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