sand dunes. Unleashing 447kW and 900Nm from the Bentley Bentayga's 6.0-litre, 12-cylinder engine to climb the dunes, then carving across the face just below the lip like a pro surfer on a wave, leaving huge rooster tails of sand in your wake.
There's absolutely no chance an owner of a Bentley Bentayga will do this, and yet I'm only following the example of the car in front being driven by Bentley's engineering boss, Rolf Frech.
On the next towering wave of sand, he attacks at an angle. When the 2.4-tonne luxury SUV loses its fight for altitude in the treacherously loose terrain, he keeps the throttle pegged, letting the Bentayga drift balletically along the wave before tilting the tiller down the face and surfing back to the bottom. I do the same, and the windscreen and panoramic sunroof get covered in sand.
No owner will ever mistreat their Bentayga SUV like we are. They would never risk getting sand in the leather stitching, or scratching a wood veneer dash hand crafted by 58 dedicated veneer artisans back at Crewe. And god forbid the Bollinger in the factory-developed picnic pack in the rear should get agitated and explode during such shenanigans.
And yet the fact that this Bentley SUV can play rough and rugged in the dunes is crucial to its appeal. Authenticity is important, says Frech. The Bentayga must be able to do what it says on the box. It must be capable off road.
In addition to that, it must be the last word in SUV luxury and refinement, and it absolutely must be a true Bentley.
This is Bentley's first SUV, so it's a game changer for the German-owned brand more British than mushy peas. It's a new entrant in the luxury SUV market and it’s expected to add 50 percent to total Bentley sales in its first year alone. It's built on VW Group's MLB2 platform, the same set of building blocks that underpin the new Audi Q7, the next generation VW Touareg and Porsche Cayenne, and the 2018 Lamborghini Urus.
Despite these shared origins, Bentley claims 80 percent of the Bentayga is uniquely Bentley, from the re-engineered W12 engine and strengthened ZF 8-speed transmission to the suspension, the body panels, and of course the interior.
The interior is perhaps the most traditional part of this non-traditional Bentley SUV. It finds a deft balance between paying homage to decades of Bentley tradition and incorporating contemporary features and equipment.
Yes, there are organ pulls to activate the air vents, and acres of hand-stitched leather and hand-prepared wood veneer, all combined with a craftsmanship and attention to detail few brands can match.
But it also has cutting edge technologies, such as lane keeping assist and active cruise control. It can self-park, can even reverse a trailer, is night-vision equipped, and it has a plethora of cameras to help you navigate the urban jungle, or a real one.
Then there's the luxury items like the panoramic roof (standard) and sexy, rimless, rear-view mirror (though Volvo XC90 got to market with that first), tray tables and multimedia tablets mounted in the front-seatbacks, and an 18-speaker, 1800W Naim sound system.
Every Bentayga takes 130 hours to build, and Bentley swears this is a handcrafted car, although in the next breath the company boasts about its aerospace-derived 'superforming' process first used on the Continental GT, which harnesses superheated air to shape the front quarter panels. Not exactly a bloke with a rubber mallet, but the results are undeniably top shelf.
The Bentayga is the first product of a $1.7 billion investment over the past few years that’s also expected to spawn an SUV coupe (with four doors) and a production version of the Bentley EXP10 Speed 6 concept revealed at the 2015 Geneva show. All these models and its existing lineup of Continental GT, Flying Spur and Mulsanne are hoped to drive Bentley to its goal of 20,000 sales per year by 2025 (Bentley has sold roughly 10,000 cars per annum for each of the past three years).
Part of that money went into redeveloping the 6.0-litre, twin-turbocharged W12 petrol engine, which now produces 447kW @ 6000rpm and 900Nm from 1250-4500rpm (and will replace the old W12 in other Bentley models progressively). It has direct as well as port injection, which Bentley says improves throttle response and reduces emissions, particularly during engine warm-up. It also has stop-start, coasting mode and cylinder deactivation, which disables six cylinders during light applications. All up, Bentley claims a 10.4 percent economy improvement, which is considerable but probably not a deal-breaker for somebody shelling out close to half a million bucks.
If customers are concerned about fuel economy, then news that Bentley is working on a V8 diesel variant for launch in the next two years, followed by a plug-in hybrid V8 petrol, might help salve their eco-conscience.
The Bentayga is not a pretty SUV - few are - but it is bold and stately. Darren Day, a member of the design team that worked on the Bentayga, tells us the design goal was "timeless, contemporary, and British". That's not an easy balance to strike. British can quickly become old-world and stuffy, and timeless could easily have been conservative and boring, especially given the negative public reaction to the ugly EXP-9F concept revealed at the 2012 Geneva show that previewed the Bentayga.
