Oh how the critics scoffed and the fans sneered when Bentley said it was building an SUV. I’ll leave my colleague on GRR, Andrew Frankel, to discuss the merits of such a decision for the British luxury badge, but we’ve both just returned from driving it in the desert scrubland outside Los Angeles, also known as Palm Springs.
Essentially, this strange staging post, with its industrially irrigated land in the Coachella valley sprouting palm trees, verdant grass, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope heritage, and five-star hotels, is where the snowbirds flock in winter from the northern steppes of Canada, to catch some rays and play some golf. Boy, is there a lot of golf to be played in Palm Springs.
There’s also significant, unobtrusive wealth, so no wonder, then, that Bentley, with its high earners and average customer age of 50 in the UK (a depressing 32 in China), chose the established oasis, with its stylish desert modernism, to launch the Bentayga.
The numbers behind this car are cheek-blanching, before you so much as pull a door handle. An all-new twin-turbocharged, W12, 6.0-litre engine develops bang-on 600bhp and 663lb ft of torque. This means that the two and a half ton beast surges to 60mph in four seconds and to a top speed of 187mph. An eight-speed automatic gearbox has been strengthened, as has the four-wheel-drive system, to cope with the phenomenal torque. There’s really no point in mentioning fuel consumption: if you have to ask, this is not the car for you. Suffice to say, I shouldn’t think you’d see it in the Twenties too much.
Then there’s the price: it starts at £160,000, but by the time you’ve chosen from the tempting toy box of extras (4G tablets, sports packs, night vision, park assist, trailer assist, £150,000 Mulliner Toubillon by Breitling), you’ll probably be looking at a bill around the £200,000 mark.
Sounds expensive, doesn’t it? And it is of course, but this or a Ferrari California, for the same money? Having spent four days in the Bentayga, Id say this, please. You get a hell of a lot of bang for your buck. Four seats, for a start, or five if you take out the lovely rear centre console. There’s also a seven-seater planned for next year, along with a diesel engine and a plug-in hybrid V6. I know, who’d have thought we’d be talking about off-roading in a Bentley diesel SUV, but try before you sneer.
This, I believe, and here I’m boldly going where I fear no one else will follow me, is the most complete car you could want for.
It has supercar acceleration. It has a truly beautiful interior – I hopped in and out of about five Bentaygas, each one with two colours of leather hand-stitched and divided by deep, luscious burr veneers – a memorable combination was Portland (pale grey) and Fireglow (red) leathers with the dark fiddleback veneer, a eucalyptus wood, smoked to bring out the lustre.
The craftsmanship demonstrates new heights of skill for the men at Crewe (the body side, controversially styled, is machined from one piece of aluminium); combined with the sound-proofing of the cabin, it’s an utterly relaxing place to be for hours at a time.
On the move, the engine shifts the SUV deftly, with minimal fuss. You are simply transported up the road very, very quickly. Put your foot flat to the floor and you’ll get a muffled drum from the elliptical exhausts, but the air inside is barely troubled. The transmission changes down a gear more quickly than originally planned, due to feedback from the brand’s ambassador, five-times Le Mans winner Derek Bell, but it could be even more sensitive, so one doesn’t have to pull on a flappy paddle quite so often.
The brakes, as expected, are phenomenal, with none of the rumoured fade, although they are surely under a great deal of duress when the Bentayga is driven in spirited fashion.
Speaking of which, we put both its off-road and its race track capabilities to the test in California.
Off-road, the Bentley reigns. It has the best Hill Descent Control I’ve come across, easily matching Land Rover‘s and bettering all others. It controlled each wheel down sandy precipices with no lock-ups, and should you feel it’s going too fast, a tap of the brake slows the controlling speed, instead of deactivating the system, which is handy for those nervous about mud-plugging. A rotary control gives you access to various suspension settings to deal with sand, rocks and more. Put it this way: a grassy field, which is the most severe off-road terrain most will experience, holds no threat.
On the track, things are, well, weird. You simply don’t expect an SUV to grip so hard and hold the line so tightly with no body roll. Bentley has introduced an electronic 48v anti-roll system, which instantly counteracts lateral rolling forces to ensure as much of each tyre stays in contact with the ground as possible. Detractors on the launch questioned this lack of feedback. But Wolfgang Durheimer, Bentley’s Chairman, told me the aim behind this is not so every Bentayga owner can go on track days, but so that every customer has peace of mind about swerving at speed on the road to avoid hazards. It is an astonishing piece of kit; on the track you screw your courage to the sticking point, turn in tight and plough on more throttle, and the car just sticks like glue to the Tarmac. It is utterly bizarre, and quite impressive.
So where does that leave the question of a Bentley SUV? Some will dismiss the notion, others will be relieved that Bentley has built the banker that allows it build more purist stuff. I left Palm Springs marvelling at this automotive first, a truly luxury SUV. I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.