Let’s get the Bentayga’s specs out of the way first, because they’re mind-boggling. A top speed of 187 mph. Zero to 60 mph in four seconds. A leviathan 6-liter twin-turbo 12-cylinder engine that produces 600 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque. A sticker price starting at $230,000.
Hear those numbers, and you think of a sleek sports car from McLaren, Lamborghini, or Ferrari. But the Bentayga is an SUV. A family hauler, grocery-getter, and occasional snowcat to the lodge. An absolutely enormous one at that, supremely luxurious, refined, and aromatically sublime (that leather!). But its supercar specs betray even more aspirational goals from the renowned British carmaker.
Demand for luxury SUVs is off the charts globally, and if you’re racing for marketshare against the likes of Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW (with Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini coming soon), packing the palace of Versailles into a seven-seater and calling it done won’t cut it. You need something capable of doing everything, with almost obscene opulence and performance on the track, through the mud, in the snow, over the river, and across the dunes. It doesn’t matter that 98 percent of owners (per Bentley’s admission) won’t ever leave the pavement. They need to know they can.
Which leads us to Bentley’s first SUV, which is the fastest on Earth. At an absolutely porcine 5,379 pounds, the Bentayga is more than a ton heavier than the wickedly capable McLaren 650S, yet offers performance numbers so close to the Mac’s that the difference isn’t worth discussing.
I’m taking the Bentayga up a 35-degree dune, arcing gracefully across the face, then powering down to the trough before ascending the next one.
So let’s talk about sand. Specifically, the spectacular windswept Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area—aka, Glamis Dunes—near the Salton Sea in Southern California. Bentley has pitched a tent and rolled out a fleet of Bentaygas to demonstrate their off-road prowess. I climb into a bronze model and swim out into the khaki-colored ocean as the wind whips the sand, erasing my tracks and almost certainly doing a number on the premium paint.
This sort of terrain is all but impossible to traverse with anything that isn’t specifically engineered for it, like a camel, or the insanely spry buggies carving dunes in the distance. One of them approaches, its driver checking us out. He rides on immense tires and a suspension with travel measured in feet. He looks like he’s ready for the Paris-Dakar. Someone asks him what kind of power his Chevrolet Corvette engine makes. Six-hundred horsepower, he says.
Us too! But that’s where the similarities end. The dune buggy speeds gracefully over the sand like a gazelle across the Serengeti, with enough torque to carry a wheelie for 100 yards. The Bentayga is more serene. The newly redesigned W12 engine (think of two V6 engines side by side) uses some cool software tricks to switch between direct and indirect fuel injection as needed to optimize fuel efficiency and emissions. Coupled with the ability to deactivate six cylinders while cruising down the highway, the Bentayga scores a tolerable 18 mpg combined. The engine propels the SUV with all due authority, but our assault on the sand is more stately. How could it not be, at almost three tons? It’s also a hell of a lot more comfortable. Dune Buggy Dude doesn’t even have doors. I’m swaddled in leather and pampered with massaging seats, soft-close doors, and a panoramic sunroof. The Bentayga is not nearly so spacious or imperial as Bentley’s flagship Mulsanne sedan, but retains the brand’s honed feel of extreme luxury.
And engineering. I discover this while attacking a 35-degree incline before arcing gracefully across the face of the dune and powering down the other side, only to do it all again. It’s remarkably easy with the Bentayga’s air suspension, which can provide as much as nine inches of travel, an optional traction management program with eight settings for just about any environment short of the Rubicon Trail, and more than enough torque to get you over, or through, anything. The day didn’t go off without a hitch—a Bentayga occasionally bottomed out or got hung up and need a tow, but the problem was invariably operator error, someone with less skill than courage. And in every case, another Bentayga did the towing.
If you spend more time in the woods or on the trail than on the sand, no worries. All the same tech works there, too. We hit the mud and rocks 100 miles from Glamis and the Bentayga was similarly poised and confident. The SUV won’t scramble over boulders or conquer the Baja 500, but let’s be honest. Exactly zero buyers would want to.
They’re also highly unlikely to hammer the big Bentley on a track, but if they felt the need, the Bentayga is more agile than anything this big ought to be. Bentley turned us loose on Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, a 2.7-mile circuit with 17 turns. Its sophisticated electric active roll technology—the first in an SUV, and far faster than customary passive mechanical systems—keeps this thing flatter than last night’s champagne through the turns. It’s unflappable. It clearly works very hard keeping a top-heavy truck poised during hard cornering, but it does the job admirably.
Apart from a few white knuckle moments—I did say this thing weighs almost three tons, right?—the Bentayga is poised on the track, the tires squealing just enough to keep things interesting. Bringing something this big down from triple-digit velocities requires serious brakes, though, and the massive cast-iron rotors overheat quickly. Bottom line? The Bentayga can handle the track, but isn’t exactly at home there.
Of course, anyone spending $230,000 for a truck is far more likely to hammer an onramp to the freeway than the front straight at Chuckwalla and probably cares more about opulence than performance. And here the Bentayga shines. The quilted leather is sublime. The metalwork gleams. The optional Naim sound system is like having the LA Philharmonic riding with you. And of course there’s a long list of electronic gadgets for damn near everything you can think of, including self-parking. And because money is no object for people at this end of the market, there are options aplenty, including a custom picnic set and a $150,000 Breitling Tourbillon clock. Because of course there is.
Aesthetically, the Bentayga is a bit of a puzzle, with all the features, motifs, and character lines Bentley is known for, and a pair of rear haunches that looks quite capable of twerking. With a honking big grille and oversize round headlights, the front of the Bentayga is questionable, but unquestionably Bentley. You may not find it attractive, but it is dramatic, it is different, and you’ll never mistake it for its more plebeian cousin, the Audi Q7, which which the Bentayga shares its DNA (your golf buddies don’t need to know that). And when you’re spending this kind of money on a vehicle, how it looks and feels is at least as important as how it performs—even if most people will never explore its outer limits.