The Bentley Bentayga Is the Most Expensive SUV. Ever.

Our first drive goes off-road, while Bentley’s styling team runs off the rails.

Bentley Bentayga

The Discovery Land Company is a purveyor of ultra-exclusive real estate experiences. They sell buildable lots adjacent to a private ski mountain in Montana, a private deepwater yacht moor in the Bahamas, a private racetrack in the California desert, and a dozen or so private golf courses. So when it came time for them to cook up a new development to harvest cash from Wall Streeters, they weren’t about to go with a private catfish farm. DLC planned an equestrian-centric retreat in the rural upstate hills. Residents can board their stallions and farm for their own table. The beau monde flocked.

Likewise, when Bentley was researching how to meet its goal of doubling sales over the next decade—up to 20,000 cars, globally—they did not consider a compact hatchback. One could imagine that the majority of current Mulsanne and Continental owners also have a luxurious all-wheel-drive vehicle. So Bentley decided to build an SUV of its own. According to CEO Wolfgang Durheimer, profitability was pegged at 3,600 units each year. The company will deliver 5,000 examples of its new sport ute, named Bentayga, in 2016.

“My biggest job this year is to secure production,” Durheimer told us, suggesting Bentley will be selling as many Bentaygas as it can hand assemble. That’s no simple task, since each 5,350-pound leather, chrome, aluminum, and wooden tank takes 130 hours (read: ten times longer) to build than average mass production vehicles. I just wish Bentley would’ve spent ten times as long on the Bentayga’s exterior design.

At the launch of the world’s most expensive SUV in Palm Springs, the $230,000 truckster was, quite literally, the elephant in the room. Yes, it features all of the styling cues of a contemporary Bentley, ticked off from a PowerPoint checklist by design director Stefan Sielaff. Sharply creased rear haunches, chunky chromey door handles, gaping ovoid exhaust tips, B-shaped taillights and fender vent, staggered quad headlamps, woven-plastic chain-mail grille. But in the flesh, on the road, the Bentayga lacks presence. It is an occasion car, without an occasion.

Not that we’re buying by the inch or pound, but it’s smallish and deficient in visual weight. It looks like the third Bentley SUV to be released—the little one, the volume model. Occasionally, driving in cluster of Bentaygas through the San Jacinto Mountains, I failed to recognize the Bentayga in front of me. An $86,000 Range Rover has gravitas and sincerity; the Bentayga looks like a Touareg tarted up with body makeup, strap-on muscles, and a Party City breastplate. An extra from the automotive version of Game of Thrones.

Fortunately, the inside is exquisite. Taking Bentley’s winged emblem as inspiration, it cossets five occupants—four, if you’re willing to shell out $11,000 to replace the rear center seat with controls for the heaters, coolers, recliners, and massagers. Fifteen hides and seven veneers are available as standard choices. Seal embryo and endangered Madagascar baobab can probably be commissioned upon request.

A janky $3,200 padded leather bench or stolid $28,000 trio of leather picnic hampers can be spec’d inside the boot, taking up precious cargo room in a space already limited by a very fast backlight. (Rear legroom is similarly lacking in copiousness.) There’s a $4,900 premium stereo, if the other two stereos aren’t enough to drown out your spoiled children live-casting Candy Crush on the pair of rear-mounted $7,100 Android tablets. If you lack even one iota of shame, a gold-faced, self-winding $164,000 Breitling can be grafted into your dashboard. Only three of the four watches are spoken for in 2016. Praise be Gordon Gekko, there’s still time to jettison your dignity.

Good news? This thing is absolutely amazing to drive. I had a myriad of opportunities to test the Bentayga on- and off-road—highway, snow-slick mountain passes, an off-road course that’d stump a stump-pulling Wrangler, and even in the gusty sand dunes southeast of the toxic Salton Sea. The new 6-liter, twin-turbocharged W-12 engine, eight-speed auto trans, quad-height air suspension, and other wizardly vectoring doodads make the Bentayga both indomitable and indefatigable. Venturing into the mountainous and desert venturis, the thing never stopped feeling outrageously, impossibly capable. Also, fast as shit.

Few will use a Bentley truck for anything more treacherous than après ski commuting. But it’s comforting to know that, once the revolution begins, all of the globe’s Bentayga can go far and wide seeking refuge from a proletariat mob. Best order the $5,870 optional throwing star wheels and a whetstone.

Company execs also told me to expect at least two more vehicles in the future: an even less practical SUV with a coupe-like roofline, a la BMW X6, and a pure sporting coupe, as foreshadowed by the Exp 10 Speed 6 concept. When I asked Michael Winkler, President of Bentley of the Americas, about a larger SUV, one that would provide the space and ambience I think a Bentley SUV should have, he replied: “There are no engineering models, but already the wheels are turning to look at a longer wheelbase model.”

Bentley is first to market in the segment. But Rolls-Royce, Maserati, Aston Martin, and Lamborghini all promise ultra-luxe SUVs in the next few years. You can bet they’ll all be unique and brand-specific in vying for the title of “world’s most expensive SUV.” As we’ve seen in other vehicle categories—from the nineteenth century Duryea Motor Wagon to the Honda Insight—being first doesn’t always mean a lasting impact. I’m certain Bentley will sell every Bentayga they make this year. I just hope they’re not betting the farm on this farmed catfish.

2016 Bentley Bentayga
PRICE (BASE):
$230,000  
POWERTRAIN: 6-liter twin-turbo W-12, 600hp, 664 lb-ft, all-wheel-drive, eight-speed automatic transmission
WEIGHT: 5340 lbs
0-60 MPH: 4.0 seconds  
TOP SPEED: 187 mph
ON SALE: Now (U.S. deliveries begin later 2016)