Bentley's first SUV is a 187-mph, all-terrain luxocrat

MARBELLA, SPAIN -- At the launch of the 2017 Bentayga, Bentley execs repeatedly referred to their new 4x4 as "the world's first luxury SUV." That sort of marketing bluster will surely come as a shock to the rest of the automotive world, given that leather-lined high riders have been buoying industry profits for decades. It also ought to cause particular consternation within Bentley's parent company, Volkswagen AG, because it builds rather posh utilities including the Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne.

The Bentayga's positioning statement may be hyperbolic, but on some levels, it's also true. In an age where prices for new hypercars regularly eclipse one million dollars, it's long been all but impossible to spend even spend a quarter of that sum on an SUV.

The horror.

Well, after years of rumors, Bentley's first-ever SUV is finally here to save the world's plutocrats from the drudgery of driving a merely premium utility vehicle, and it won't be the last of its kind. In fact, you're going to see a lot of this type of thing over the next few years: Lamborghini, Maserati and Rolls-Royce have all pledged to build rivals, so consider the Bentayga to be the first quilted-leather bullet in what's sure to become full-fledged American Express Black Card warfare. Make no mistake: ultra-swish SUVs are poised to become the Next Big Thing.

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Bentley is taking the SUV further upmarket than it's ever been.

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So, what price...ermm..."luxury"? Well, the big Brit will start at $229,100 when it rolls into dealerships this May, and typical examples will be ladled with $40,000 to $50,000 in options (the primary test car seen here was spec'd to $279,030). That means that the Bentayga's base price starts off where the highest-spec Range Rovers and Mercedes-Benz's G currently reside.

Heck, there's a single option, the Mulliner Tourbillon dashboard clock by Breitling, that retails at $170,000 all by its auto-winding self. You read that correctly -- the Bentayga's optional dashboard tick-tock costs more than 99 percent of all the Land Rovers ever built.

UK models start at around £160,000, and availability and pricing haven't been released for Australia yet.

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No utilitarian rubberized surfaces here, the Bentayga's cabin is every inch a Bentley.

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So, just what sort of sport ute can one get for the price of four years of Harvard tuition? One with 600 horsepower, a 187-mph top whack, more fine wood and leather than in J.P. Morgan's library, genuine off-road ability and a heaping helping of tech. In short, you get one heck of an accomplished SUV.

The heart of the Bentayga (named after a mountain in the Canary Islands -- I checked), is a 6.0-liter W-12 -- but not the same twelve cylinders found in the Continental GT and Flying Spur. No, this is an all-new powerplant with essentially zero parts commonality with its stablemates. With 600 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque, this twin-scroll-turbo-fed engine is substantially more powerful, yet it's also over 60 pounds lighter and more fuel efficient, thanks to cylinder deactivation, port- and direct-injection, and stop/start technology.

Don't expect any admiring glances from tree-hugging friends, however. Provisional estimates call for 14 miles per gallon city and 20 mpg on the highway, and judging by my enthusiastic day's drive on and off the roads around Marbella, Spain, those numbers aren't exactly guaranteed. That sort of drinking habit shouldn't be shocking, because with great power comes a greater impulse to exercise it. It's also not surprising when one realizes that the Bentayga weighs over 5,300 pounds. That's more than a Ram 1500 crew cab pickup, yet this Bentley blitzes to 60 mph in four seconds dead. (Imagine what this gilded gin palace would weigh if it wasn't mostly aluminum!)

Diesel and hybrid variants are expected in the future, which should help alleviate consumption-related guilt -- at least somewhat.

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This 6.0-liter W-12 corrals 600 horses and 664 pound-feet of torque.

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The Bentayga is a heavyweight design with a presence to match. It looks exactly like you'd expect a modern Bentley SUV to look, which is to say it's all lantern of eyes, upright of grille, and haunch of shoulder, slathered in any number of exquisitely rich and unusual paint finishes.

