First drive review: 2021 Bentley Bentayga SUV adds it up

The roads in Southeastern Michigan open like a choose-your-own-adventure book. A latticework of interstates promises smooth sailing but where there’s no construction, there should be. State highways weave a web between towns that are as rural as they are industrial, with well-marked curves and 55 mph speed limits truncated abruptly by a vibrant intersection marked by a mom-and-pop ice cream shop, a pub with a name like McNasty’s, and a brief downtown as up-and-coming as it is downtrodden. River roads serpentine time and space to one Great Lake or another, but it’s those lesser-known and lesser-marked single lane roads that offer true adventure for the uninitiated. They rise and dip in a tunnel of maple and oak trees, pass lakes and ponds and horses and deer, continue on past sprouting subdivisions or run-down micro downtowns. Or the roads present a sign, a simple sign that says all it needs to say: “pavement ending.”  

In the 2021 Bentley Bentayga, I kept going where the pavement ended. I shifted the five-seat ultralux SUV into Dirt mode not because it needed to but because I wanted it to. I wanted to get this $180,000 land yacht dirty, to kick up dust and debris, to kick and scream and fight and claw like the rest of us. But it just shrugged. “What else? What’s next? Did you see that man-made hill of rock and dirt back there?” the Bentayga asked. It prodded me to go further.

I was tempted but I couldn’t. The refreshed 2021 Bentayga’s too pretty.

Introduced in 2015, the updated SUV includes a larger matrix grille flanked by new elliptical LED headlights that glitter in daylight. The boxy flat front from last year gets rounded at the edges for a smoother, flowing look. In the rear, elliptical headlights replace boxy ones, and the license plate shifts down. The rear track widens by almost an inch for a broader stance. 

With 22-inch wheels and a giant mesh grille, it looks like a muscular luxury SUV from a distance, enough to provoke hollers of “Hey nice car!” Closer up, with flying B badges and other hallmarks of super-luxury status, strangers may ask for a dollar. 

Overall, the 2021 updates to the Bentayga harmonize the Bentley family that includes the Continental GT sports coupe and Flying Spur super-luxe sedan. 

There’s no way those superpowered land yachts would dare go off road. Half of the eight driving modes in the Bentayga are off-road settings, but it’s mostly meant to float on pavement.   

2021 Bentley Bentayga

2021 Bentley Bentayga

2021 Bentley Bentayga

2021 Bentley Bentayga

2021 Bentley Bentayga

2021 Bentley Bentayga

My first impression of Bentley’s refreshed bestseller was meh. It was a highway cruise and without active lane control or amenities like optional massaging seats, it hardly justified the $180,000 price tag. Sure, the 542-horsepower 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 threw all the weight into the rear axle as it breathlessly slingshotted to triple digits. But once at steady cruising speed, it behaved like other top luxury crossovers, soft, quiet, and composed.

Most of the driver technology masks Audi’s technology; the stalk for adaptive cruise control is in the same place, same functions, same layout, but with a different font. The steering wheel rollers and “View” button customize the broad instrument cluster in the same way. But Audi’s digital instrument cluster, which features color Google Maps and all the information you need at the press of a thumb, does it better. Basic equipment such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility were added standard this year. A larger 10.9-inch touchscreen with gesture control sweetens the upgrades but it’s nothing new to the luxury class.

Yeah, I was looking for justification at this price, and it wasn’t about pining for the Speed model with a 600-horsepower W-12 engine. A plug-in hybrid is coming, too. Initially I didn’t see the justification. But the more time I spent behind the wheel, the less time I spent looking for it, the more I appreciated it. The charms are simultaneously subtle but obvious. You’re supposed to be impressed by heated windshield wipers with 22 washer jets or a Breitling timepiece high on the dash that took my eye like an internal hood ornament. But it’s subtle in how it elevates  it above the sum of its parts. 

The nautical theme with glossy wood panels, circular vents, and pull-tab air controls evoke a Chris-Craft boat on wheels. White and maroon leather with white cross stitching on every dash, door, and console panel, as well as thick maroon carpeting swaddle the notion of exclusivity. Bentley calls it Linen and Cricket Ball leather, and Cricket Ball matches the exterior paint. 

Once so cosseted, it’s easy to overlook the engineering component. The Bentayga is a heavy five-seat crossover SUV on huge 22-inch wheels that handles well and tries to push you through the driver’s seat out the twin dual tailpipes. Nothing new there. And frankly, other performance SUVs like the Porsche Cayenne have stronger acceleration and more controlled handling. But they don’t have that synergy that elevates it to exclusivity. 

On initial turn-in the steering can be slow to react, which results in the kind of lurch and roll endemic to SUVs. But that’s on the driver. Once in a turn, it holds the road without much body roll at all, which would be remarkable for a tall 5,326-pound vehicle if not for the price. Thank the adaptive dampers, but once I got a feel for how it swallows curves and hugs the road, I put less initial effort on the steering. It’s nothing to be tracked, but for any road outside of a track a gentle initial approach reaps a smooth building exit. 

Acceleration from the twin-turbo V-8 won’t make you call your buddy with a grin-inducing, “Dude…” But once that buddy or loved one is in the passenger seat, there is a certain joy at watching their hands dart for the padded grab handle. The roar rips through a vehicle that is otherwise dead to the outside world. At about 2,000 rpm it bears down to shift all the weight and 568 pound-feet of torque to the rear axle; it almost feels as if the nose is lifting. Now that would be awesome. A self-leveling air suspension adjusts the ride height up to four levels depending on the modes, or moods. 

It hits 60 mph in 4.4 seconds but no way I was stopping there. Bentley quotes 9.9 seconds to reach 100 mph but it sure feels quicker. Fortunately, 6-piston calipers squeeze the front iron brakes and the big SUV comes to a stop quicker than it got there. The available 10-piston calipers and carbon-ceramic brakes would do it even better.  

Small but solid paddle shifters flick the effortless 8-speed automatic, but that top gear is for cruising. All-wheel drive is standard and the electronic locking rear differential guarantees better traction and stability. 

I didn’t spend much time in the rear seats but there’s nearly four inches more leg room than its predecessor and the seats recline a couple inches for more comfort. There’s a four-seat and seven-seat option, but a third row would be an unfortunate compromise for passengers and gear.

With more than a dozen leather choices, several wood options, more paint colors and two-tone interiors than I can count, the 2021 Bentayga can be configured in more ways than a Michigan road. And all that customization means it will never ever feel like driving on a Michigan road. 

When I see a Bentayga: respect. Not for the money spent or even the engineering executed, but because altogether, improbably, impossibly, it adds up. 

Bentley provided the 2021 Bentayga for a day in Michigan to bring you this firsthand report.


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