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2021 Bentley Bentayga first drive review: Better in all the right ways

Small styling tweaks and a major tech upgrade bring Bentley's ultra-posh Bentayga to the top of its game.

2021 Bentley Bentayga
Alpine Green? Heck yeah.
Steven Ewing/Roadshow

The best thing about the new Bentayga is that Bentley didn't try to fix what wasn't broken. The good things remain intact: Strong V8 power, confident road manners, an opulent interior -- you know, Bentley stuff. Instead, the updates focus on strengthening the Bentayga's weak points. The result is an SUV that isn't all that different from its predecessor, yet at the same time it's better in a number of big ways.

The 2021 Bentayga is a little more attractive than before, though I still struggle to call it pretty. The front end is better, with the same crystal-like headlamps as the Continental GT. The Conti's influence carries around to the back, too, where big oval taillamps shine a familiar light signature. The full-width tailgate is also new, which not only gets rid of some ugly cut lines, but expands the opening to the generous hatch.

The Bentayga's interior is lovely, with exquisite materials and fantastic attention to detail. The intricate stitching is flawless, the fit and finish nothing short of superb. The doors close with the authority of a bank vault and softly seal you inside. The redesigned seats have a diamond-quilted pattern that looks killer, especially alongside the 3D leather on the door and geometric trim on the dashboard. It's hard to tell from my lousy photos, but the Cumberland Green hide of this tester is absolutely ace, and the comfy chairs offer heating, cooling and massage. Rear passengers have about 4 more inches of legroom than before, and there's a tablet on the back of the center console, so back-seat riders can control the Bentayga's climate and infotainment functions. A pair of USB-C outlets will keep those passengers' devices charged, too.

Which brings me to the big ta-da of the 2021 Bentayga: new cabin tech. A 10.9-inch touchscreen is capped by redesigned (and fancy) air vents with Bentley's delightfully tactile plungers. The infotainment tech is essentially a Bentley-specific version of Audi's latest MMI software, with the same haptic feedback touch response, colorful graphics and easy-to-use menu structure. I'm a big fan of MMI, and it's a huge improvement over the literally decades-old software found in the old Bentayga. Wireless Apple CarPlay comes standard, as does Android Auto, and there's a charging pad just ahead of the gear shifter, so if you forget your iPhone ($500 at Best Buy) cable, you're still good to go.

The new digital gauge cluster is reminiscent of Audi's Virtual Cockpit, though less robust in its level of customization. Indeed, good as the Bentayga's new tech is, it's still a step behind what Audi offers. There's no secondary screen on the console for handwriting recognition, like what you get in an A6 or A7. The Bentayga doesn't support a full-screen map experience on the gauge cluster display, either, which is actually my favorite way to use Virtual Cockpit.

Without going into too much detail about VW Group platform and technology sharing, I'll admit it's a little weird that the Bentayga uses Audi's infotainment tech while the Continental GT and Flying Spur rely on a version of Porsche's Communication Management software. Normally I'd overlook something like this since SUVs, coupes and sedans tend to have different buyers, but it's also not unreasonable to think that a well-to-do owner might have more than one Bentley in their driveway.

Borrowed cabin tech from Audi makes the Bentayga's luxurious interior even more tech-savvy.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Even so, I'll reiterate that the 2021 Bentayga's in-car tech is light years better than before. The driver-assistance roster carries over unchanged, but that wasn't really an area where the Bentayga struggled. All the modern amenities including adaptive cruise control, precollision braking, a head-up display and lane-keeping assist are available, though it still baffles me that a nearly $180,000 SUV doesn't come standard with these features. You'll have to add the $8,555 Touring Specification if you want those goodies.

All of the active driving aids work seamlessly and enhance the Bentayga's awesome on-road manners. Bentleys are largely typecast as big, effortless cruisers, and while the Bentayga excels at luxuriously wafting along the highway, it's a pretty entertaining steer, too. The 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 delivers 542 horsepower and 568 pound-feet of torque, enough to get this 5,326-pound SUV to 60 mph in only 4.4 seconds. The V8 packs a wallop of low-end power, and it snarls when you stomp on the throttle. The eight-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly yet smoothly, and overall, the V8 setup is so wonderful you won't care that Bentley is discontinuing the standard W12 model. The truly power-hungry will have to hold out for the 12-cylinder Bentayga Speed, and the plug-in hybrid powertrain will soon be offered, as well.

Bentley prides itself on instilling the Bentayga with off-road capability, though I can't really imagine taking this thing on any more than a rutted two-track road or rocky path. The $4,815 All-Terrain Specification adds off-road drive settings that regulate the throttle and traction control and get you some extra underbody protection. The standard air suspension can raise itself to get you over taller obstacles, though if that's the kind of thing you're going to do on the regular, maybe skip the 22-inch wheels and low-profile of the Mulliner Driving Specification, even if they do look fab.

The new taillamps look great in person.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Naturally, paved roads are where this SUV is most at home. A key factor in the Bentayga's dynamite drive is the 48-volt anti-roll tech -- a $5,365 add-on called Bentley Dynamic Ride. This actively counters lateral roll when cornering, reducing the Bentayga's body motions. Combined with weighty steering and lots of grip from the fat tires, this Bentley can really hustle on winding roads. Throw the Bentayga in its Sport mode and the transmission will hold gears through long series of curves, the V8 humming away in the heart of its powerband. I'm aware the Bentaygas of the world are more likely to carve the corners of luxury mall parking garages than canyons, but let it be known this Bentley prioritizes the driver just as much as the driven; there isn't a bad seat in the house.

Nor should there be, considering a new Bentayga costs $179,725, including $2,725 for destination. And as with every Bentley, that starting price is just that: the start. In the case of this perfectly spec'd test car, you're looking at $236,495, which isn't chump change, but not out of line, either. Besides, the Bentayga is one of the finest luxury SUVs on the planet, and now it's finally got the cabin tech to match.