It may share a fair number of its structural undergarments with the aforementioned Audi Q7, but nobody will ever guess (dimensionally, it only shares its wheelbase with the Four Ringer). Like Bentley's Mulsanne and Continental families, the Bentayga's ornate appearance won't appeal to everyone, but as my repeated viewings attest, the design is better appreciated in the real light of day than on an auto show stand or in photographs. It's also a damn sight better looking than its 2012 EXP-9 F antecedent, which was as objectionably styled a concept car as I've ever seen.

In any case, the Bentayga's cabin won't be anywhere as polarizing as the wrapper it comes in -- it's exquisite. In fact, it's arguably better conceived than any other Bentley interior (including the much costlier Mulsanne), simply because it nestles up-to-date infotainment tech alongside its yards of aromatic hide and timber.

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This even more luxurious four-seat configuration is an $11,015 option.

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At present, the Bentayga is available as a four- or five-seater, but a three-row variant is coming. The optional four-place configuration seen here is a worthwhile but hefty $11,015 option. It replaces the rear bench with a pair of power buckets, a full-length console and a cargo divider with ski chute. The rear seats are raised slightly, theater style, yet there's still plenty of headroom, even with a standard panoramic moonroof. Naturally, heating, cooling and massage are on offer regardless of where you plant your Burberry-clad cheeks.

You might expect an ultra-expensive, small-volume vehicle to come with cutting-edge infotainment and active safety tech, but that's not often the case. Boutique automobiles are typically saddled with outdated silicon chippery, partially due to limited budgets (in-car electronics are one of the most cost-intensive areas of new vehicle development), and partially because of longer-than-average model lifecycles. Take a look at the navi system on most Lamborghinis and McLarens to see what I mean.

Thankfully, the Bentayga escapes such indignities -- presumably because it was developed alongside the equally new Q7. That means there's an eight-inch touchscreen head unit with the usual fixins' (60-gig drive, Google Earth and Street View imagery, 4G LTE Wi-Fi and so on), and the system is properly snappy in execution. Apple CarPlay will even be available, although Android Auto remains a blind spot. Unfortunately, unlike the Audi, there's no gesture-swipe pad or all-in-one control knob. One other annoyance: While most climate-control functions are summoned using physical switchgear, some require pushing a button and then tapping on the touchscreen (e.g. fan speed), a combination that seems unnecessarily fiddly.

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The eight-inch touchscreen system is responsive and multifaceted in its abilities.

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Other, more welcome tech touches include an available crisp, multi-color head-up display and a 360-degree camera system, the latter of which proved invaluable for both parking chores and spotting duty while exploiting the Bentayga's surprising off-road chops (more on this in a moment).

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A dockable touchscreen controller aids passengers.

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On the subject of options, I've no doubt the Bentayga's standard and midlevel Signature audio systems offer high fidelity, but the top-flight Naim system with its 18 speakers, 19 channels and 1,950 watts of power is like having your ingenue of choice whispering sweet, melodic nothings directly in your ear. While nibbling on your lobe. What's $4,690 among music-loving friends?

Naturally, back seat passengers aren't left techless, especially when the optional rear-seat entertainment setup ($7,155) is specified. The latter includes a pair of dockable 10.2-inch Android-based tablets that can stream movies, keep tabs on navigation and audio functions, browse the Internet, and so on. They even have front-facing cameras that can be used to check makeup or socialize evenings of Kardashian-esque excess. But those aren't the only screens in the back seat. There's a smartphone-like remote control for various functions that sits in a cradle below the air vents.

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The rear-seat entertainment group includes two 10.2-inch Android tablets with 4G LTE.

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All of those features are all well and good, but if the Bentayga doesn't drive well, none of this matters. Fortunately, this SUV does just about everything in its wide remit very, very well -- not entirely unlike a high-riding Conti GT. The Bentayga simply never feels flustered or out of sorts. Never. With all that torque available from just 1,350 revs, silly acceleration is but wingtip-twitch away, and this SUV corners with surprising adeptness and flatness, thanks to the company's new Dynamic Ride 48-volt electric antiroll system.

