World’s fastest lorry, Bentley Bentayga, first drive, CAR+ January 2016

Published: 16 December 2015

► We drive the new Bentley Bentayga SUV
► Introducing the world’s fastest SUV
► 0-62mph in 4.0sec and 187mph top speed. Hold on tight! 

Marbella, Spain. ‘Would you drive this hard if this was your own vehicle?’ Bentley chief Wolfgang Dürheimer is not amused. What’s irking the man are the smelly drifts of smoke rising from all four brakes at a coffee stop. ‘Better take it to the next village and back for a cool-down drive.’ Yes, sir! 

A few clicks down the road the brakes begin to recover but there’s no smoke without fire, and in this case the issue is the Bentayga’s 2422kg kerb weight and the mighty thrust provided by the latest iteration of Bentley’s 6.0-litre W12 engine. Why steel brakes? ‘Because the carbon ceramic brakes are not ready yet,’ admits senior engineer Rolf Frech. So Bentley’s first SUV can give its brakes a hard time, but perhaps this apparent failing is instead a triumph – after all, aren’t steaming anchors proof of a driver having fun?

Truth is I am having fun – even as the brake pedal travels closer to the firewall, its bite giving way to a determined but less fierce hold, not once do we over-shoot an apex or run out of road. This surprisingly benign at-the-limit attitude comes courtesy of an active body control system, BDR (Bentley Dynamic Ride). Explains Frech: ‘Unlike other mostly hydraulically-operated applications, BDR is powered by an electric motor capable of responding a lot faster. Since BDR saps a fair bit of energy, the Bentayga uses 48-volt electrics. In combination with the air suspension and the adjustable dampers, the electro-mechanical anti-roll bars are key to the best-in-class vehicle dynamics and controllability.’

Q7-esque rear end has all the shape and tension of a baggy sofa

Best in class means better than Porsche’s Cayenne Turbo S and the BMW X6M, and despite its cathedralic stance, vast proportions and grandma-would-love-it detailing, the Bentayga is right up there and a proper driver’s car; fast and involving. Turn-in is sharp and devoid of excessive body roll, early understeer or a wayward rear end. Even when cornering noisily along the limit of adhesion, the heavyweight SUV remains flat and composed, stable and attentive. And yet the ride is superb, though bested by the latest Audi Q7. How come? Because dealing with 187mph requires, among other things, tyres with stiff sidewalls and a taut suspension tuned for stability. So BDR is the Bentayga’s secret weapon, a notion confirmed when a software glitch momentarily deactivates the system and the sure-footed crossover becomes a ponderous colossus. But the steering’s good too; linear, precise and responsive. True, there are equally gifted SUVs down a good stretch of road, but they all lose their ride comfort when asked to go at ten-tenths. Not so the remarkable Bentayga.

Naturally the price is equally remarkable; £160,200 unadorned with a single cost-option. You’ll need another £4520 for All-terrain Specification (Responsive Off-Road Control, top-view cameras and underbody protection), a further £3925 for City Specification (park assist, pedestrian warning, reverse traffic warning and traffic sign recognition) and £5900 for the Touring Specification complete with adaptive cruise control, head-up display, night vision and lane assist. Racking up £50k in options is, as you’d imagine, child’s play. And that’s before you get into the personalisation options afforded by such ‘must-haves’ as the picnic hamper set or the carbonfibre styling and anodised demi-black brightwork kit which gives the Bentayga a batmobile touch.Money-no-object clients who order special paint, bespoke leather and high-end sounds should brace themselves for a total in excess of £225k.   

A less expensive Bentayga with a V8 engine (in petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid forms) will follow, but for now the only available powerplant is the re-engineered 6.0-litre W12 with cylinder deactivation, direct and indirect fuel injection and a start-stop system which cuts the engine long before you come to a halt. Fuel consumption is down 11.9% to a highly theoretical 21.6mpg, while torque rises to 664lb ft (on tap from 1350pm). Power – 600bhp – is only 26bhp short of the mighty Continental GT Speed. The transmission comprises an eight-speed auto and four-wheel drive, helping the Bentley to 62mph in four seconds flat, its rivals from Munich, Stuttgart and Solihull hot on its heels. Beyond 175mph though, the Bentayga is without peer, thanks in part to the remarkably slippery drag coefficient of just 0.24.

