Mo­tor­ing

From its price to its tech­ni­cal specs, the Ben­tayga SUV is a state­ment of ex­cess

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - DAN NEIL

Lux­ury meets util­ity: Bent­ley’ss Ben­tayga SUV.

Fast and fun: Jeremy Clark­son in the Suzuki Swift.

We be­gin with a num­ber: $US253,242. That’s the euro-to-dol­lar price in the US of this week’s test car, the Bent­ley Ben­tayga SUV, in all its quilted-leather, wal­nut-pan­elled fab­u­los­ity. And a ques­tion: Can you ever imag­ine go­ing off-road in such an au­to­mo­bile? No, right? It would be like dig­ging a ditch with one of those cer­e­mo­nial golden shov­els, or us­ing Per­sian cats as beasts of bur­den.

But one could. Be­neath its sham­bolic styling, the Ben­tayga is a highly evolved SUV with air sus­pen­sion. In fact, there is a large, hand­some knob right there mid-con­sole for the pur­pose, whence one can dial up any of eight drive modes, ad­just­ing to a va­ri­ety of ter­rains, be it snow, sand or the un­der­class, who gen­er­ally of­fer low trac­tion.

Th­ese thoughts whis­pered to me dur­ing my two­day flight across the Aus­trian Alps. I mean. I could. I think. Those all-sea­son tyres didn’t look like they had a lot of bite. I kept pass­ing th­ese dark, steep tracks head­ing up into the forests, where lo­cals have been al­lowed to har­vest tim­ber for cen­turies.

Strewn with fallen limbs and chopped fire­wood, th­ese paths are of­ten quite a bit steeper than they look, which is how I found my­self eas­ing back­ward in a 2.5-tonne glory wagon with the ter­rain-re­sponse sys­tem chat­ter­ing, re­sist­ing what promised to be a ter­ri­bly re­fined and el­e­gant rollover. Oh, the cham­pagne flutes are not go­ing to like this.

Leav­ing me mid-slide for the mo­ment, let’s in­ter­ro­gate this no­tion of a quar­ter-mil­lion-dol­lar SUV. It’s frus­trat­ing be­cause it brings into prox­im­ity con­trary no­tions: lux­ury and util­ity. This has re­al­world con­se­quences.

For ex­am­ple, af­ter climb­ing up and down from the Ben­tayga a few times to take pic­tures, I found mud from my shoe had smooshed into the pre­vi­ously pris­tine door speaker grille (from the es­o­teric and awe­some Naim Au­dio com­pany). I also did un­speak­able things to deep woollen floor mats.

Of course, that’s what chauf­feurs, valets and de­tail­ers are for. I mean, I get that my dis­quiet is pe­tit bour­geois. Still, ab­so­lutely noth­ing about the dozen or so per­fectly matched and dyed cowhides, nor about the 17 sep­a­rate pan­els of ve­neer, nor all the plated-metal bright­work, fine-knurled knobs and pica-fine trim makes you want to put kids in there. Or a dirty sad­dle. Or the para­pher­na­lia that you need to go hot-air bal­loon­ing.

The Ben­tayga — Swahili for “car­ried in­ter­est” — thus oc­cu­pies a strange state of be­ing ter­ri­bly del­i­cate while also be­ing built like the SS Kaiser Wil­helm II. The smoker’s pack­age’s por­ta­ble ash­tray (fit­ting in the var­i­ous cuphold­ers) is heavy enough to kill a man.

Built on Volk­swa­gen’s full-size SUV ar­chi­tec­ture (Audi Q7/next-gen Porsche Cayenne), the Ben­tayga is dis­tin­guished from its less-well-born cousins first by its ut­terly ridicu­lous 6.0-litre tur­bocharged W12 gas re­ac­tor, pro­duc­ing 900Nm of torque with the ghostly waft of the Fly­ing Dutch­man.

