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First Drive: 2021 Bentley Bentayga Is Everything You Want, if You Want It

Bentley moves its SUV even further away from the crowd, and that is a good thing.

Aaron GoldWriterJade NelsonPhotographer

BEVERLY HILLS, California—Let's talk about an obvious and uncomfortable truth: Anyone can walk into an Audi dealership, buy an SQ7, and get an SUV that's 85 percent as nice as the 2021 Bentley Bentayga for less than half of the latter's $179,725 base price.

And that's exactly why you buy a high-end luxury SUV like the 2021 Bentley Bentayga we're reviewing today: Because anyone can walk into a dealership and buy the same SQ7 (or X5M or GLE) that you did, but the Bentley you buy can be your own. The one I'm driving for this review didn't just roll out of the Crewe factory with a spec that some dealer picked because it's already sold three dozen just like it. Instead, someone, somewhere, had a long, hard think over what this Bentayga should look like. The hides and paints and veneers were all hand-picked and hand-finished to order.

While several months ago researching an article on Bentley's centennial, I visited a dealer who told me how his sale process works: Someone comes in and leases a Bentley off of the lot. When the car's tenure hits late afternoon, he calls the buyer and says, "Your lease is up in a year. If you want to custom-order your next Bentley, we should start talking about it now." Often the idea of a bespoke car has never occurred to the buyer, but once they design their own Bentley, they rarely buy off-the-rack again.

That, not the structure or the powertrain or the chassis, is what separates a Bentley from other vehicles. That's why someone, somewhere, is going to ignore Audi and BMW and Mercedes and pay well more than $235,000 for the Bentayga I'm reviewing.

How the Bentley Bentayga Has Changed for 2021

Still, there needs to be some differentiation from other SUVs—particularly Audi SUVs—and that's an issue with which the Bentayga has struggled since its 2017 introduction. The outgoing Bentayga made you feel like royalty on the inside, but from the outside it looked a bit too much like an ordinary subject. And let's face it—you don't spend this kind of money on a car if you don't want people to know you spent this kind of money on a car.

That brings us, rather neatly, to the changes to the 2021 Bentley Bentayga. Up front, Bentley widened the grille and fitted new headlight reflectors that really do look like jewels. The result is a more streamlined look, reminiscent of the changes to the latest iteration of the Continental GT.

But it was the Bentayga's backside that really needed surgery, and the operation was a success: Out with the big, square-ish taillights that could have belonged to any SUV, and in with a slick new set of oval lights with sequential amber turn signals in the middle. The lights sit on a reshaped tailgate that now runs the car's full width; the look is better than the old Bentayga from the back, but not as good from the side, as there's now an unsightly seam between the edge of the tailgate and the body side.

Inside the 2021 Bentley Bentayga's Hand-Finished Cabin

Inside, the 2021 Bentley Bentayga gets a new 10.9-inch hi-res touchscreen, installation of which resulted in a rather handsome reshuffling of the center stack. New square vents up top flank a jeweled analog clock, all arranged in a rather pleasant winged motif. (Founder W. O. Bentley did some rather impressive work with airplane engines in World War I, so there's a historical connection there.) The lovely new digital dash features liquid-smooth animation and allows for the nifty Audi trick of having a moving map right in front of the driver. The center console remains largely unchanged, and I do wish Bentley would rethink its extensive use of chrome. There isn't much sunshine at Bentley's headquarters in Crewe, but we get lots in California, and the dazzling reflections at mid-day are—dare I say it?—a glaring error.

Rear-seat passengers enjoy more knee room and a small touchscreen to control climate and other functions. The screen is removable—making it more of a tablet, really—which is a rather ingenious fix for the problem of it being too close to the floor. My test car for this review had a simple bench seat, but the Bentayga can also be had with twin rear buckets (which now recline even further) or an optional third row.

Driving the 2021 Bentley Bentayga

How does the 2021 Bentley Bentayga drive? Why, exactly the way it's supposed to. The 542-horsepower twin-turbo V-8 toils in silence until you boot (or perhaps we should say Gucci-loafer or Louboutin-heel) the pedal, at which time it musters all the power you could ever want in such a vehicle. Bentley claims a 0-60-mph time of 4.4 seconds, but it's the always-ready, always-on nature of the boosted V-8 that really stands out: Power is perpetually ready. The V-8 is the only power choice for now, by the way, but a hybrid and a W12 Speed version are on the way.