There’s little to write home about in a Bentley that’s good on road, but what about off it? Bentayga sits on the same long-wheelbase platform as the Audi Q7, and they also share the same Drive Dynamics Control/Drive Select concept. The base model lets you choose from Sport, Comfort, Bentley (what messieurs Dürheimer and Frech think is best for you) and Custom. All Terrain spec adds four more programmes: snow and grass; dirt and gravel; mud and trail; and sand. Despite hill descent control and the height-adjustable suspension, dedicated off-roaders should neither opt for the boy-racer styling kit nor for the exposed 22in rims.Room enough for big Georg, though he and the W12 proved a stern challenge for the Bentayga’s brakes

From memory, the Range Rover is a much better mud wrestler than the Bentayga, but in truth both cars are happier on tarmac, and in this environment the Bentley is a very compelling proposition, and several leagues above the stodgy Touareg V8 TDI or now-defunct 12-cylinder Audi Q7. Opt for Sport mode, switch off the ESC – a seven-second push, until a second yellow warning light appears – and pull the gearlever down into M for manual. Now an empty roundabout is all it takes to re-acquaint yourself with the throttle-induced torque vectoring and power oversteer, and from now on every sighted second-gear bend is an invitation to paint the tarmac black.

True, Bentayga isn’t the only slide-meister in the big-money SUV segment. Range Sport SVR, X5M and Cayenne GTS are equally talented figure skaters, and they do sound more enthusiastic doing so than the monosyllabic Bentley. ‘Wait a minute,’ intervenes former Porsche r&d honcho Rolf Frech. ‘To dial in higher cornering speeds and louder exhaust notes is not rocket science. But the typical Bentley customer is a style-conscious connoisseur, not a rich hooligan. Which is why our set-up can never be black and white. A Bentley must incorporate the best of all worlds.’

Judged thus, the Bentley is an impressive compromise. It’s always honest and transparent, its movements are progressive and predictable, and the electronic assists take a back seat when you’re feeling playful, the car’s cornering attitude receptive to your steering and throttle inputs. But you’ll need to be quick to catch the heavy, distant tail, and only a slow-in, fast-out methodology prevents front tyre meltdown.   

There was something else, was there not? Ah yes – the design. An early Donckerwolke, so to speak, but not exactly Luc’s best effort. Although the marque has a new top talent, Sungyup Lee, who penned the EXP 10, the EXP 9 concept that previewed the Bentayga was brash and overly glamorous. Nonetheless the response from  customer clinics was wildly enthusiastic, which explains why the interior was transferred virtually unchanged to the production model, and why the exterior underwent only minor alterations. The olde worlde styling still seems a little uncomfortable in its own skin, but I’m told it grows on you… 

As usual, Bentley’s pricing is ambitious. While two ashtrays and a cigar lighter are a steal at £440, collectors are being invited to pay some £110k for a Tourbillion clock by Breitling. Four such timepieces are being assembled by the Swiss master craftsmen each year, and the option is one clue as to the market’s hunger for Bentayga. Another is that the next year’s production run, some 5500 units, is already spoken for.

Object may be approaching at 187mph

Up against

Better than: Porsche Cayenne Turbo S – If you must have the world’s fastest SUV

Worse than: Range Rover Autobiography – If you care a jot about what it looks like 

We’d buy: Porsche Cayenne Turbo S – And pocket a cool £42k… 

The specs: Bentley Bentayga

Price: £160,200 
Engine: 5950cc 48v W12, 600bhp @ 5000rpm, 664lb ft @ 1350rpm 
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Performance: 4.0sec 0-62mph, 187mph, 21.6mpg, 292g/km CO2 
Weight: 2422kg 
On sale: Now

Love – Interior, power, torque, ride/handling balance
Hate – Price, burning brakes, dull voice
Verdict – The SUV has its Veyron moment
Rating – ****

By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel