How Bentley has shifted gears during the pandemic
Midway through its centenary year, we catch up with Bentley, spotlighting the new Bentayga, and the new Continental GT
2020 is Bentley’s centenary year and before pandemic planning became everyone’s focus, the company had a number of special events, launches and new models lined up. For the most part, it’s managed to keep to its schedule, even if the usual glamorous launch itineraries have been swapped out for socially distanced virtual events and car loans.
This year also saw the retirement of Bentley’s Mulsanne model, the company’s former flagship. Cut from a different cloth than its suite of core models, the Bentley Mulsanne was a true throwback to an earlier era, hand-built on a bespoke platform and incorporating the final version of Bentley’s venerable L-Series V8 engine, originally introduced in 1959. Without the Mulsanne, and with the first all-electric Bentley coming ever closer (a date of 2025 has been suggested), the company is in a state of transformation, simultaneously trying to shape a more contemporary and sustainable definition of luxury, while taking care not to shed the sporting luxury ethos that has defined the brand for 100 years.
This summer saw the introduction of a radically revised Bentayga, Bentley’s first foray into the SUV market. The car was originally launched in 2015 and although it has been a strong sales success, it’s never quite shaken its slightly compromised aesthetic image; the Bentayga began life as an ugly duckling. It had much in common with the original Porsche Cayenne, in that it fell short of conveying the key characteristics of its brand, despite containing all the key ingredients.
Since the original Bentayga’s debut, Bentley has gone on to create a triumphant new version of its Continental Grand Tourer, available both in droptop and coupe form with a choice of W12 (coupe only) or V8. It also produced a new generation Flying Spur, the four-door limousine that takes the reigns from the Mulsanne as the new flagship. Both GT and Flying Spur are effortlessly elegant, exceptionally powerful automobiles that also manage to be desirable luxury objects. Can the overhauled Bentayga keep up?
The new car is no longer the ugly duckling of the flock. The detailing has been substantially overhauled, inside and out, with a new nose and new tailgate, both of which draw on the svelte but authoritative forms of the coupe and saloon. In total,1,000 changes differentiate the car from the 20,000 examples already sold (accounting for nearly half of all annual Bentley sales). Inside, there’s a welcome update of the touchscreen interface, bringing it more in line with the best offerings from elsewhere in the VW Group, along with digital dials, wireless phone charging, and an updated removable touchscreen for rear passengers. It goes without saying that the craft, detail and quality remain exceptionally high; this is one of the great contemporary automotive interiors. In 2+2 format (a mildly infuriating waste of space, given this car’s massive scale), every passenger is given a little kingdom of their own, a world of wood and leather.
On the road, the V8 Bentayga embodies that most fundamental of Bentley qualities – effortless power. You sit high, simultaneously commanding over and isolated from all that surrounds you. Refinement is second-to-none, with the engine relegated to a distant hushed rumble at low speeds. Nosing the beast around tight city streets isn’t without its perils, but the cameras and sensors do a good job of guiding you away from embarrassment and eternal YouTube infamy. On highways and fast A roads, the Bentayga is just as much a competent grand tourer as any other Bentley, albeit slightly less fuel efficient (relatively speaking) and not quite as well suited to fast twists and turns. What it does best is blast its way towards the distant horizon, enveloping its occupants with an unassailable sense of power and tradition.
The Continental GT coupe shares the Bentayga’s spirit but presents it in a different form. Both cars have a mechanical complexity akin to that of the highest-end audio or mechanical wristwatch - admirable to certain quarters but baffling to the rest of us. These are truly the last of the V8s. Bentley is working furiously on every aspect of electrification, hoping that the switch from internal combustion to battery is as seamless as possible. Both GT and Bentayga have reached their apogee; it remains to be seen where next to go. §