The Bentley Bentayga certainly looked the business when we encountered it in the shiny new surroundings of Bentley's Crewe CW1 showroom. Being a Bentley, it was a foregone conclusion that the company's new SUV would tick all the boxes in the comfort, refinement, luxury and craft categories. For the vast majority of buyers, of what will soon be the company's number one selling model, these requirements were all that were needed. Bentley, however, had a point to prove, namely that its premium off-roader – the very first at this rarefied market level, it claims – could go beyond merely capable and deliver the kind of rock-hopping performance usually attributed to its Solihull-based rivals.
This, we are told, is the 'ultimate luxury SUV'. Going upmarket and off-road was of course the chief USP of the original Range Rover, way back in the 1970s, but for those seeking even more luxe in their 4x4 armoury, the only option for many years was to go to an aftermarket supplier who could apply the requisite wood and leather trim and transform a proto-agricultural vehicle into something more regal (although the end result tended to be more House of Saud than House of Windsor). In the intervening decades luxury has evolved beyond all recognition, especially in the automotive sphere. Bentley might command enormous respect as a paragon of rock-solid British values, but we know full well that these are expertly filtered through the prism of professionalism that is the VW Group. Nowadays, the craft and quality that defines luxury has to be bolstered by leading performance, engineering and technology.
The Bentayga sets out to create and conquer, thanks to that formidable bank of behind the scenes expertise. Stablemates Audi, VW and Porsche have been building highly capable, high speed SUVs for years, and the Bentayga takes this experience to a whole new level, as befits its mark-up. The mechanical platform below might be shared with Audi’s new Q7 and the next generation Porsche Cayenne, but neither company – adept though they are – has Bentley’s accumulated knowledge of how to shape, style and dress an interior. As a result, the big Bentley’s accommodation roars into first place; if you want your SUV to exude quality and attention to detail, this car is unmatched. Options abound, and that’s before you’ve even dived into the bottomless pool of the company’s Mulliner division.
Below the burnished chrome and wood (we preferred the piano black finishes to the bolder excesses of cabinetry) lurks some very up-to-date technology, and not just in terms of mapping and audio (Bentley’s bespoke Naim system is one of the most powerful ever fitted to an SUV). To switch convincingly between blistering on-road performance and impressive off-road chops, the Bentayga combines raw power with an array of electronic aids.
Over the course of a couple of days in the desert playgrounds around Palm Springs, we scrambled up deeply rutted tracks, powered across the spectacular Algodones Dunes and carved up the remote Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. The Bentayga dispatched every challenge with aplomb, while making light work of the long stretches of interstates in between. On the open road, 600bhp and direct, weighty steering mean that curves and corners can be relished, while those horizon-needling highways are the perfect place to try the car’s ‘assisted driving’ modes, which allow it to essentially drive itself until it feels a legal craving for human touch on the steering wheel.
The fashion for SUVs shows no sign of abating and early indications are that this will be Bentley’s fastest-selling car, effectively doubling the company’s production volumes. Range Rover continues to burnish their flagship with more and more luxury trappings, and rumour has it an even more bespoke model is in the works. The biggest challenge of all comes from former partners Rolls-Royce, who signalled their desire to muscle in – quite literally – on this market and have since maintained a characteristic silence. For now, however, the Bentayga rules its very singular niche.