But there's no denying the big, bluff Bentayga turns heads, and none moreso than the dirt bikers and buggy drivers stunned at the sight of a 2.4-tonne luxury SUV tearing around the dunes with them. Despite having a four wheel drive system that uses electronics to maintain traction instead of traditional locking diffs, the Bentayga shows impressive skills in the sand. It's equally good on dirt surfaces, no matter how steep, and capable of maintaining forward movement even with wheels dangling many inches off the ground.
The Bentayga's all-wheel drive system is similar in use to the Range Rover's terrain response: the driver selects a terrain mode via a dial, and the computer does the rest, adjusting throttle and brake mapping, ESC and suspension settings to give the big wagon the best traction possible in the conditions.
In extreme conditions, it's likely the Bentayga will fall just short of matching the Range Rover's exemplary skills, but it'd be damn close. Its biggest weaknesses against that other British SUV are approach and departure angles, a result of the Bentayga's long front and rear overhangs.
Again, it's debatable whether an owner would take their Bentayga anywhere more rugged than a waterlogged carpark at the Polo.
It'll also tow up to 3500kg - another first for a Bentley - and comes with a trailer-assist package like the one debuted on the Audi Q7 that can reverse-park a trailer for you. Audi has been unable to get that system homologated for Australia, due to tow-ball differences and backup chain requirements, which the system can't win with. So it's unlikely the Bentayga will have that trick in its arsenal in Oz either.
On the road the Bentayga is the epitome of SUV luxury, from its silky smooth and hugely powerful drivetrain to the cloud nine ride despite sitting on big 21-inch wheels and tyres. And yet it doesn't feel cumbersome or slow responding to steering inputs, and will happily carve a sporting line through a series of corners if that's your desire.
Perhaps the Bentayga's greatest on-road trick is the way it sits commendably flat through corners. An active anti-roll system (dubbed EWAS) twists the roll bars in opposition to cornering forces, reducing bodyroll considerably, yet keeping each wheel free to absorb bumps with aplomb. Bentley claims this system, developed in collaboration with suspension company Schaeffler, is a world first in an SUV. The forthcoming Audi SQ7 and next-generation Porsche Cayenne will also take advantage of this active anti-roll bar system.
The W12 engine is a very strong, very willing performer, and has an evocative engine note when revved hard. At typical round-town speeds, however, it is practically silent, and its deep reserves of torque (900Nm from 1250rpm) means you don't have to prod it much to get meaningful acceleration.
As for the cabin refinement: sublime and serene. Nothing short of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or BMW 7 Series saloon can match the Bentayga's ability to isolate occupants from the world outside.
The Bentayga comes in five-seat and four-seat configurations. The latter replaces the bench back seat with two adjustable front bucket seats, although they don't have the bench seat's ability to fold flat for long cargo loads.
Back seat legroom is not in short supply, but it’s not as generous as some might expect from a four-door carrying the Bentley badge. The boot is generous, but strangely must be operated by hand. An electric opening and closing tailgate is an optional extra.
That won't matter to buyers who'll think nothing of shelling out another $1000 or so to get the electric tailgate. It's likely they'll go a lot further, if Bentley's voluminous range of customisations and options is any indicator. In all there are more than a million combinations of exterior and interior colours and materials to ensure your Bentayga is unique - if you're prepared to pay.
One of those options is the All Terrain pack, which for an anticipated price of $8000 equips your Bentayga with a 4-mode rotary selector and the software smarts to maximise traction on snow, dirt, sand and gravel. Bentley expects around 50 percent of buyers to tick this box.
Another far more exclusive option - and one that has to go down as the most expensive factory option offered on any vehicle - is the Mulliner Tourbillon by Breitling. This dash-top timepiece is machined in solid gold, and features a mother of pearl face and eight diamond indexes – not to mention the complex and captivating tourbillon timekeeping mechanism. Breitling can only make four of these exclusive automotive timepieces each year, but a price tag of 150,000 euros means it’s unlikely that many of the 5000 anticipated Bentayga buyers each year will tick this particular box.
Model: Bentley Bentayga
Engine: 5950cc W12, dohc, 48v, twin-turbo
Max power: 447kW @ 6000rpm
Max torque: 900Nm @ 1250-4500rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 4.1sec (est)
Fuel economy: 13.1L/100km (combined)
Price: $425,000 (est)
On sale: April