Walter Owen Bentley founded his car company in 1919, building automobiles that gained a reputation for reliability and build quality akin to that of a steam locomotive. That’s no coincidence, since Bentley spent his formative years as an apprentice with Great Northern locomotives. His credo was “to build a good car, a fast car, the best in class.” He might have also added “big and heavy.” His cars at the time were the antithesis of those built by his competitor Bugatti, whose founder was reputed to have said that W. O. made “the fastest lorries in the world.”
Behemoth quips notwithstanding, Bentleys are automobiles of substance and the Bentayga, at 5,379 lbs, is not easily mistaken for a dainty crossover. Its profile conjures a Bentley Continental on steroids, perched high but sleek and stylish, with a powerful line from the front fender to its rear flanks, short overhangs, low hood and fastback rear window. Development costs exceeded $1.2 billion, proving it to be the beneficiary of serious engineering. This is aptly demonstrated in on-road performance that will shame most sports cars and off-road performance that will embarrass anything short of a bighorn sheep.
The Bentayga’s off-road cred is due to its permanent all-wheel-drive system and sophisticated suspension, operated by one rotary control with four on- and four off-road settings, from sport to sand dune. Computer-controlled air suspension offers four ride heights, while active roll-control technology minimizes body roll and aids steering, handling, axle articulation and wheel grip.
W. O. would doubtless be mystified that a modern Bentley could possess the pull of turn-of-the-century steam engines, the luxury and comfort of the Queen’s mattress and off-road capability approaching that of a military half-track. During our drive, the Bentayga demonstrated all of the attributes of a single-purpose off-road vehicle, whether storming the sand dunes of the Mojave Desert or handily negotiating an obstacle course strewn with felled trees, giant boulders and threatening ravines. Though it is improbable that most Bentayga drivers will ever set wheels in the dirt, there is great reassurance in knowing the firepower is there should nature call.
Out of the grit and onto the asphalt, the Bentayga takes no prisoners. The twin-turbocharged W12 engine makes more torque than horsepower—and it makes 600 of the latter. Remarkably, this engine—the star of the Bentley Continental and Flying Spur range—is more powerful, fuel-efficient and 66 lbs lighter than its predecessors. Massive torque is delivered at a lazy 1,350 rpm through an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission to permanent all-wheel drive. The trailer-towing capacity exceeding 3½ tons makes this marriage of power and performance a real benefit, especially if towing the next Triple Crown winner home from the paddock.
Astute car buffs will cite the Audi Q7, a product from Bentley’s parent company VW, as an influence on the Bentayga. And though they share similar dimensions, the big German offers three rows of seats against the Bentayga’s two-row, four- or five-seat cabin configuration. And what a cabin it is! It is here too that the Bentayga leaves other SUVs, and everything short of a Rolls-Royce, in the sybaritic dust. The luxurious interior reminds one of a giant quilted Chanel handbag, with fine hardware and a level of fit and finish that defines old-world style craftsmanship.
Its exotic name refers to a high, rugged peak in the Canary Islands; its price, on par with Bentley’s Continental, ensures exclusivity as the most costly SUV on the market. Handily optioned with more of what Bentley does best—lavish interior appointments, enhanced trim and wheels—its sticker can easily exceed $300,000. Available in 17 standard and 9 optional paint colors, 15 leather colors, 7 book-matched wood veneers (requiring the labors of 58 artisans to create) and wheel designs ranging from 20- to 22-inches, there are a lot of ways in which the Bentayga can express its owner’s personal tastes. Those who must have it all can add the $167,000 Breitling-for-Bentley Mulliner Tourbillon dashboard timepiece.
The all-terrain chops, volumetric utility, unbridled luxury and concussive performance make it little wonder that the Bentayga’s competition is limited—at most—to the priciest Porsche Cayenne or Range Rover. Until Rolls-Royce ups the ante, the Bentayga is the SUV to beat.