Hell Above the Heavens: Bentley Bentayga Goes Glamping in Big Sur

How beautiful Big Sur broke a quarter-million-dollar Bentley Bentayga

Chris NelsonwriterRobin Trajanophotographer

Bright blue waves crash against the rocky coastline below me, but all I see from this dew-covered cliff 3,300 feet above the Pacific Ocean are opaque clouds blanketing the Earth like big down comforters. Overhead, a nearly full moon stands in for the morning sun, which is up but tucked behind the mountain peaks in Northern California's Los Padres National Forest. The clouds creep slowly upward toward me and the all-new, $280,000 Bentley Bentayga at my side. It's an enchanting, unreal scene I never imagined I'd see.

I tiptoe back to our campsite as the five others who made this trip to scenic Big Sur—my girlfriend, Kelly, our videographer Sandon Voelker and his girlfriend, Ellie, and our photographer Robin Trajano and his girlfriend, Sophia—are still asleep. Temperatures overnight dropped below freezing, so we all slept with our clothes on. I start a fire with eight bundles of cedar I brought up in the Bentley and make pour-over coffees in purple Mason jars. I'm eager to see how the Bentayga performs in environments it's supposedly built for but will likely never see—bits of the world pavement can't reach.

Soon everyone but Sandon, who's come down with the flu, is awake, scarfing down Sophia's breakfast burritos and doing their best to freshen up using only baby wipes and deodorant. Robin and I map out how to get from our spot on secluded Prewitt Ridge to the Old Coast Trail, a supposedly challenging road that spits you out at the north end of 84-year-old Bixby Bridge, a landmark swarmed by tacky tourists with selfie sticks. Ellie stays with Sandon as the rest of us, reeking of Right Guard, take off.

With the 2017 Bentley Bentayga set in Mud & Trail mode (one of eight driving modes that come with the off-road package) and its air suspension raised fully, we make our way back toward sea level, the big SUV's hill-descent control keeping speed slow and steady. Felled branches and jagged boulders litter the road, but the Bentayga easily clambers over them. We follow the gritty two-track for a while before seeing another car, a VW Bus owned by a man nearly as dreadlocked as his dog.

The tops of the clouds lick at the edge of the road when we finally hit pavement, but we're still 40 minutes from California's historic Pacific Coast Highway and the rest of civilization. I mat the accelerator, and the Bentayga takes off startlingly fast for a 5,379-pound vehicle, reaching 60 mph in 4 seconds. The twin-turbocharged W-12's 664 lb-ft of torque hits instantaneously, and its eight-speed automatic leaves no room between shifts as we hustle forward, fields of orange poppies dancing in our wake.

Triple digits flash on the dash when I realize how steep the ridge next to us is. There are no guardrails, and a hairpin lies just ahead. I hammer the brake pedal, and every ounce of the Bentayga's significant mass flies forward as the six-piston front calipers bite down, allowing me to make the turn without any real theater. A turkey vulture with huge, black wings and a bright red beak flies alongside us just before we get to the coastal road, where of all things we spot another of Crewe's creations. It's a Continental convertible, a car you typically picture when you think "Bentley."

From there it's a quick drive to Old Coast Trail, which we're immediately disappointed by. It looks as challenging as a game of hopscotch. "It'll get better as we go," we all think silently, but it doesn't. It's a flat, groomed, totally tame dirt road we've wasted our morning getting to. I try to shrug it off by slouching in my form-fitting seat, reveling in the Bentley's leather-lined, metal-trimmed, and heavily lacquered cabin, and singing along to the Rihanna and Whitney Houston songs coming through the $4,690 Naim audio system.

My best falsetto is interrupted by the heartstopping sound of compressed air breaking free from its confines. "A flat," I say as I pull to the side of the road and jump out. I don't see anything wrong with the front-left tire or any other tire, for that matter. A soft chime comes from inside the cabin just before one of the Bentayga's springs spits air violently for a few seconds. Another does the same, then another. "Air suspension fault," the dashboard message says. Seems the least exciting road in Big Sur broke this Bentayga.

As I try to fall asleep, the Bentley dribbles air tauntingly from its springs, slowly getting closer to the gravel beneath it.

I send a text to a friend at Bentley, hoping for some sort of hard reset or remote fix. In the meantime we start the journey back toward our temporary home, where Brian Kearns, chef at La Bicyclette in nearby Carmel, has graciously agreed to come by and cook dinner. We're already running late when we get to the base of the road to Prew­itt Ridge. Before we head up, I stop and check how the suspension is doing. Not well. The Bentayga is squatted way down, and ground clearance is now an issue.

With the sun sinking into the ocean, Robin and Sophia take off in our support vehicle toward camp. Kelly and I creep up the jagged trail, wincing every time we approach an exaggerated feature. Here, where large-clawed mammals roam freely and the only ambient light comes from the moon and faraway stars, the Bentayga's in-dash night vision system almost makes sense. Fortunately we soon see our campsite, marked by a pink lawn flamingo and a crooked tree we draped with fairy lights. Everyone gathers around the fire to enjoy a three-course meal: beet salad followed by potato gnocchi topped with shredded short rib, with crème brûlée and deconstructed s'mores for dessert. We laugh and swap stories, and the fantastic dinner lets me momentarily forget our woes.

