No matter what you might think of SUVs, a huge number of car buyers seem besotted with the idea of sitting higher up and enjoying the versatility of an estate car in a vehicle with off-road capability. This has resulted in SUVs becoming the fastest growing segment of the car industry in recent years.
In fact it has got to the point where in an effort to fill every possible niche in the SUV firmament, car manufacturers are now busy creating SUV models at both ends of the size and price spectrum. Thus, while mainstream European, Japanese and Korean carmakers add smaller, more city friendly lifestyle vehicles at the bottom end of the market, the luxury marques are expanding into this segment at the top.
Until recently, this would have described the battle between Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche against the establishment as represented by Range Rover. But now we are seeing previously unimaginable challenges from the likes of Aston Martin, Bentley, Lamborghini, and even Rolls-Royce, in a newly created niche above this.
While the concept cars from Aston Martin and the soon to be launched Lamborghini Urus promise relatively swoopy, low-slung vehicles in keeping with the sporting image of these brands, the Bentley and the forthcoming Rolls-Royce SUV present a more formal and imposing presence in league with their elevated status.
Nobody I met who commented on the Bentayga’s external appearance thinks it is attractive, but then no SUV sets out to be a beauty queen. By the same token nobody can say that the Bentagya is not instantly identifiable as a Bentley, and its presence and ‘Bentleyness’ are precisely the qualities that endow it with the gravitas required in this rarefied strata.
The flipside of the coin is the plush and exquisitely crafted interior that is admired by all and sundry. A traditional looking Bentley cabin whose design is more closely related to the four-door saloons from Crewe than the new Continental GT, it offers four or five people a very high level of comfort over distance. It also has up-to-date telematics with a large touchscreen controlling the infotainment system and other functions.
In the four-seat configuration of our test car the rear seats are also electrically adjustable, allowing their occupants to recline just enough to relax without compromising the 431 Litre boot space too much. In the five-seat version without the reclining seat feature the boot volume is 484 litres. With the seats folded flat in either variant the maximum cargo volume becomes 1,774 litres, which is equivalent to a large estate car.
In recent years, carmakers have been breaking a few taboos in the interest of market share, and one of these is sporting marques like Porsche adopting diesel power for their SUV and saloon models.
Providing it is refined enough a powerful, torque-rich turbo-diesel is a natural partner for a big, heavy SUV, even if it makes the Bentayga V8 diesel 32kg heavier than its W12 petrol-engined sister. The diesel has bespoke control software for its air suspension, active damping and active anti-roll bars aimed at giving it the slightly softer character that Bentley thinks will best suit its clientele.
The VW Group’s ‘triple charged’ 4.0 litre V8, which uses its 48-volt electrical system to provide initial boost while the two mechanical turbochargers spool up is very refined indeed and offers crisp throttle response and copious torque from just off idle. It is even quite sporty sounding when working hard.
As you would expect, the diesel engine is far more efficient, returning an average fuel consumption of just 8.0 L/100km (35.3 mpg), versus 13.1 L/100km (21.6 mpg) for the W12 petrol version. And so the first heavy oil burning model in the illustrious history of the Bentley marque arrives with minimal downside in real world performance, but a substantial saving of around £26,000 in the UK and a huge advantage at the fuel pumps.
Also used in the Audi Q7 and Cayenne S, this turbo-diesel has been suitably fettled by the Bentley engineers and ends up a perfect match for their super luxury off-roader. It does all this with exactly the same silky smooth eight-speed automatic as the W12 version.
From the well insulated cabin, which benefits from intelligent engine mounts and more engine bay and transmission tunnel soundproofing than the petrol version, there is no inkling at all that a compression-ignition motor resides under the long prow.