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The big-in-every-way Bentley SUV lands. We assess the impact of this most luxurious of luxury SUVs, which has few direct rivals with which to compare

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Ettore Bugatti was not being entirely kind when he described a Bentley racing car as “le camion plus vite du monde” – the world’s fastest truck – but as pithy, grudging compliments go, it has stuck.

And although it’s sometimes tempting to wonder what a car maker’s long-departed founder would make of their company’s latest car (clue: if it makes money, they’d probably have liked it), here it’s worth considering instead whether Bugatti would have allowed himself a wry smile.

The Bentley Bentayga first made its appearance as the EXP 9 F concept at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show

About nine decades after he said it, here’s a 2.4-tonne, four-wheel-drive Bentley SUV that’ll do 187mph.

The Bentley Bentayga is a car Crewe had been thinking about making for years.

But even though it knows all about luxury car owners better than most companies, it had a couple of lingering doubts. One: whether an SUV really could strut around the place asking people to pay nearly £200,000 for it.

And two: whether it could do the job justice. Making a luxury saloon that can do more than 180mph is difficult enough.

Add in the idea that it should also go off road and you can imagine the scale of the task its engineers thought they’d face.

In the end, incoming CEO Wolfgang Dürheimer made the decision. Like Bentley, Porsche is part of the VW Group, and during Dürheimer’s time there, he’d seen what the Porsche Cayenne SUV could do for the bottom line of a company that was hitherto supposed to make only sports cars.

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Not long after he’d given the green light, Bentley displayed the EXP 9 F, whose design and rumoured ‘Falcon’ name were quickly amended for production, one for being overtly shocking, the other for being an Australian Ford.

Four years on, here we are. We’ve already driven the Bentayga overseas and in the UK and pitted it against one of its few natural rivals.

Now’s our chance to run it through the toughest test in the business.


Bentley Bentayga rear

It’s not unreasonable to say that, were Bentley not part of the Volkswagen Group, this car wouldn’t exist.

Partly that’s because Bentley wouldn’t have had the money to do the job properly but also because, without VW, it wouldn’t have had access to the hardware.

If any car is fit to be Bentley’s first diesel, this is it. And if any diesel is fit for a Bentley, it’s the electrically boosted one from the Audi SQ7

The Bentley Bentayga shares its architecture with the Audi Audi Q7. Both are on the group’s MLB platform, as will be the next Porsche Cayenne.

Out of that, Bentley has crafted a car that looks very much like a Bentley. To our eyes, it’s not the most graceful car on the planet, but that trait never stopped the first-generation Cayenne from being a rip-roaring success.

The Bentley’s 2995mm wheelbase is just 1mm longer than the Q7’s but, that aside, it’s bigger than the Audi in every dimension, and every inch luxury car sized. It’s 5130mm long, 1998mm wide (a worrisome 2224mm wide with mirrors) and 1742mm tall.

Talk to Bentley’s engineers and they’ll agree with the supposition that the Bentayga is being asked to fulfil a broader remit than any other car in the world.

It has to be a luxury car and a 4x4, doing what’s asked by owners in markets where you’ll find anything as diverse as sand dunes, rocky trails or wet, grassy slopes, yet it also has a 3.5-tonne towing limit.

And then there’s the bit Bugatti was talking about, of course: the bit that necessitates a 187mph top speed.

The engine, then, for now is a twin-turbo 6.0-litre W12, which makes 600bhp. It is, in effect, a new engine rather than just revised and can drop to six fuel-saving cylinders when necessary, driving through a four-wheel drive transmission that typically delivers a 40/60% front-to-rear power split.

There’s air suspension, too – but it’s the optional active anti-roll bars, which have been fitted to every Bentayga we’ve driven so far, that promise to unleash the most potential.

In straight-line driving or off road, these 48V resistive units are as slack as you’d hope, but if you’re asking more of the chassis on road, they stiffen to reduce roll and increase dynamism. By how much we’ll see in a moment.


Bentley Bentayga interior

Swaddled in the gratifying richness and comfort of the Bentley Bentayga’s cabin, why deciding to make this car must have been such a no-brainer for Bentley.

Look around the interior and practically everything you can see, hear, touch and interact with speaks of outstanding substance, technical sophistication, tactile allure and rare craftsmanship.

Sixteen bull hides go into the cabin of a top-of-the-range Mulsanne. Not sure how many fewer the Bentayga needs

Look out of the double-glazed windows and the rest of the world is passing by below. You’re lifted out of the melee of everyday life much as you would be in any upmarket SUV.

The combined effect is supremely tranquil and utterly convincing. This easily feels like the most luxurious car the company currently makes.

The shape of the dashboard departs slightly from Bentley’s modern type by being asymmetrical. In place of the slush-moulded plastic roll-top you might find in a cheaper car, the Bentayga has a leather-bound piece of structural trim that sweeps in a winged shape from one door panel to the other – and in the Bentayga’s case, the driver’s side ‘wing’ rises higher than the passenger’s.