The latter is an industry first, and Bentley officials claim the supercapacitor-powered system can individually firm and slacken its antiroll bars three times quicker than conventional hydraulics. It works beautifully for keeping the body from listing precariously side-to-side, yet the ride never feels unnaturally harsh or stiff -- even when the mode selector is toggled to Sport. That's remarkable given how large the wheels are, and the system can even disconnect the antiroll bars for maximum wheel articulation off road. Expect this technology to show up elsewhere, including on the company's future sedans, if not sports cars like the EXP 10 Speed 6 (a Bentley board member let slip that Dynamic Ride could be programmed with a large-enough envelope to actually lean a chassis into corners for maximum grip).

The Bentayga is available with a whole suite of advanced safety technologies, including blind-spot warning, lane-keep assist, night vision and city pedestrian detection with auto brake. It can even leverage its adaptive cruise control to drive semi-autonomously in traffic, where it can start and stop, as well as follow bends in the road using its electric power steering.

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Spain's local flora and fauna aren't used to seeing Bentleys, let alone one lifting its leg.

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If there's a problem with the Bentayga's performance, it's that for all its pace and capability, its driving experience is so polished as to be edgeless, especially at anything in the vicinity of socially acceptable speeds. For most buyers, its civil comportment will be a welcome development, but for those looking for something a bit more visceral, this news may come as a disappointment.

Part of this is because the Bentayga's limits are so high as to never be approachable on anything other than a closed course. This is the world's fastest production SUV, after all. Even so, it's bothersome that the Land Rover Range Rover Sport SVR I recently piloted back in the States felt more involving at merely elevated speeds, as would most Porsche Cayennes.

Part of the blame falls squarely on the W-12's plumbing. Its mechanical noises are so distant as to be all but extinguished under most conditions (in truth, W-12s have never been particularly sonorous to begin with). For my money, the Bentayga ought have exhaust baffles that open in sport mode to let more spirited noises into the cabin. Perhaps that'll follow with the inevitable Bentayga Speed model, but it should be available here, as well.

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A precipitous side-tilt obstacle proved no problem for the Bentayga.

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Is the off-road experience on par with that of the Range Rover? It's hard to say without a proper back-to-back run (the specs suggest it isn't quite up to the challenge), but it's clearly plenty good. Even riding on seemingly unsuitable low-profile rubber, the Bentayga proved only too willing to rise up on its pneumatic suspenders and go crawling through the Andalusian forest, clawing steep ascents and enduring deep, three-wheel-inducing dropouts on a course that'd claim anything that might reasonably be considered a crossover. It's here where the drive mode selector made its value apparent again. Between Snow/Wet Grass, Gravel, Mud and Ruts and Sand, the appropriate mode was quickly selected, and judicious use of the variable-speed hill descent control alleviated sweaty palms on hairy descents.

(Pro tip: If you're ordering a Bentayga, first, congratulations on your financial accomplishments. Second, don't opt for the Styling Specification. Not only does it add a whole lot of questionable-looking carbon fiber clutter to your bodywork, the breathtakingly expensive Specification -- $28,500! -- also impedes arrival and departure angles, making your Bentayga less capable.)

To be fair, presumably only the unruly teenage sons of billionaires will ever fully exploit this vehicle's potential for muddy mayhem (let alone its 20-inch fording depth). But suffice it to say that the Bentayga is more capable off-road than owners will ever need. It's more than ready for your most ambitious truffle-foraging outings, fox hunts and glamping expeditions.

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The Bentayga's rear end is somewhat anonymous.

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Similarly, most Bentley owners will probably never deign to tow anything, but the Bentayga is up for that challenge, too. Whether you've got a vintage Chris Craft, Airstream or a horse trailer, you're covered -- it can lug 7,700 pounds.

While both off-road and towing capabilities may seem somehow beside the point, it's important to remember that the ultimate form of luxury is often about knowing you have the capability, yet never conceding to use it.

In the end, the Bentley Bentayga impresses not just with its opulence of furnishings and abundance of power, but also with its smart tech, from its interior infotainment to available advanced driver assistance features.

With all apologies to Bentley's executive team, the 2017 Bentayga might not truly be the "world's first luxury SUV," but at first glance, it's got every right to vie for the title of world's finest.