Handling? Yeah, that's fine, too. This Bentayga was equipped with the optional Bentley Dynamic Ride suspension, but I didn't spend too much time pushing it in the curves; instead I cruised around Beverly Hills and Bel Air. The Bentayga's primary mission is to whisk you along in silence and isolation, and it does that, though the ride is taught enough not to sully Bentley's racing heritage. Braking and steering effort are all in the pleasure zone. And if you do push the SUV, it responds quite happily; one of the advantages of the VW Group owning Bentley is that the Audi bones are always visible just beneath the surface.

Me, I was content to hit the highway, set the adaptive cruise, enjoy the $8,800, 20-speaker Naim sound system—just as the Bentley makes me look better than I am, the stereo did the same for the MP3s on my phone—and tune-out the world. The Bentayga's lane-centering system seemed pretty clueless, tugging on the wheel randomly and telling me I'd let go of it when I most definitely hadn't, but other than that, the peace of my drive remained unbroken.

Someone who wants to spend big money on an SUV so they can whiz through curvy canyon roads can choose better. My recommendation is the Maserati Levante Trofeo I recently tested—it's as close to a Ferrari SUV as we're going to get until Ferrari starts making an SUV of its own. The Mercedes-AMG GLS 63 and BMW X5 M are in-your-face bruisers athletic enough to deliver on the promise of their musclebound styling, but their brutish style is nouveau-riche gauche. The 2021 Bentley Bentayga is old money, designed for people who want their presence announced with a murmur rather than a shout.

Why I Didn't Like the 2021 Bentley Bentayga—and Why I'd Buy One

Confession time: I never really warmed to the Bentayga I drove for this review, largely because of the interior. I have no complaints about the ambiance: The inside of the Bentayga is one of the finest-made things I've experienced in my life. The attention to detail and the fit-and-finish are so perfect, I'd have a hard time believing it was largely hand-made had I not visited the Crewe factory and actually seen the hands making it. You can't fail to appreciate the Bentayga's interior when you've seen how it goes together.

No, I just didn't care much for the color scheme. Outside, my tester wore blunt gray Quartzite paint with blacked-out trim, while the interior leather was a single shade of deep red called Cricket Ball, with patterned aluminum trim in place of traditional wood. My wife said it looked like something Sinatra would drive to dinner at the Musso & Frank Grill.

The fact neither she nor I cared for it is exactly what makes the Bentley Bentayga so good. See, we're not supposed to care for it. This isn't our dream; it's someone else's. My Bentayga would be painted in a shade of blue called Portofino with a traditional bright chrome grille. Its cabin would be lined in two-tone leather—Brunel blue seats (I'm a big fan of Isambard Kindgom) with quilted inserts and door panels in off-white, all trimmed with walnut veneer. Can't picture it?  You can see it here.

Yeah, I know, it screams Kennedys at Hyannis Port. And if you don't like it, well, you can buzz off—it's my Bentley Bentayga, and that's the whole point. If I want to buy someone else's idea of style, I'll get an Audi or a Mercedes or a BMW or a Lexus and take my place among the bourgeoisie. When I'm ready to step out above the crowd—and when I have the money to have something that is truly my own—I'll get a 2021 Bentley Bentayga.

2021 Bentley Bentayga Highlights

  • Revised front and rear styling
  • New larger, higher-res touch screen
  • Height-adjustable air suspension

2021 Bentley Bentayga Pros

  • Finally looks (somewhat) like a proper Bentley
  • Top-notch interior trim
  • Enough color choices to make it your own

2021 Bentley Bentayga Cons

  • Clueless lane-centering system
  • Driving experience is still rather Audi-like (if that is in fact a bad thing)
2021 Bentley Bentayga V8 Specifications
ON SALE Fall 2020
PRICE $179,725/$236,495 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/542 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 568 lb-ft @ 1,960-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT -door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 14/23 mpg city/highway (est)
L x W x H 201.8 x 78.7 x 68.6 in
WHEELBASE 117.9 in
WEIGHT 5,326 lb
0-60 MPH 4.4 sec
TOP SPEED 180 mph