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First drive: 2019 Bentley Bentayga V8

by Ronan Glon

Does an eight-cylinder engine make the Bentayga better?

Bentley has big plans for the big Bentayga, its first-ever SUV. The model made its debut at the 2015 Frankfurt auto show with a king-sized 12-cylinder engine under the hood. Then came the diesel version, which we're not getting in North America, followed by the V8 and Hybrid variants. It's the eight-cylinder model we traveled to the Austrian Alps to take for a spin.

The specs
Bentley rummaged through the corporate parts bin to find a twin-turbocharged, 4.0-liter V8 engine suitable for its posh 4x4. It's related to the engine that powers the Lamborghini Urus as well as Porsche's Cayenne and Panamera models, but it's not exactly identical. In this application, it makes 542 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 568 pound-feet of torque between 1,950 and 4,500 rpm. In comparison, the Bentayga W12 Bentley launched in Germany nearly three years ago boasts a 6.0-liter 12-cylinder engine with 600 horsepower and a volcano-awakening 664 pound-feet of torque.

It tips the scale in the vicinity of 5,200 pounds -- the final figure depends on how it's configured. Bentley stressed the V8-powered model is only about 75 pounds lighter than the W12. That's not a typo; the small difference surprised us, too. More than anything, it's a testament to the immense effort put into making the 12-cylinder as light as possible. Both engines send their power to the four wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles.

The looks
Exceedingly minor visual differences set the Bentayga V8 apart from the W12 model. Let's start with the front, which is where you'll find the most detectable changes. The grille and the mesh-shaped inserts in the lower part of the bumper are now black instead of chromed. The blacked-out treatment also applies to the vents on the fenders and the trim that surrounds the windows and the lights. Finally, the V8 comes with model-specific exhaust tips.

The look gives Bentley's SUV a subtler appearance it wears well. Don't panic if low-key isn't your thing. You can order an optional body kit that brings a sizable rear spoiler made out of carbon fiber, among other add-ons.

There are no major differences between the two powertrains inside, save for a tachometer with a higher red line. You'd have to be a true Bentley geek to spot that, though. The V8 also earns the honor of being the first Bentley offered straight from the factory with high-gloss carbon fiber trim in lieu of wood veneers.

The inside
The Bentayga draws from the depths of Bentley's illustrious past. It's true, it's loosely based on the latest Audi Q7, but only the buttons on the steering wheel hint at its German genes. The rest is everything you'd expect to find in a Bentley: acres of leather upholstery and a patio's worth of wood. The different parts are impeccably assembled together, making the Bentayga a pleasant place to travel in. In Medieval times, basking in this type of exquisiteness required proving royal blood.

Bentley didn't place the Bentayga on the bleeding edge of tech, but it baked in just enough features to satisfy the demands of today's motorists. Adaptive cruise control? Check. Lane-keeping assist? Yep. Infotainment with navigation? It's there, displayed on an eight-inch touch screen embedded in the dashboard. Using the system requires little adaptation because the various menus are right where you expect to find them. In other words, it's functional without completely blowing you away, which is fine. Some cars sell on tech. This is not one of them.

Comfort and refinement are its main callings in life, and the Bentayga doesn't disappoint. Craftsmen and women mirror-match the wood veneer and stitch the leather by hand. The front seats are heated, cooled, and massaging for your well-being. The rear seats offer the same amenities, with the added bonus of a fully connected rear-seat entertainment system - provided you're willing to pay extra for it.

The drive
Sound was the first thing we noticed after poking the Bentayga V8's ignition button. The W12 model emits a discreet, muffled growl that's menacing yet fully civilized. The eight-cylinder voices a more raucous exhaust note, especially in Sport mode. It's fitting of a model positioned as the performance pick of the litter.

It's true, the V8 has less power and torque on tap than the W12, but the difference isn't as significant as it sounds. The Bentayga V8 performs the benchmark zero-to-60 sprint in 4.4 seconds. That's a few tenths of a second behind the W12. Will you miss them? Maybe, if you regularly visit a drag strip and like to boast about your quarter-mile times. Realistically, in every day driving, where outside factors like roundabouts, other motorists, and deer enter the equation without a formal invitation, it's fairly difficult to pinpoint the difference between the two engines if we're strictly talking about flat-out performance.

The biggest distinction between the two variants, especially when the pace picks up, is that the V8's front end feels noticeably lighter. It's more engaging to drive on a mountain road. It looks like a big car, and it certainly is one, but it behaves like a smaller model. Our tester came with snow tires; we imagine the standard set of Pirelli rubber further improves handling. It also came with the optional carbon ceramic brakes, which stand proud as the biggest front brake system in the world -- bigger than the ones that stop the Bugatti Chiron's 1,500 horses. Commanding the 10-piston calipers through the brake pedal feels like a sailor just jettisoned a cast iron anchor out of the trunk.

The suspension's firmness varies greatly depending on the driving mode selected. In Comfort mode, the Bentayga happily wafts along in a controlled, compliant manner, allowing the rear passengers to enjoy a flute of champagne without spilling an expensive drop on the thick carpet. In Sport mode, the ride becomes markedly firmer. The 48-volt-powered anti-roll system, which our tester came with, erases body roll in normal to moderate cornering. It takes a really, really fast bend (and a correspondingly large dose of courage) to see the Bentayga truly lean into a turn.

The steering provides an adequate amount of feedback. We're not dealing with a Lotus Elise, obviously, but we're also not at the helm of a fishing trawler. It's well-weighted and communicative.

We rarely used the shift paddles during our time behind the wheel. The eight-speed transmission stands out by largely making itself forgotten. It fires off quick, crisp shifts. Summoning a lower gear to pass or climb a hill merely requires giving the V8 a little bit more throttle input. The transmission listens attentively and executes almost immediately.

Bentley promises the V8's low-end torque makes the Bentayga capable off the beaten path. There are several off-road-ready modes, including one for snow and one for sand, plus the option to raise the air suspension when needed. We didn't get to try out its all-terrain chops, though.

The verdict
Bentley Bentayga buyers are, broadly speaking, the discerning type. The kind of motorists that don't like to make compromises. Some will inevitably refuse to settle for anything less than a 12-cylinder engine. For the rest, the V8-powered model stands out as the better Bentayga. It makes up for what it loses in grandeur, chrome, and straight-line performance with better handling, better fuel economy (in theory, at least), and a price tag that leaves a bigger chunk of the bank intact. All told, it's a proposition that's difficult to argue with if you're in the market for a luxurious SUV that's large and in charge.

The Bentley Bentayga V8 will join the W12-powered model in showrooms in the coming months. The V8-powered model will cost approximately $165,000 before factoring in options. If you're counting, that's about $65,000 less than the W12-powered model.

Photography by Ronan Glon.