I will never forget the first time I did it because that’s how it goes with enlightenment. You do it once and it’s so life-affirmingly marvellous that you’ll want to return to that moment forever.

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In this case it wasn’t opium or sex or anything so prosaic. It was turning a 4x4 towards a giant sand dune, a vast yellow wave held by some unimaginable force in an improbable pause, and charging upwards until grip began to falter, and then, aiming the car down the dune in an exhilarating and time-stretching drift, urged on by a God-like combination of four-wheel-drive, limited grip, and a handsome repository of torque — all the while shooting out rooster tails of sand and hilarity.

Heaping incongruity on to this experience was the fact I wasn’t driving a Land Rover, but a Bentley, the new Bentayga: a proper Bentley with all the Toad-of-Toad-Hall imperiousness that’s standard equipment on these British racing green bombers. That it also happens to be a sports utility vehicle (SUV), and a capable off-road machine, is plain weird to start with, but, by the time I’d parked my Bentayga at LAX, the natural order of things.

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Of course Bentley has built an SUV. It had to. It’s not just Toad who wants to go off-road and enjoy the space and ride-height of an SUV. It’s you and me too.
That’s why Bentley did it. Mercedes-Benz likes to claim it invented the luxury SUV with the ML in 1997. That Range Rover has been making luxury SUVs since 1970 is a fact of history that appears to have not made the trip up Königstraße, Stuttgart.

The ML was quickly followed by the two amigos that make up the rest of the German triumvirate of luxury car makers — Audi (Q5 in 1998) and BMW (X5 in 1999). Porsche shocked its fans with the Cayenne in 2002. Sales have been steadily rising: SUVs and crossovers make up more than 50% of the market.

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That means hyperluxury car companies, and smaller manufacturers of sportscars and sporting sedans can consider getting into the game. Hence the extraordinary Bentayga, a special car by any measure, not least because of its engine, which presents its savage power in a leather-gloved hand that holds 1 000Nm of torque. It’s the kind of power that propels three-tonne SUVs up sand mountains without seeming to try too hard.

The Bentayga never tries too hard. Effort is inelegant. Maserati, too, is set to unleash an SUV: the Levante. This release will transform the company from being a boutique manufacturer of GTs and fancy four-door sedans into a real player. Pricing is from R1.6-million, meaning it’s firmly aimed at Range Rover.

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The Levante will no doubt come armed to the teeth with powerful engines
and true Italian sporting pedigree. Range Rover, historically more focused on limousine-like comfort and superlative off-road ability, will not have it its own way anymore, as the segment is sliced up and reinterpreted by different brands.

As fortune would have it, I drove to the office today in a Jaguar. Not a little two-seater or even one of its nice-but-expensive sedan cars, but an all-new SUV called the F-Pace. The company has really been able to make a road-focused SUV — there is no off-road heritage to protect here. The result is a stonkingly
good family SUV that will not disappoint the enthusiastic driver. It is a legitimate, if pricey, competitor to those ubiquitous Germans, which just goes to make the point that this segment is so dynamic that nobody has it sown up.

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We know that in 2017 Lamborghini will release some kind of SUV. The prototype was called Urus. One would imagine, therefore, that other supercar manufacturers will follow. What of Ferrari and McLaren? Who’d bet against it?

And if to some fans Lamborghini is the ultimate supercar manufacturer, then to whom would we turn to make the ultimate SUV? Well, that would be Rolls-Royce, who will, in the coming couple of years, release what I simply cannot stop myself from calling the Rolls-Royce of SUVs. It’s slated to be called the Cullinan, after the 3107-carat diamond dug out of the ground here in South Africa.

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October 2016

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