In 2011, Bentley’s new CEO decided to get into the luxury SUV market.
Wolfgang Durheimer, the incoming boss, had migrated across parent company Volkswagen Group from the Porsche division. He saw what the popular Cayenne crossover had done for Porsche’s bottom line.
Durheimer gave the Bentley engineers a simple mandate: Make the most powerful, most luxurious and most exclusive SUV on the planet.
With the 2017 Bentley Bentayga, the company’s first crossover, he appears to have succeeded.
Bentley engineers created a new engine for the Bentayga, a turbocharged, 6-liter, 12-cylinder engine that makes 600 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque.
This huge power plant will push the Bentayga from zero to 60 mph in under four seconds and take it to a top speed of almost 190 mph.
That takes care of powerful.
Like all Bentleys — we reviewed the Continental GT Speed awhile back — the Bentayga is an exercise in understated elegance.
The upholstery is fine, hand-stitched leather and comes in so many color combinations that each one is essentially handmade. The dashboard and door panels are made of hand-crafted wood, which comes in similarly complex custom combinations. The dials and mechanical switches are hand-tooled and deeply chromed, from what feels like aircraft-grade material — down to the little buttons that open and close the air-conditioning vents.
So, that takes care of luxurious.
The Bentayga will have a base MSRP of $231,895. The “First Edition” versions that already have been shipped to our shores start at just over $300,000.
And that takes care of exclusivity.
The Bentayga is one of the most elegant and stately cars on the road. Never mind how it compares to other luxury SUVs. There’s nothing in its class.
On the road, at speed, it’s like driving a library, or a very small gentleman’s club — if the club could get up on its hind legs and roar like a lion while still maintaining its dignity.
It handles nimbly, too, despite its 2 1/2-ton heft. This is due in part to the English car company’s experience on the racetrack and in part to some new Bentley technology that uses twin electric motors to power the suspension and offset the sway that is common to top-heavy SUVs and trucks.
This technology, exclusive to Bentley, probably will begin appearing in other vehicles in the Volkswagen Group family.
For now, it makes the Bentayga a strikingly agile car. On the twists and turns along Big Tujunga Canyon, it felt more like a track car than a luxury SUV.
That bespoke suspension feature engages automatically when the car is shifted into “Sport” mode, which also unleashes all of the Bentayga’s horsepower and torque.
Other transmission choices include the recommended “Bentley” mode, a soggier “Comfort” option for bumpy city streets and a variety of settings specific for sand and gravel, snow and ice, rocks and ruts, and more.
Despite those settings, the Bentayga’s product line director, Peter Guest, said the company’s consumer research indicated that very few prospective owners would be willing to take their $250,000 SUVs off-road, even though they could.
“We want them to know they can go anywhere in this vehicle,” Guest said.
I understand the hesitation. But I figured, what the heck, it’s a loaner! So I left the pavement and let the Bentayga show me its stuff.
On some dirt roads along Big Tujunga, without pushing the big car anywhere near its limits, I found it surprisingly capable and confidence-inspiring.
For those who do wander off-road, Bentley has created some special options, including the world’s most luxurious picnic basket set and fly-fishing rack. A clay pigeon shooting kit is also said to be available.
For everyday, in-town use, Bentley has given the Bentayga a suite of sophisticated driver-assistance programs. One will do literally all of the slow-speed highway driving. Under 20 mph, it will creep along, stopping, starting and even steering without any driver input.
Another program will brake for you if, in a parking lot, you’re about to hit another car or, in a crosswalk, you’re about to roll over a pedestrian.
The Bentayga also will parallel park itself, although, unlike the S-class Mercedes-Benz sedans, it does ask that the driver work the gas and brake pedals.
Some prospective buyers may be impressed, and others put off, by the Bentayga’s stylistic restraint.
The signature power line running almost the length of the sides of the car, and the classic Bentley grille, don’t look like anything else on the road. But otherwise, the Bentayga could be mistaken for an unbadged Land Rover, or an oversized Lexus. On the SUV-heavy Los Angeles landscape, it’s almost anonymous.
But it’s not perfect. Because it’s a first-year car, perhaps, or because it’s Bentley’s first SUV, the Bentayga doesn’t do everything as well as it should.
Despite the massive horsepower and torque, the big car suffers from a bit of turbo lag when you really make the pedal meet the metal. The adaptive cruise-control system brakes, accelerates and holds the lane clumsily for a car of such technical sophistication and elegance. And that lovely Bentley grille? Because of concerns for pedestrian safety, a Bentley officer said, it’s plastic.
The open question is: Is the world ready for a $250,000 SUV?
Bentley research, according to Guest, suggests it is. He said the company’s target customer already owns four to six vehicles. One of them is already an SUV — in most cases a Land Rover or Cayenne. And that Land Rover or Cayenne, Guest said, is likely to be the most expensive version, priced at $100,000 to $150,000.
Still, that’s a long way from $250,000.
Early orders for the 2017 vehicle suggest Bentley’s Bentayga bet is a safe one. The company originally hoped to sell 3,500 of the luxury SUVs a year. But it already has orders for 5,500, and believes 6,000 cars annually might be more like it. (If it sells more than that, the Bentayga would be the best-selling Bentley ever.)
Company officers are looking at ways to expand the factory in Crewe, England, where the Bentaygas are assembled alongside the Mulsannes, Flying Spurs and Continental GTs.
Several hundred of the premier cru Bentaygas are headed for America and will start appearing on L.A. streets this fall.
2017 Bentley Bentayga
Times take: World’s first truly luxurious SUV
Highs: Rides and drives like a dream
Lows: At that cost, it should be perfect — but it isn’t
Vehicle type: Four-door, four-passenger SUV
Base price: $231,825
Price as tested: $300,125
Powertrain: 6-liter, twin-turbo, 12-cylinder gasoline engine
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, full-time AWD
EPA fuel economy rating: 19 miles per gallon, 12 mpg city, 15 mpg combined
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