If you want an SUV that actively engages with the road, adjusts to your driving style with tight handling, and behaves as nimbly as Mikhail Baryshnikov, buy the exceptional Porsche Cayenne Turbo S. Or get a sports car.
But if you want a vehicle that drives as smooth as a silk sheet, is silent as a library, and is 600-horsepower strong, take a look at the 2018 Bentley Bentayga. With a starting price of US$195,000 and easily cresting US$245,000 for most versions, the latest entry in the luxury SUV market may feel overpriced. But for those who desire the best of British engineering in an SUV form, it’s the obvious choice.
This is a 5,379-pound, eight-speed, AWD, beautiful beast. Torque is 664 pound-feet. Top speed is 187 miles per hour. Zero to 60mph takes four seconds. Even taking into account Alfa Romeo’s Stelvio-set track record at the Nurburgring in Germany, this is the world’s fastest SUV.
Bentley Motors Ltd. debuted the Bentayga – its first-ever SUV – in 2015 after four years of development on the “EXP 9 F Concept” predecessor. The concept was roundly criticised for nebulous body styling and squishy handling, but this newest version is markedly better on all fronts.
It’s an SUV that embodies British heritage by pairing reserved styling and a hand-crafted interior with a massive W12 engine so smooth and powerful it makes 80mph feel like 45. (I should know, because I got a speeding ticket while testing it on the road.) So much for “Rule Britannia.”
The brakes can lack the initial bite we have come to expect from the sportier SUVs, from Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, Porsche AG, and Mercedes-Benz’s AMG line from Daimler AG. The Bentayga is not efficient: Official numbers have the car listed at 20 miles per gallon in highway fuel appetite, though my readings were closer to 14mpg.
Anyone who is a driver’s driver will turn off its “lane assist” feature and live in “Sport” mode. The other drive modes can feel buffered by systems designed to strip every semblance of raw thrill behind the steering wheel. There are more than a dozen of them, with names like City Braking & Pedestrian Warning, Reversing Traffic Warning, and Traffic Sign Recognition, all of which use some combination of beeps, buzzers, light signals, and vibrations on the steering wheel to alert the driver of potential danger. Sometimes, the Bentayga can feel like the kid who cries “Wolf” at every turn.
But drive it, as we did from Manhattan to Silvia, a new restaurant in Woodstock, and the Bentayga becomes your gilded, leather-throne processional through the Hudson Valley’s autumnal leaves. As we turned down Highway 209 to Hasbrouck House in Stone Ridge, N.Y., seats wrapped in flawless Spanish cowhide beneath a sunroof that spans the entire ceiling indicated the genius of the Bentayga.
The First of its Kind
The SUV looks as regal as it drives – from the front, at least. The gigantic matrix grille flanked by four round headlights, trimmed by brilliant LEDs, might as well be sourced from the Crown Jewels. It’s a stunning effect that anyone will recognise, and that’s what you want when you pay this much for an SUV, right? Street cred.
The side body of the Bentayga is a different story, despite the crisp lines that flank the haunches like something from Zaha Hadid. They look chiselled, rather than brawny. I love them. But minus the flying B badges, especially from some angles along the side and rear, Bentagya could be mistaken for any number of big, luxury SUVs.
This really is neither bad nor good; in many circles, the more reserved the car, the better. And flashy cars don’t often call to mind good taste. But it’s something to note. If you’re interested in buying the Bentayga as a way to be recognised by other than members of the Bentley elite, you will be disappointed.
Here’s one way to mitigate that problem: Choose the US$10,000 “Black” specification that adds carbon fibre elements throughout the car, plus a front bumper splitter, side sills, rear bumper diffuser, and a prominent rear spoiler. Its exhaust tailpipes are also painted in a gloss black finish to complement the car’s other features.
Trust me. You do need the 22-inch rims and the spoiler that come with the Black package. Usually I don’t go for all the flair, but the car wants the extra punch. Such details prevent this Big SUV from looking bloated and dull (like virtually every other Big SUV).
A Custom Option
You’ll want to pay the same attention to personal details for the interior as well. This is where Bentley and its customisation shop, known as Mulliner, shine brightest. (It’s also where it makes the most money on margins. The vast majority – as high as 90 per cent, depending on which Bentley rep you ask – of Bentley sedans are heavily bespoked. The Bentayga is not far behind that average.)
The car comes in four-, five-, or seven-seat options; choose from Standard Bentley, Bentley Signature Audio, or Naim for Bentley surround sound. Deep diamond-quilted seats, drilled alloy sports pedals, and embroidered Bentley emblems optional throughout make up the bare minimum here; rather than looking gaudy or cheap, as with some of the two-tone stitching we see from Maserati Spa, and even from Tata Motors’ Jaguar, the effect is classically subtle.
Bentley offers more than 100 standard and special paint options, including a true New Yorker’s dream – 11 different blinds of black. There are also 15 interior leather tones and eight veneers that include new Piano Black and Liquid Amber, which wraps the cabin in what feels like an endless ring of wood.
That all comes before you get into the Bentley’s Mulliner commissioning shop, where anything goes. There, as with the shops at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, you can simply walk in with a swathe of tweed or a vial of nail polish, say, and have them precisely match the trims inside your car to it. Most customers travel to Crewe, England, to see the process themselves. This exclusive, intimate, singular experience is in large part what makes owning a Bentayga a genuine modern luxury for those who can afford it.
After all, experiences – even (especially) Sunday drives that elicit traffic tickets – create emotion, which is exactly why anyone buys a luxury car today. With Bentayga, Bentley has hit the mark.
Next spring, when Rolls-Royce debuts an SUV of its own, it had better come prepared.