It wasn't, to be honest, love at first sight when I first clapped eyes on the Bentley EXP9 concept in Beijing back in 2012, a car that then seemed to me as overwrought as it was oversized. Nor did a sighting late last year in southern Spain of a pair of pre-production models do much to change my mind – though I have to say it was a fleeting glimpse and they were some distance away.
But now I’m finally face-to-face with the Bentayga, Bentley’s longawaited, money-no-object, ultra-SUV, my brain is doing a rapid recalibration. Spotlit by coloured lights against a starry evening sky, the vehicle’s ample proportions appear to shrink, while the familiar matrix grille flanked at each side by a pair of circular LED headlamps fool me for a moment that I’m gazing at a Continental, albeit one that’s grown at least 30cm taller.
Perhaps it’s just that in the past four years I’ve become attuned to the notion of a large, luxury four-by-four with a flying-B badge (and why shouldn’t I, when for as long as I can remember, Bentleys have been big and extravagant?). Because I’m thinking it’s a damn sight better looking than I ever thought it could be.
It’s not sexy like the Continental – it’s simply the wrong shape and size for that. But it is visibly sleeker and lower than the concept car; it combines all the relevant styling cues, down to the signature haunch above the rear wheels; and it’s all achieved with a subtle restraint that helps mask the generous dimensions. Viewed from the rear, in fact, the Bentayga could be almost too discreet, though extrovert body colours such as Azure Purple or Dragon Red will enhance its visibility no end.
Yet if this new Bentley doesn’t exactly scream its grandiose credentials on the outside, it certainly makes up for it in the cabin, which is as gorgeously appointed and lovingly hand-built – we’re told it takes 130 hours and 53 craftspeople – as any luxury limousine’s. The company’s Mulliner workshop is only too happy to personalise the car virtually any way you want it so long as it’s legal – a rear “event seat” with matching picnic hampers and Linley chinaware is just one of the many possibilities – but even standard Bentaygas get a choice of 15 shades of leather and seven richly gleaming veneers.
The smooth and quilted patterns of the hide-covered seats (which can be ordered configured either for four or five passengers, and soon there’ll be the option of a third row for two additional people) recall classic British hunting jackets, and look far too sumptuous to be sat upon by anything as plebeian as my jeans. Those chairs at the front can also be adjusted up to 22 different ways, while the rear pair offer 18-way adjustment as well as massage and ventilation functions.
The highly polished dashboard air vents and their organ-stop controls are fashioned from solid aluminium. Audio options range from a 10-speaker, six-channel set-up to an 18-speaker, 19-channel system by Naim whose 1,950-watt amplifier could likely fill the Royal Albert Hall with sound. And for those seeking ultimate exclusivity, each year just four solid-gold Breitling tourbillon clocks will be made available as an option, a timepiece so fabulously expensive that it adds a further 50 percent to the cost of the car. SUVs were never, ever like this.
Four-by-fours have never driven like this either. Measuring more than 5.1 metres from end to end and weighing well in excess of 3 tonnes once passengers, luggage and fuel are all stowed away onboard, the Bentayga is a behemoth by any standards, yet aside from the lofty view over the steering wheel there’s little sense of that from the driver’s seat. For to motivate that considerable mass an entirely new W12 engine, equipped with a pair of twin-scroll turbochargers, sits beneath the Bentley’s equally considerable bonnet. And as that produces 600bhp and 900 Newtons per metre of torque, the latter kicking in at just above idling speeds and continuing right up to 4,500rpm, this is one staggeringly quick automobile.
From rest the Bentayga reaches 100km/h in just 4.1 seconds, a time that makes it one of the fastest-accelerating Bentleys ever, and with a maximum speed of 301km/h it’s also the quickest SUV in the world. In fact it would almost certainly be fleeter still, were a higher-performance Speed variant not slated to join it in the not-toodistant future (a diesel and a plugin hybrid are also on the way).
Of course the 12-cylinder engine – equipped with cylinder-deactivation and stop-start – is so smooth and its note so muted by the multiple layers of sound deadening, carpets, wood and leather that there are virtually no aural clues to suggest just how fast you’re travelling. On the busy interstates of southern California, where I’ve come to drive this latest offering from Crewe, the Bentayga hits seriously illegal velocities before I even know it, as it effortlessly wafts along on its air suspension while monstering just about everything in its path – and that’s in spite of the head-up display (HUD) flashing my speed and the prevailing limit just beneath my line of sight on the windscreen.
HUD is just one of a comprehensive suite of safety and driver-assistance technologies – including crash detection and mitigation, night vision and park assist – fitted as standard to every Bentayga. But what impresses me most about the car’s abilities are less the distance-devouring speed and the hi-tech bells and whistles – these, surely, are to be expected on a machine such as this – than the BDR (Bentley Dynamic Ride) system, which electronically modulates the suspension, dampers and anti-roll bar in real time.
I put this to the test on the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, a twisting little circuit way out in the desert, and am astounded by the body control it provides. With the selector set to Sport mode, I push the big SUV hard through bends and, tyres howling noisily but gripping heroically, it remains flat and at all times predictable. Don’t let the height or the girth fool you: with the assistance of BDA and steering that’s beautifully weighted (though it will, of course, steer itself if you’re having an especially lazy day), this is a genuine driver’s car – involving and capable.
Although it’s unlikely that most Bentaygas will ever be called upon to do so, it also acquits itself handsomely in the rough – and it performs even better when Off-Road Specification is optioned, which adds a further four driving modes to the menu. To prove it, the Bentley boys have hewn out a course for us in the hills behind Palm Springs, replete with 45-degree slopes both up and down, dirt-banked corners, tree-trunk bridges and deeply potholed paths that leave one wheel and then another dangling in mid-air. All these the Bentayga sloughs off with an ease bordering on contempt, just as it does when we flatten the accelerator and plough our regal-looking rides into the high rolling sand hills of the Imperial Dunes, much to the curiosity of the dune-racing fraternity, who park up their high-powered, Mad Max-style buggies to gawp at our antics.
So we can also add oil sheikhs to the list of customers who are likely to find it irresistible. And indeed, as I consider this new Bentley’s exceptional portfolio of abilities,I wonder whether there’s anything it can’t reasonably do and anyone who won’t be astonished by it.
Despite the fact that this is uncharted territory for the company, the Bentayga utterly redefines the SUV and possibly even the luxury limousine. It’s phenomenally competent, fabulously opulent and ferociously fast, and though Bentley would hardly launch a car that wasn’t exceptional, it’s still a remarkable achievement. No wonder the order book’s almost two years long.
Engine: 6-litre, twin-turbocharged W12
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, permanent all-wheel drive
Max power: 600bhp
Max torque: 900Nm @ 1,350-4,500rpm
Max speed: 301km/h
Acceleration: 0-100km/h in 4.1 seconds
Kerb weight: 2,440kg