The inclinometer reads 35 degrees. “It won’t roll over until it reaches 53 degrees,” nonchalantly says Cameron Patterson, Bentley’s director of whole vehicle engineering. Beyond the windshield is a steep, red-orange bank of earth on one side, and a gully on the other. There’s not much space between the two, and a just beyond the ditch is a drop that would test the Bentley Bentayga prototype’s aluminium-intensive body shell to destruction.
A gruelling gauntlet
A small fleet of Bentley Bentayga prototypes has had endure the Scandinavian arctic, South Africa’s heat, and the United Arab Emirates’s dust as part of the most intensive new model test program Bentley has yet pursued. We’ve been following that program, first to South Africa for hot-weather testing, and then to Spain for on- and off-road dynamic testing.
When a pair of black Bentaygas emerge from their Cape Town hide, they’re shapes are distorted with strategically shaped fiberglass moldings and an artfully misleading bodywrap. What’s immediately clear is that this biggest Bentley is not the same as the EXP 9 F concept that startled visitors to the 2012 Geneva motor show. That car looked like a machine for the Russian badlands, its retina-swamping presence intensified by huge, bumper-mounted spotlights.
The EXP 9 F attracted plenty of barbs, as product line director Peter Guest acknowledges: “The reaction to the concept was polarized, but support for the idea was overwhelming. So we were on the right track. There was no luxury SUV with the Bentley attributes of strength, solidity, and power—or four-wheel drive. And power fits really well with an SUV. This is a 21st century grand tourer. The experience is always the same inside—the only thing that changes is what’s outside.”
What is a Bentley?
Bentley’s ambitions are straightforward, but the build process less so. “Projecting the brand DNA into a new segment is a great challenge,” says director of design Luc Donckerwolke. “It makes you question things. This process has brought us into a big, interesting phase. ‘What is a Bentley?”’ He starts to answer his own question, giving examples of Bentley-representative design on the Bentayga. “We stick to our power line, which grows out of the power vent, this being the stylized ‘B’ on the front wings. There’s another Bentley motif in the car’s side windows, which sit well between the wheels,” says Donckerwolke. “And there’s also a lot of muscle. It’s very dynamic, and hides its mass well.”
Exterior design boss Sangyup Lee adds, “The Bentayga’s very tailored surface is suggestive of a crossover with considerable capability. The fresh proportions and fastback rear make a powerful statement.” But there’s “no aggressive proportioning,” adds Donckerwolke. “We also wanted to integrate it into our model line and create a family feel,” which means taking exquisite design materials, exclusivity, and individuality to new places, like sand dunes and mountains and deserts.
Sweating under the South African sun
The Bentley Bentayga protoypes must suffer a beating sun during 10 weeks of testing in South Africa, Dubai, and Oman. It’s sweltering under the South African sun, although the temperature is half that of the 122 degrees Fahrenheit in which the Bentayga must perform “uncompromised.” Besides heat, South Africa tests an interior’s resistance to the trim-degrading effects of ultra-violet light. Six months in the sun here is equivalent to 15 years in milder climes.
“The interior is every bit a Bentley interior,” says Guest. “In the early days we explored a less luxurious interior, but market research said, ‘Don’t even think about it’.” Open a door, and it’s impossible to miss the luxuriant impact of exquisitely tailored leather, the depth in the beautifully lacquered woods and, after you’ve drunk it in awhile, the precision of the cabin’s assembly. What defines a Bentley’s interior is architecture inspired by the wings of the marque’s badge, explains interior design head Darren Day. The symmetrical swoop of the wings’ trailing edges appears in the lower section of the dashboard, and the same shape is echoed across the top of this finely crafted structure.
The car can be ordered with three types of rear seating: captain’s chairs, a fold-down, three-person bench, or a three-person bench accompanied by two third-row seats. The Bentley also features driver-assist systems like night vision, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking, automatic parking, and a top-vision camera. “We do all of this in a Bentley way,” says Guest, “making it simple to use and as unobtrusive as possible. We’re not the first with this kind of technology, but we endeavour to be the best.”
Getting rid of roll
As we clear Cape Town, the Bentley Bentayga protoypes merge into fast-moving traffic with ease, thanks to a completely new 6.0-liter W-12 engine. According to powertrain head Paul Williams the engine “has been redesigned from scratch, with barely a washer retained.” The rethink has yielded an engine 66 lb lighter and now of variable displacement, with a cylinder bank that can shut down for fuel-saving cruising. Internal friction has been reduced, and the engine has both port and direct fuel injection to improve emissions, drivability, and cold-start performance. Bentley has yet to issue definitive statistics beyond outputs of over 540 hp, over 530 lb-ft of torque, zero to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, and a top speed over 170 mph.
Performance like that is more than capable of whirling up a South African dust cloud that’s useful for ensuring the absence of penetration into both cabin and the casings of the many electronic control units. The Bentayga carries no less than 90 ECUs, double that of a Continental GT. Those ECUs contribute substantially to the Bentley’s abilities on- and off-road. A Land Rover–style rotary knob provides modes for sand, mud, and gravel, as well as comfort and sport, and a 48-volt electric anti-sway system eliminates “roll but not comfort,” says Guest.
Trailing in Spain
We go off-road in one of the Bentayga prototypes, now in a mountainous corner of Spain, and are amazed by its ability to climb rain-wet rock that ascends in a series of deep-pitched steps. The Bentayga tackles these with no run up, its driver picking a course to minimize the shaving of its overhangs (the Bentayga can’t best the Range Rover when its comes to ramp and departure angles). The prototype makes the climb, but the slithering of its rear end and intervention from its finely calibrated traction control system let us know that it took some effort. Back on pavement, the Bentayga’s abilities are almost as unexpected as its climbing skills. Swift-acting, precise steering, minimal body roll, and the agility of a machine far smaller turn a twist-rich drive into an exhilarating experience.
The effortlessness with which the Bentley Bentayga does just about everything, in virtually every circumstance, is astonishing. It’s a go-anywhere car of a different kind, and while the most restrictive terrain it’s likely to encounter will be the world’s most exclusive valet parking lots, Bentayga owners will doubtless be content knowing that their car can tackle the planet’s most challenging roads and trails with nonchalance.
2016 Bentley Bentayga Specifications
- On Sale: Spring 2016
- Price: $200,000 (est)
- Engine: 6.0L twin-turbocharged DOHC 48-valve W12, 540 hp, 530 lb ft (est)
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Layout: 5-door, 5-/7-passenger, front-engine AWD SUV
- Weight: 5060 lb (est)
- 5.0 sec (est)
- 1/4-Mile: N/A
- Top Speed: 170+ mph