Underneath it is a conventional set of analogue instruments inset with a colour LCD display that can relay navigation guidance, infotainment selections, trip computer details and more.

Above it is a colour head-up display – if you ask for it as an option. And immediately adjacent and all around it is the many-layered, highly polished, book-matched burr veneer that Bentley does so warmly and so well. Our test car’s was ‘dark fiddleback eucalyptus’, but if your pockets are deep enough, you can have trim made from Californian giant redwood or even stone.

As well as making its own veneers, of course, Crewe manufactures its own seats as part of its mission to create unparalleled luxury in its cars – and the Bentayga’s are supremely comfortable. As standard, the car comes with a split-folding three-seat rear bench. As an option, it can be a strict four-seater, with a raised transmission tunnel console and electrically reclining massager chairs in the rear.

Choose the four-seat layout and you gain a fixed-panel seal for the boot compartment and a slightly quieter cabin but lose the ability to fold down the back seats.

Space in the second row is perfectly generous even for bigger adults. It’s not quite in stretched limousine territory but sufficient that most will hardly notice.

The boot – at as little as 431 litres, depending on optional equipment – isn’t the kind that’ll swallow dog boxes and piles of luggage, although Bentley says it’ll be big enough to meet the demands of customers who don’t expect to use their cars like utility machines.

Bentley’s standard specification gives you an 8.0in colour touchscreen infotainment system with a 60GB hard drive on board, as well as integrated navigation, voice control with text to speech, wi-fi and plenty of other connectivity options.

It’s touchscreen only, though. Unlike in other Volkswagen Group vehicles, there’s no tactile input device, such as a rotary controller, to make inputs easier on the move, and that’s
a bit of a miss, in our book.

The firm’s Naim for Bentley premium audio system costs almost as much as a car in its own right (£6300) and many would say it needs to sound incredible at that money.

But Bentley buyers are unlikely to be mean about cost options, and here they get an absolutely unreal hi-fi system with almost 2000 watts of amplifier power, bass speakers mounted in the seats immediately under your backside and nothing short of breathtaking reproduction quality.


6.0-litre W12 Bentley Bentayga engine

Despite its exceptionally high power and torque outputs and a kerb weight that wouldn’t be unprecedented among lesser SUVs, the Bentley Bentayga isn’t the fastest luxury 4x4 we’ve figured.

With peerless performance being one of the pillars on which the car’s market positioning is built, that fact can’t and won’t be ignored when we decide how many road test stars to hand out.

The Bentayga’s 664lb ft of torque copes with steep gradients very nicely, making towing a piece of overpriced Battenberg

However, when you’re at the car’s wheel, it also hardly seems to matter, because Bentley has covered the still-huge and effortless performance that the car does offer with such a thick, silken blanket of refinement that it strikes you as a quite wonderfully endowed, unique car in any case.

A glance at the foot of this page will reveal by how much Porsche Cayenne Turbo S would outsprint the Bentayga – and it’ll do so well into three-figure speeds. A Range Rover Sport SVR would likewise get its nose in front and keep it there.

But both of those rivals are much more aggressive, uncompromising machines than the Bentley – the Porsche in particular slamming its full-bore gearchanges through the driveline with all the subtlety of a rough-edged Dakar rally special.

The Bentayga is all suave, velvet, discreet civility – even flat out. It declines ever to claw at the road surface, no matter what you do with the right-hand pedal, and it accelerates from a standstill with a gathering surge akin to that of a powerboat rising out of the surf. And it does so with the distant warble of an aristocratic 12-cylinder engine that always seems much too couth to be classed as a growl.

The eight-speed gearbox delivers its gearchanges with a smoothness to savour and is often allowed to take a back seat in the driving experience at moderate throttle openings courtesy of all that low and mid-range torque.

In the Bentayga, Bentley’s overhauled W12 engine does seem a little more responsive than it used to be, albeit still slightly thin and reserved in its delivery at high revs.

Cabin isolation is nothing short of incredible by high-sided SUV standards. On the 22in alloy wheels of our test car, there was a muted hum of road roar in evidence but very little wind noise below fast motorway speeds.

It’s a fact represented by our recording of just 65dB of cabin noise at 70mph. That’s fully 2dB less than in a Range Rover Sport SVR, and only 2dB more than in the much more aerodynamic Mercedes-Benz S350 Bluetec that we figured in 2013. 


Bentley Bentayga cornering

The Bentley Bentayga’s adaptive air suspension and active anti-roll control systems combine to give it a pleasing aloofness from low-frequency lumps and bumps and a resistance to the kinds of exaggerated body movements that you might expect of a car so high, so heavy and so comfort orientated.

Once again, it’s the relaxing refinement and reserve of the car – the imperviousness to most of what passes underneath its axles and the slick, medium-light consistency of the steering weight – that really strike you as special.

