Does anybody remember the uproar when Porsche announced the arrival of the Cayenne? It was quite a long time ago and probably had larger play among petrolhead purists who were offended that the iconic manufacturer of the 911 would stoop to making school-run SUVs for lucky kids. Among the thought-lessly green-minded, the Cayenne was considered grotesque, conspicuous consumption on a grand scale. They were wrong, as usual.
The Cayenne has in fact always offered good value for money among the 4x4 set of luxury motoring brands. The point, I think is that the Cayenne was a necessity for Porsche. A necessity in the same way that the X5 was for BMW, the Q7 for Audi, and the ML was for Mercedes Benz. Cayenne at one point made up 50% of Porsche production. Just under 30% of all BMWs sold are some kind of X-derivative. A Jaguar (the F-Pace) is imminent. It was, therefore, only a matter of time until the superluxury market joined the trend.
A Maserati is in the works and rumours of a Lamborghini SUV swirl endlessly.
But Bentley got there first. And here it is, the Bentayga, not an immediately alluring car in the Italian way, but unmistakably a Bentley. And, in that, I think, lies something to stop and consider: Consider the time that Bentley has made cars outside of its long and enforced subservience to Rolls-Royce from 1931-2003. It has, I would argue, never made strictly pretty cars.
During the Bentley Boy era, the Le Mans-winning, Blue Train-racing heyday of the 1920s, it built what Ettore Bugatti famously described as the “world’s fastest lorries”. Even in the Volkswagen era, it has made big cars, heavy-looking cars, solid, meaty very British, very masculine cars – from the butch Continental through to the vast, magnificent and utterly imposing Mulsanne. On the Bentayga, “superforming” technology makes for what they claim are the sharpest creases in the automotive world.
Make what you want of the suit’s design, but it is beautifully tailored. I drove the new Bentayga in California, enjoying various terrains and environments, including the legendary off-road Mecca of Glamis. At one of the US’s traffic lights I pulled up alongside a gentleman in a new Corvette, four exhaust pipes bristling like the last stand at Little Big Horn. The driver didn’t take much notice of the large SUV beside him, but he sure as hell noticed when said genteel English SUV left his sports car for dust.
It was, I confess, a childish thing to do, but it did illustrate an important point: the Bentley Bentayga is staggeringly quick. In cars like this the usefulness of a 0-100km/h sprint is questionable (it takes four seconds, for the record) the point being that at 100km/h it’s just getting into its stride. This is a car – a full-size SUV, I might remind you – that will go on to exceed 300km/h should you wish. It’s certainly quick enough to qualify as a proper Bentley.
The company’s representatives were evidently well prepared for the inevitable questions about the bespoke nature of the car. We all know that the Cayenne, the VW Touareg and the Audi Q7 are built loosely on the same platform. Is the Bentayga, then, a Touareg in a mink coat? Not on your nelly, they say. Eighty-percent of the car is Bentley bespoke, and any lingering questions you might have about this are dispelled the moment you get inside.
This isn’t a collection of a Volkswagen AG parts bin. This interior, in fact, is like nothing I’ve ever seen in an SUV – a full-on imperiously luxurious Bentley interior. That means the obvious stuff, such as superb quality leather throughout, and also the legendary Bentley wood veneers for which the company is famous, cold-touch metal switchgears and some sumptuous chronograph-style rev counter and speedo, between which sits a Bentley interpretation of a digital screen that can be programmed to display what information you want.
The stereo is an awesome piece of kit, an 18-speaker, 18-channel, 1 800W affair that’ll do justice to your favourite piece of music – I’d recommend something
dramatic and loud. But beyond that the car’s interior is really only a measure of your imagination. It’s a car that can be individualised to an extraordinary degree. To drive, a Bentley must be quick, and nimble, good to hustle in a rakish kind of way down a fast and imperfect road.
These are cars for the long road, and handling and ride are critical, but must never supersede comfort. The Bentley solution here is to offer options though its Bentley Dynamic Ride system, of which they are terribly proud. “Comfort” would suit a cruise-control freeway environment and perhaps dirt roads, but can get a trifle wallowy in the corners.
“Bentley” is the day-to-day setting preferred by the Bentley engineers, and
“sport” stiffens up the ride, firms up steering feedback and slips the gearbox into a more aggressive frame of mind, sharper to grab a lower gear on deceleration and, conversely, hold a gear under hard acceleration. On a twisty road, the gearbox ensures the engine is always in the power band.
Ah, yes, that engine. An all-new 447kW, 900Nm 6l W12, it is a savagely powerful thing, and yet never raucous or rude in its output. In comfort-orientated modes, that vast torque figure ensures that effortless waft the brand is famous for comes at low revolutions. Pace, yes, but never haste. It’s a seriously class act.
In the back you can spec the full first-class reclining two-seat set-up with TV screens, pumping wi-fi and detachable tablets, or a more standard, family-focused, three-seater rear that’ll take your exceptionally lucky brood to school.
A final thought. This is an SUV. I did take it offroad, and not just down a lightly leaf-strewn country road, but full-on dune driving at Glamis. Does it work? It’s hard to express how very, very odd it felt to be drifting sideways in the sand, riding a colossal wave of torque, and to be doing it in a Bentley.
The Bentayga certainly does work offroad, for what it’s worth. Much like the luxury cars that preceded it, it might take a while to get used to the idea of a Bentley SUV. But get used to it we must, because it’s here, and it’s absolutely
magnificent, a true bruiser of a car; big, blindingly fast, pointable and
comfortable. In other words, then, a Bentley. I’ll have mine in green.
ENGINE: 6l W12
ACCELERATION: 0-100km/h in 4 sec