The Hunter Valley is mere hours away from Sydney and home to over 150 wine cellar doors offering everything from Sémillon to local Hunter Shiraz and everything in between. It is a popular location, easy to get to from Sydney, which only adds to its appeal. And there's the never-ending cavalcade of cars in all shapes and sizes that frequent the roads in and around the area.
While any car will do, there's nothing quite as ostentatious and decorous as the Bentley Bentayga Diesel I am driving. This is one of three cars along for the journey; one in white, another in blue and rounding off the tradition of the English flag adorning the sides of each vehicle, the final example in red.
The Bentley Bentayga is yet another SUV by a manufacturer not known for its SUV chops, but it is a capable off-roader, as we learnt on the launch of the W12 back in February 2016. Truth be told, SUVs have become wildly popular in many markets, not just Australia, and even Bentley couldn't leave a gap in its range.
The diesel version is no less capable than its bigger W12 brother. Powered by a refined 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 engine with 320kW and a ridiculous 900Nm of torque and a claimed 0–100km/h sprint time of just 4.8 seconds. It really does throw you back in your seat and is one of the fastest diesel SUVs on the road, without question. The chance to drive one was one I simply couldn't pass up.
While the Bentley name carries with it connotations of luxury and flair, I can't say I truly like the look of the Bentayga. The front half, for me at least, is all you expect of the luxury manufacturer, and it carries forward the traditions of the old with a large grille and round headlights beautifully put together with a purposeful, aggressive in the right way, and even noble appearance.
The back half, on the other hand, looks like it was either designed by someone else or an afterthought, with squarer-shaped lights that scream 'let's just use these ones' and wrap around to the rear quarter panel. Then there are the panel creases and lines that don't seem to add up to a whole. They simply do not seem to go with the rest of the car, and look decidedly unappealing when you're following another Bentayga. They look more Audi than Bentley to me. Both cars share some DNA, and you'd expect some shared ideas, but I'd like my Bentley to look more, well, distinctively Bentley all over.
We collected the vehicles in Alexandria, Sydney, and hit the already bustling city traffic and headed for the Harbour Tunnel. The refinement in the drive is unmistakable with air suspension offering an almost cloud-like experience. It is, in fact, delightful to drive with exceptionally smooth power steering, and you could forget you were actually in control of a vehicle that weighs in excess of two tonnes.
We left the Bentley showroom in Comfort mode, and indeed it was. Driving a ridiculously expensive vehicle left me slightly uncomfortable adjusting settings from the outset, such is the array of buttons and switches, but as I settled in I started to play around a little.
The head-up display with your speed, and the speed limit of the current stretch of road, is a smooth addition and does a great job of keeping up with the never-ending speed zones we love here in NSW. I'm confused most of the time, so this helps.
While the track we took to the Harbour Tunnel and beyond to the Hunter Valley is not the only way to get there, we followed the route predetermined by the artful-looking navigation screen on the dashboard. As long as you like the use of a myriad of materials in the dash and internal finishes, this design will be to your liking.
The layout is sensible and luxurious using beautiful leathers and diamond stitching or timber in all the right places. There are literally dozens of options for owners in this regard, ensuring a bespoke finish for each owner. In another nod to old, the air vents are controlled by silver knobs that poke out from the dashboard, maybe looking a little unwieldy, but nevertheless very Bentley.
As we left the city, we were guided to the M2 and onto the M1 freeway north towards Cessnock, taking the turn-off at Freemans Drive. It's a relatively easy road north aided by the fact I am sitting in an astoundingly comfortable driver's seat, with heating. Great for a pre-existing bad back.
A faster route would be to head straight up the M1 freeway past the Freemans Drive turn-off, taking the Hunter Expressway turn-off instead and following the signs to Lovedale. That way, you miss Cessnock and the 80km/h stretches of road leading in.
You are on the freeway longer at speeds over 100km/h most of the way, and while you're technically going a little further in distance, it's no problem in the comfort of a car like the Bentayga – the speed at which you do it more than compensates for it.
The much more twisty Freemans Drive route did enable me to experience the Bentayga's incredible handling. The car was fitted with Bentley's Dynamic Ride, which reduces body roll and maintains a flat stance on the road. This coupled with Sport mode gives the Bentayga almost sports car handling, which considering the size of the vehicle, is quite an achievement.
Most interesting, though, is the complete lack of lag between the pedal going down and the car taking off. Overtaking, mid-corner acceleration and moving away from lights, whatever you put down is instantaneously delivered by the engine.
In true Bentley style, our lunchtime destination was Hope Estate for lunch on the balcony and a helicopter joyride for some around the valley. Hope Estate is a vineyard and brew house with an almost unimaginable range of wines for sale, as well as some of in-house beers. It's a large estate that also hosts many concerts in the region, with Fleetwood Mac and Midnight Oil having been on their list. It's definitely worth a visit for the beer tasting alone.
Other highlights include Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard with exquisite wines, both white and red, and one of the best views in the area. It is spectacular taking in the valley and vineyard sitting atop a hill. A personal favourite is Hart and Hunter, where you can enjoy a tasting on the deck outside in the sun. I'm not sure it makes the wine taste even better, but they have an awesome Rosé that is hard to beat.
The next morning, after a degustation dinner with matching wines from all over the world and some handy tips from host and owner of Hope Estate, Michael, we were back into the vehicles for a short off-road session. While it was hardly testing for us or the vehicles, it gave us the opportunity to see what the in-built off-road modes were capable of.
You can select one of eight presets that tailor the car's ride height, transmission and stability control. The car will then measure and match to suit the conditions. The hill descent is very effective in controlling the car down a steep rocky slope with ease, while effortlessly driving up the other side and managing the torque without spinning wheels, despite the fact there is no low-range.
The tracks we followed beyond this challenge were sadly mostly dry, and while I was mighty keen to get the Bentayga dirty, I managed to only find a small muddy puddle and spray some dirt up the side of the car. Hardly testing, although I expect with a starting price of $335,000, most will like the look but rarely, if ever, put a wheel off-road.
The technology incorporated into this car is equally impressive, with an infotainment screen optional on the back of the front seats. This Android-platform tablet can be removed from the vehicle, too. I didn't get much chance to play around with it, although I noted you can browse the web, and it also comes with very comfortable Bentley-branded headphones so kids – should you even allow them in the car – can watch quietly.
The features and options list for the Bentayga is seriously impressive and there is not a lot you can't have, although everything you do want adds to the price. One car had a massager built into the front seats, which certainly made me want to stay in the car in the carpark. I'd miss so many meetings with this feature. I could select strength and style from Wave to Pulse and Lumbar or Shoulder. Another had heated and vented seats, or you could have both and get a back and bum warm while getting a massage.
The Hunter Valley isn't a long drive, and the comfort levels available in the car are such that you shouldn't need these items once you arrive at your destination, but it's nice to know you can.
From Sydney it's only a short two-hour drive, making it entirely doable for a day or better still a weekend. Among the vineyards there are also horse-drawn carriages, electric bikes and horse riding on offer, although we stuck to the cars. I even managed to get a chauffeur for part of the way, with an English accent I might add. We won't mention he was another journo.
The Bentley Bentayga handles exceptionally well and absorbs the bumps and potholes we seem to have on every road leading out of Sydney, and throughout the city itself, with an almost nonchalant manner. Nothing seems to faze it. It's an impressive piece of machinery, and is truly customisable with so many options you're sure to get a personal finish.
Whether you like the price or think it's completely over the top, what's expensive for you may well not be for someone else. Although, I doubt anyone would be considering this for a serious off-roader despite its capabilities. One scratch could be more than heartbreaking.