The air suspension doesn’t quite have the damping authority to avoid a little axle tramp around the transmission bumps

This plainly isn’t a car that imagines you are interested in a sense of connection with the road surface or with the contact patches of the tyres, and it isn’t out to do anything as imposing as engaging you with the act of driving too much.

It’s Bentley’s familiar dynamic compromise, largely unaffected by the transition onto an SUV.

You select from myriad driving modes using a rotary controller on the transmission tunnel, some intended to configure the car for surfaces such as snow, sand and wet grass and others for day-to-day road driving.

Where the everyday road use is concerned, the car has Comfort, Sport and Custom modes, as well as a Bentley mode, which sets it all up as the engineers would recommend.

And although we heartily approve of the idea of the Bentley mode (which saves you from swapping and changing between modes, never sure if the car is ideally configured), there is just the merest edge to the car’s ride control over camber changes and sharp ridges when you select it, as well as a little more head toss in the cabin than well-heeled passengers might like.

Select Comfort mode instead and the various little vertical accelerations of the ride itself decrease, but at the expense of more high-speed body control than we’d willingly surrender. So Custom mode is the one we’d probably end up using.

A hard-driving style isn’t something the laid-back character of the car seems to encourage, but when you experiment with Sport mode, you find the car’s body
control is remarkably flat and upright and its handling response excellent – up to a point.

Go beyond about eight and a half tenths of effort on a winding road, charging hard at corners, and the security of the car’s grip level can drop away quite suddenly, led by the front axle.

It’s the price of cheating physics with that active anti-roll system and shunning so many opportunities to filter control feedback into the mix – but it doesn’t detract much from the dynamic appeal of the car.

The Bentayga’s torque-laden engine always comes up with a healthy turn of speed when you ask for it, even when hauling this two-and-a-half-tonne car up a steep incline — and the car’s suspension is ready to juggle that mass through a tight turn more quickly than you’d believe possible at first.

The monotone weight of the steering doesn’t communicate grip levels well, though. What’s more, the guessing game you engage in as you approach the edge of that grip level is made all the more difficult by an active anti-roll control system that works the outside front tyre very hard indeed and pushes it quite suddenly into understeer when the time comes.

The torque vectoring and stability control systems react quickly and subtly when it happens and at once prevent the car from straying too far off line and keep it stable.

But outright cornering balance in extremis, and cornering speed, is better in other large performance SUVs we’ve tested of late.


Bentley Bentayga

When it comes to a Bentley, ‘buying’ is a big part of this process, and were that aspect solely responsible for the mark of this section, it’d be five stars all day long.

Bentley doesn’t make cars on spec, only to order – and if you like, you can choose your specification at the factory, where they’ll show you the veneers and the leathers and some of the people who finish or stitch them.

CAP forecast for the Bentayga’s residuals isn’t great, but it does beat the Mercedes-Maybach and Range Rover rivals

The price you’ll end up paying for your Bentley Bentayga, though, is liable to be rather a lot more than the £160,200 that piqued your interest in the first place.

Our test car, without too much bother, had a price that started with a two, but at least there’s the guarantee that yours will be like no one else’s.

That, and the relative scarcity of this model compared with the number of people who’d like one, means that residuals will prove pretty favourable in the short term.

We suggest if you would consider selling the Bentayga in the future, to pick a discreet exterior and interior colour, and it is probably worth the extra opting for the active anti-roll bars while sticking with the 21in alloy wheels. Other than that, fill your boots.

Less so is the fuel economy, particularly if you ask a lot of this car. We returned 19.9mpg overall and no better than 24.8mpg even in fuel-sipping mode. Lesser engines will be available later, and if other Bentleys are anything to go by, they may well be preferable.


4.5 star Bentley Bentayga

The Bentley Bentayga is a hugely significant and accomplished addition to the super-luxury set.

It has been ushered in among cars that, in many cases, it comfortably outstrips on performance and kerb weight – some of them within Bentley’s own range – and that’s despite being an SUV. It adds greater capability and usability to Bentley’s arm than the firm has hitherto offered.

Versatile, genteel, luxurious SUV with a silken sporting edge

If anything, the Bentayga may have come too early to be judged for perpetuity, there being very few direct rivals – yet – against which to measure it.

Against the most refined limousines, it lacks only a degree of ride isolation – and, arguably, some grandiose presence and desirability at the kerb.

Against the fastest SUVs, it wants for that last sliver of speed and dynamic composure.

But viewed in the fairest terms, it must simply be acclaimed as one of the most complete and compelling luxury products in the world.

That is why the Bentayga grabs second spot in our top 5 super luxury category, behind the formidable Rolls-Royce Phantom, but ahead of the Bentley Mulsanne, Mercedes-Maybach S 600 and the Range Rover SVAutobiography LWB.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Bentley Bentayga First drives