But as I try to fall asleep, the Bentley dribbles air tauntingly from its springs, slowly getting closer to the gravel beneath it. By morning, the car is slammed, looking ready for SEMA. There are 2 inches, if that, between the tires and wheelwells. There's no cell service up here, and the SIM card for the Bentley's 4G system is MIA, so we have little choice but to pack up and head downhill in the stanced Bentayga. Sandon and Ellie rightly decide to ride with Robin and Sophia, but Kelly sticks it out with me, a decision she soon regrets once we're on the road and the quarter-million-dollar SUV starts to hop around like a cricket on cocaine. When we finally get a signal, we call Bentley. The automaker notes this is a preproduction model made very early in the build process, says it will send us a replacement Bentayga post-haste, and asks us to stay put. I politely decline, as there's an out-of-place zebra farm the women want to visit somewhere between here and where we'll now receive the other car, Oceano Dunes, two hours south.

The ride is jolting. Every hiccup in the road causes the Bentayga, now resting on its bump stops, to jump, which makes it hard to sing along with Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." We eventually get to Oceano, our bones rattling, and discover a trashy off-road orgy of '80s-era ATVs and rusty Broncos. The second Bentayga, which shows up wearing beautiful bronze paint, looks very out of place here. We set up a small camp on the sand before watching the sunset from the fully functioning Bentayga's foldout tailgate bench.

From there we head to nearby Santa Barbara to get a good night's sleep, then wake at dawn to drive to West Camino Cielo Road. It's one of the best off-road trails on California's Central Coast, I'm told, but someone said something similar about Old Coast Trail, so I won't hold my breath. And frankly, I don't care if "sky road" is smoother than Don Juan. I'm just happy to be behind the wheel of a fault-free Bentayga again. It's an astonishing vehicle, blending opulence and functionality in a versatile, attention-grabbing package. But what amazes me the most is its very existence. Not long ago, I would've bet against the British automaker bowing to the growing crossover fad, sticking instead to luxury coupes, convertibles, and sedans. But here it is, the Bentayga, silly name and all, the most expensive SUV in the world.

We wind our way up to West Camino Cielo, which isn't a trail as much as it is a poorly weeded path a few people might've once driven on. It's an uneven mess of boulders, flagstone, and deep furrows. It's perfect. I put the Bentayga into Mud & Trail mode before locking the air suspension in its highest position and slowly setting off. The steering wheel shimmies back and forth as the big Bentley lumbers over rocks and crawls through mini canyons, and the tires spin on slippery stones as the computers adjust throttle constantly to keep up the momentum. We stray from the trail when we see a bog, deciding to test the first half of the Bentley's Mud & Trail mode. Its laced chrome grille is caked brown by the time we've had our fill.

Not much further up Camino Cielo we come across a 100-foot-high crag with an incline of 30-odd degrees.

I drive the Bentayga along a small road to the crag's crest, where Sandon is waiting. He'll be my spotter, helping me avoid scuffing the $2,420 wheels on countless sharp rocks strewn about my short route. I inch ahead until the front tires roll over the brink and the Bentley tips forward. "Hold," says Sandon. "Now go hard left." I turn the wheel to lock then ease off the brakes, and the Bentley begins to tripod, its right rear wheel about a foot from the ground. Progress down the slope is painfully slow until I hear a familiar sound and see the message: "Air suspension fault." I yell at Sandon to move, lift off the brakes completely, and play a game of automotive Plinko, which the Bentayga gets through unscathed. After a few minutes back on level ground, the menacing maintenance message magically disappears. We planned to go the whole of West Camino Cielo—about 12 miles—and have lunch at the quaint Cold Spring Tavern that's been tucked away in Los Padres National Forest since 1865. But after a couple hours we've only gone 4 miles and, given what happened with the first Bentayga, I cut the trip short and head back.

Halfway down Camino Cielo, I come to a stop. "What's wrong now?" groans Kelly. "Nothing," I say, staring through the driver's side window at the ocean, forest, and untouched alcoves sitting some 3,000 feet below us. By focusing on the Bentayga's preproduction growing pains for the last couple days, I haven't allowed myself to appreciate these unreal places. In a Bentley SUV nonetheless, which is as novel as it is incredible, like seeing a moon at sunrise or standing above the clouds.

2016 Bentley Bentayga Specifications

On Sale:  Now
Price: $229,100/$280,205 (base/as tested)
Engine: 6.0L twin-turbo DOHC 48-valve W-12/600 hp @ 5,000-6,000 rpm, 664 lb-ft @ 1,350-4,500 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 4- or 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA Mileage: 16/30 mpg (city/hwy) (est)
L x W x H: 202.4 x 87.5 x 68.6 in
Wheelbase: 117.9 in
Weight:  5,379 lb
0-60 MPH: 4.0 sec
Top Speed: 187 mph
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