Forget the questionable name and controversial looks, there is a more fundamental question at stake here: should Bentley even be building an SUV in the first place?
It is almost 100 years since the first Bentley engine spluttered into life on a bench in London’s New Street Mews and in all that time – and under a patronage of a number of different owners – none has felt the need to put the flying wings on an off-roader. The reason Volkswagen has now reversed nearly a century of thinking is simple: there’s money to be made here and you only need to look at its sister brand Porsche to know it. Many were swift to cry foul when Porsche overturned half a century of building small, light sports car and made a vast SUV instead, a fact I remember well as I was one of them. But the Cayenne transformed Porsche as a business and, despite the existence of the 911, Cayman, Boxster and Panamera, outsold the lot combined. Now it has been joined by the Macan and however odd it may still be to consider it this way, Porsche is an SUV manufacturer that knocks out a few sports cars on the side.
To Bentley the opportunity to follow suit, but at a far higher price point, was irresistible, not least because it shares its platform with not only the next Cayenne, but also the new Audi Q7 and forthcoming VW Touareg: the only thing bigger than the economies of scale of this system are the profits they produce. No one is saying exactly, but the Bentayga will be a high margin car to put it mildly, and the waiting list is already over 12 months long, prompting Bentley to increase production from 3,600 to 5,500 units per year. When you consider the car was already highly profitable at the lower number, you have some idea of the attraction.
So that’s the cold business case. But is there an emotional argument that says Bentley simply shouldn’t be in this business and that long-term brand value is being sacrificed at the altar of short-term financial gain. The Porsche example would suggest otherwise, because its sports cars have never been more highly regarded nor, in the case of the extreme models like the GT3s that define the spirit of the brand, in greater demand.
And the truth is that making an SUV is nothing like as great a conceptual leap for Bentley as it was for Porsche. There have been large heavy Bentleys for as long as there have been Bentleys – not for nothing did Ettore Bugatti call them ‘the fastest lorries in the world’ and that was in the 1920s. So long as the enduring Bentley qualities of craftsmanship, luxury, power and driver involvement can survive the transition unharmed, there would seem to be little weight behind the argument that says such a car could not be a proper Bentley. And, broadly speaking, they have.
But there’s a bigger point here that is too easy to miss. The Bentayga actually provides Bentley with an opportunity to strengthen its brand rather than weaken it. The reason the 911, Boxster and Cayman are all stunningly well designed, engineered and class leading cars is not despite the Cayenne and Macan, but precisely because of them or, more specifically, the outrageous profits they return, which can then be invested in these more traditional, sporting products. Likewise the Cayenne and Macan are so sought after because Porsche is perceived as such a dynamic brand, for which we have the likes of the 911, Boxster and Cayman to thank. Get it right and that is the circle of virtue that results.
And so it can be for Bentley. It is no coincidence that, as Bentaygas roll off the line in their new assembly plant in Crewe, the company is talking of not only building its smallest, lightest, most sporting car since the original Bentley Motors went bust in 1931 (the EXP 10 Speed Six), but also returning to the track with a proper sports racing prototype, designed to win both the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours. Where will the money come from to pay for them? Largely from the Bentayga and the smaller Bentayga coupe that will shortly be spun off the same platform.
So before we get all sniffy about Bentley SUVs, it is worth remember they will likely provide the means for Bentley to produce the most exciting machines to wear the badge in anyone’s living memory. And so far as I am concerned, if that’s what having the Bentayga means, I welcome it with open arms.