Just aft of the eight-speed trans­mis­sion, there’s an elab­o­rate and com­pletely au­to­matic all-wheel drive sys­tem, hooked to four mighty fine al­loy wheels, up to 22-inch­ers. In Sport mode, the Ben­tayga low­ers it­self on to its air springs and just storms silently at triple-digit speeds, still nearly 2m in the air. Ad­mi­ral, de­ploy the seat-back pic­nic ta­bles.

Bent­ley claims the Ben­tayga will be the fastest (301km/h top speed), most pow­er­ful (447kW) and most ex­clu­sive SUV on the mar­ket, and here, dear reader, you need a lit­tle con­text.

Volk­swa­gen is in the process of in­un­dat­ing the global 1 per cent with fast, fancy SUVs, in­clud­ing the next-gen­er­a­tion Porsche Cayenne, the Audi Q7 and all their luxed up, drunk-with-horse­power vari­ants, plus plug-ins.

I wasn’t there, but there cer­tainly must have been a meet­ing of the top-divi­sional brass, which set­tled upon the mes­sage: Bent­ley would have the high­est price, most nom­i­nal horse­power and top speed, and the ex­clu­sive use of that mon­ster W12; Porsche could claim high­est dy­namic per­for­mance; Audi’s elite E-tron brand will carry the green ban­ner.

Car buffs, let me spare you the sus­pense. Bent­ley cer­tainly will build a V8-pow­ered Ben­tayga, and a

fast­back coupe Ben­tayga, and it cer­tainly will build a smaller but equally ex­clu­sive SUV in the com­ing years, be­cause the brand’s skip­per, Wolf­gang Durheimer, is the mad king and he wants global sales in ex­cess of 20,000 an­nu­ally.

But Rolls-Royce can play that game, and will too. Mercedes-May­bach might also have a vast rolling cathouse to of­fer the dis­crim­i­nat­ing pub­lic.

The Ger­man car­mak­ers are about to con­duct tank warfare in the streets of Moscow, Shang­hai, Doha, Sao Paulo and Bev­erly Hills.

Ben­tayga’s world­wide pro­duc­tion is pegged at 5500 units, and most of those will have some de­gree of per­son­al­i­sa­tion, in­clud­ing cus­tom colour­matched paints and leathers, a choice of seat­ing ar­range­ments, seven-pas­sen­ger, five-pas­sen­ger or four-pas­sen­ger, the last with quilted leather lounges and an elec­trochro­matic par­ti­tion be­tween the mas­ter/mis­tress and the driver. Let’s call him Nigel. Don’t for­get the hat.

The in­stru­men­ta­tion, telem­at­ics and IT are all state of the art. En suite is the com­pany’s lat­est and great­est in driver’s as­sis­tance. The 22-way ad­justable driver seat was marvy.

Here and there, I do long for aes­thetic re­straint. I wish the whole af­fair looked a bit less like a Chi­nese plu­to­crat’s cof­fin; but, yes in­deed, this is quite some truck.

The ex­te­rior is a crime scene. And I have pa­tiently ex­plained to th­ese masters of the uni­verse why.

For one thing, the Ben­tagya’s pro­por­tions, though vast, are com­mon­place. Why? Be­cause, as a ve­hi­cle built on Volk­swa­gen’s MLB shared ar­chi­tec­ture, the one di­men­sion it could not change was the dash-to-axle (the dis­tance be­tween the front-wheel cen­tre line and the base of the roof pil­lar, as seen from the side). And the el­e­gant length of that is the one uni­ver­sal sig­ni­fier of per­for­mance and ex­clu­siv­ity in elite and pres­tige au­to­mo­bil­ity, go­ing back to the ear­li­est cars.

The Ben­tayga looks like a gi­ant Toy­ota, raves The

Wall Street Jour­nal.

But, of course, I’m wrong. As Volk­swa­gen board mem­ber Rolf Frech told me at the Geneva Mo­tor Show this month, the gram­mar of pres­tige au­to­mo­biles, the di­alect of envy, has for­ever changed.

The long black car has been pushed aside. To­day, the sta­tus au­to­mo­bile is one of th­ese boxy gi­ants, chrome ablaze. I want to sit in the back of a Bent­ley Ar­nage and cry.

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