What we learned driving the Bentley Bentayga

  by Ronan Glon

What we learned driving the Bentley Bentayga

We were admittedly a little bit puzzled by some of the reactions to the Bentley Bentayga when it made its debut at the 2015 Frankfurt Auto Show. The general consensus was something along the lines of "why the hell would Bentley soil its image with a 4x4?" Some argued Bentley is a passenger car brand with no business encroaching on Land Rover territory. Here's what rarely gets mentioned: before the Bentayga arrived in showrooms, many Bentley owners also owned a Range Rover or a Mercedes-Benz G-Class. Both, in some cases. The demand was already there; Bentley merely filled it. 

Besides, luxury in today's automotive industry means space, performance, amenities, and tech, and the SUV body style shines in the first area by nature. Space opens the door to even more creature comforts and tech features, and Bentley ensured the Bentayga ticks the "performance" box by stuffing an immense W12 engine between the front fenders. The better question is, why wouldn't Bentley build an SUV? It fits the company's image quite well, actually. The rumored Ferrari off-roader? Now that's a different story. 

With this in mind, we spend a week behind the wheel of the Bentayga to find out what it's like to live with. Here's what we learned.

Photography by Ronan Glon.

It turns heads everywhere it goes

Bentley first teased us with the prospect of a mass-produced SUV with the EXP 9 F concept, which broke cover at the 2012 edition of the Geneva Auto Show. It accurately previewed the Bentayga's shape and overall silhouette, but finer points like the design of the front end were met with a collective groan of disdain. The reaction from the public, the press, and prospective buyers sent Bentley designers back to the drawing board at the end of the show.

At launch, the Bentayga stood out with a more flowing and contemporary interpretation of Bentley's design language. Now that the brand-new second-generation Continental GT has arrived we look back and realize the Bentayga set the design beat upcoming Bentley models will march to in the foreseeable future. It's still not to everyone's taste, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One thing is certain: the Bentayga leaves no one indifferent. 

It's supercar-like fast

Let's talk about the elephant in the room: the Bentayga is not a light-weight. It's a concoction of sheet metal, leather, and wood parts that tip the scale at nearly 5,400 pounds. To put that figure into perspective, it's about an entire Mazda MX-5 Miata heavier than the four-door MINI Hardtop. And yet, it posts supercar-like performance figures. Punch the accelerator pedal and the Bentayga briefly hesitates while its two turbos spool up to overcome its considerable mass. The boost hits like thunder, and you're at 60 mph in about four seconds flat. Keep accelerating and you'll eventually reach 187 mph, one of the highest top speeds in the SUV segment. Whether you're passing or merging, you're never short on power.

With supercar-like performance comes supercar-like fuel mileage. The Bentayga returns 14 mpg in the city, 20 mpg on the highway, and 16 mpg in a combined cycle, according to the EPA. Our week-long test in the south of France included a healthy mix of highway and country roads with a little bit of city driving tossed in. We averaged 14-15 mpg.

It's actually fairly capable off-road

We know, we know; there's a certain stigma associated with upscale SUVs like the Bentayga. It starts with an "m" and ends with "all." It's a car built for the mall, right? It'll never go off-road. We talked about this with Rolf Frech, Bentley's outgoing head of research and development, back when the Bentayga made its public debut and he pointed out not many Porsche 911s have ever seen a race track. He brought up a fair point. He also promised the Bentayga is more than capable of holding its own off the pavement if the occasion calls for it.

While we couldn't bring ourselves to tackle anything beyond relatively light off-roading, we noticed the nearly infinite amount of low-end torque from the 12-cylinder helps it crawl over obstacles with relative ease. The All-Terrain driving mode summons an instrument cluster inside the instrument cluster that provides key information such as the tilt angles, the position of each wheel, and the steering angle. You also have the option of raising the air suspension to obtain additional ground clearance. We wouldn't follow a Wrangler up the Rubicon Trail, but we'd feel confident the Bentayga's all-wheel drive system would keep up if we took it through mud, sand, gravel, or snow.

It's high-tech, down to the suspension system

It's easy to associate Bentley with old-school luxury. The company cultivates that image and uses its heritage to give its cars the power to stand out, but that doesn't imply it needs to shun modern tech features. The Bentayga is available with an array of driving aids including adaptive cruise control, a head-up display, and a night vision system useful for detecting pedestrians and larger animals after dark. Its coolest tech feature, however, is invisible unless you crawl under it. It's the 48-volt suspension system. You can't see it, but you feel it behind the wheel.

Electronically-controlled roll bars on both axles draw the extra voltage to virtually eliminate body roll. The Bentayga corners nearly flat no matter how fast you hurl it into a corner. It's a feature you need to experience first-hand to fully appreciate. The system is independent of the damping rate; the suspension is firm in sport mode and much softer in comfort mode, but the amount of body roll that makes it past the 48-volt system stays about the same in both instances. While the Bentayga is deceptively big, when the pace picks up it drives like a much more nimble car. 

The best seats in the house are out back

The Bentayga's cabin is a model of opulence. Our test car came equipped with a pair of individual rear seats that are heated, cooled, reclinable, and separated by a full center console. We also had the optional veneered picnic tables, which are as useful for drawing as they are for setting down a glass of champagne, and a rear entertainment system that adds dual screens. The Bentayga isn't a long-wheelbase model by any means, though Bentley's Mulliner division would probably build you one if you can fund the project from start to finish, but leg room for the rear passengers is more than adequate, even for taller passengers. Factor in chairs designed to provide utmost comfort and the best seats in the house are out back. 

That's not to say the front is a bad place to travel. All of the materials within the driver's reach are top-notch, visibility is excellent, the sound system is superb, and the controls are logically laid out. The buttons on the multi-function steering wheel are the only let-downs in the cabin. They're nearly identical to the ones found in many Audi models, including the A5. The concept of economies of scale isn't lost on us, but surely there were better places from which to source buttons for the Bentayga. How about the Mulsanne?