Offroading in the Bentley SUV that costs 12 Hondas – The Verge

Posted: Tuesday, March 08, 2016

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.


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bentley-bentayga-harper-02


Well, to that entire analysis, I now throw up my hands and say: to hell with it. Practicality be damned. The Bentayga beguiled me. If I owned a bevy of Tom Ford suits and gifted my lady friends Birkin bags for their birthdays, the leather-fragrant scent of the Bentayga would be mightily enticing. An average Bentayga owner already has seven cars in the garage. That garage is probably part of a very big house, perhaps in a town of Connecticut that ends in “’wich” or in California with a zipcode that ends in “0210.” This is not the world that you or I likely live in.

The market for luxury SUVs clearly exists. Bentley executives say that they noticed that whenever customers were invited to an outdoorsy event, they all showed up in their Range Rovers. Still, it’s a wonder that already Bentley can’t keep up with the initial demand; the company is trying to up its 2017 model-year production from 3,600 units to 5,500. According to executives, pre-orders number more than 10,000 already. Buyers are desperate for the Bentayga.

Very few of those would-be customers have actually driven the vehicle yet. I have. And I was won over by one totally unexpected reason: the Bentayga is hella fun to drive.

Let’s play the game of Let’s Pretend. Let’s pretend that you’ve added the Bentayga to your car collection and you’re going to take a road trip with the intent to use the SUV in all its modalities. You could head to Morocco, where you could bash through the dunes and hang out with the nomadic Berbers. And you could also drive in the incomparable Atlas Mountains, where you could throw a bash at the Kasbah Tamadot luxury resort and its nomadic owner, Richard Branson. But then there would be all that shipping and dealing with customs (and listening to Branson talk about space), and so maybe something closer to home.

Like Palm Springs. With its swank hotels and nearby deserts and gnarly mountain roads.



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bentley-bentayga-harper-03


The adventure might begin with a lonely highway blast away from town and to the desert, past the Salton Sea, on your way to the Algodones Dunes. It’s a couple hours’ drive without much to look at, so instead you’ll notice how damn quiet the SUV is, even at 85 mph. Not just the engine, but the lack of wind and tire noise and the honk-honk-honk of oncoming trailer tractor rigs. You can’t hear any of it. True luxury is often the lack of outside irritants.

Then there are the seats. Why yes, they’re Tempur-Pedic comfortable, but you expected that. So too the phenomenal fit and finish and beauty of the stitching and burled wood veneers and the weight of the knobs and general feng shui of the interior. More than 130 hours of handwork goes into each Bentayga at its Crewe, England factory, which is one of the reasons why it’s hard for the company to ramp up production.

The back seats aren’t as big as expected. You’ve ordered it with two rear buckets, and they are comfy too, but there isn’t the leg-flinging, splayed-out, supine-sleeping expectation of a long-wheelbase Bentley Mulsanne or Rolls-Royce Phantom. Some of your colleagues would be miffed at that. The 17.1 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats is miserly as well. Surely a long-wheelbase will be on offer eventually. Range Rover makes one, after all.



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bentley-bentayga-harper-04


As for highway driving and the claimed top speed of 187 mph? Yes, you can believe that. Eventually the SUV will be offered with smaller engines and even a plug-in hybrid. But right now it comes with a fearsome twin-turbo W-12, offering 600 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque. The Bentley shoulders through the air like the Large Hadron Collider splits atoms, using a prodigious energy source and a lot of blunt force.

Depending on your regard for speed limits, you’d soon reach California’s Imperial Sand Dunes recreation area. You’ve never seen anything like it in North America. Super tall, Lawrence of Arabia-worthy mounds of sand, much of it moving all around you, carried by a high wind. You’re no desert-driving expert — you’ve got people for that — and one of them simply lets some air out of the tires of the Bentayga to produce better grip in deep sand. He then jumps in the passenger seat, suggests you select the “sand” setting on the traction and terrain control, and then urges you drive up the side of a dune, a really tall one, and basically surf along its crest. (This is legal. The area is run by the Bureau of Land Management and the area hosts all types of weird Mad Max-style off-roaders.)

The sand is thick and loose and the SUV is heavy. Gravity and the slippery surface want to tug you back down — perhaps via a series of efficient, SUV-wrecking barrel rolls — but the engine torque is more than equal to the challenge and the Bentayga tunnels through, spraying sand everywhere. Bentley engineers tested the truck in places like Dubai (where it might actually be used in dunes) and the Bentayga’s desert abilities are quite real.

Huh. Go figure.



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bentley-bentayga-harper-05


Heading back toward Palm Springs, your next order of business is a windy road. Like, a really windy road. There’s a well known one around here coined the Palm to Pines Scenic Byway (CA-74), which heads out of the city up and up the nearest mountainside, complete with dicey switchbacks. And, there again, the Bentley surprises. It doesn’t disguise its heft the way a BMW X6 M does; you certainly know that you’re in a weighty SUV. But in the stiffest suspension setting, the truck blitzkriegs through corners.

Thank the magic of classic over-engineering. The truck uses adaptive shocks and air springs, and also employs a novel system of hydraulic sway bars to counteract body roll. This anti-roll system is powered by electric motors that run off an unusual 48-volt power supply. As the electrical needs on automobiles multiply, we’ll be seeing a lot more high-voltage systems in cars, and this is an awfully nifty example of its potential. (Fellow VW Group brand Audi has been experimenting with 48-volt systems lately, too.)


The Bentayga is an absurdly fine-tuned organism

The outcome is that the truck is fun to drive. The steering is superb and the steel brakes work wonderfully and confidence blooms in your heart as you overtake slower sports cars. The Bentayga is an absurdly fine-tuned organism, where no element feels weak or suboptimal.

On this multimodal trek, you might even find yourself on an off-road course with rough log “bridges” and steep off-camber climbs. And hell, perhaps even a racetrack like Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, a road course in the middle of the desert. And you’d find that the truck — which seems a rude name for this level of excellence, actually — is each time better than it probably needs to be. It is able in the dirt and not even completely ridiculous around a road course.

Somewhere among the highway and the dunes and the dirt and the racetrack, you may decide that you’ve made a pretty good choice after all, and this SUV might even replace several of those seven other cars in your really big garage. So to you, it might be worth $281,100.

Besides, you can’t drive a dozen Honda CR-Vs at the same time, anyway.


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