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Not even famous French visionary and novelist Jules Verne – the guy who imagined electric-powered submarines in his wildly popular 1870 sci-fi title Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – could have foreseen a Bentley SUV.
The same could be said of Bentley's equally famed founder, W.O. Bentley himself, who could never have dreamed that one day, nearly 100 years on, the company's very existence would largely depend on the success of its high-riding SUVs over the drawcard value of Bentley's hugely successful Le Mans-conquering supercars of the early twentieth century.
Success, as it turned out, didn't take long either, with sales of Bentley's first-ever SUV – the mega-powered 6.0-litre Bentayga W12 – notching up a staggering 5586 units all on its own. That's just 645 short of the entire Bentley production over 2016. Not bad for a five-seat SUV with polarising looks and a stratospheric $427,300 (plus on-roads) price tag to boot.
However, 2017 produced an even more one-sided result with Bentayga sales rising to more than 10,000, thanks to the introduction of an additional powertrain – Bentley's first-ever diesel. It used a sophisticated V8 engine derived from Audi's tech-heavy 4.0-litre twin-turbo diesel V8 from the SQ7, sending 320kW of power and 900Nm of industrial-grade twist to all four wheels.
That's precisely the same torque output as the range-topping W12 developed, but the diesel also boasted a range of up to 1000km from an 85-litre fuel tank, making it a thoroughly worthwhile addition to the brand and its ever-growing clientele, not to mention the company's bank balance.
But, Porsche's recent announcement that it will cease all production of diesel engines in 2018 would appear to cast a wider shadow over the entire auto industry, and could quite literally spell the end of diesel-powered vehicles in general.
And that's precisely where the Bentayga V8 comes into the picture. Although, what's interesting, at least for the moment, is that it will be priced just below the diesel variant at $334,700, meaning it will launch locally from June as the new entry-level Bentayga, even though it's the quicker of the two.
It's worth remembering the first high-riding Bentley caused a global sensation when it was announced that despite tipping the scales at a tank-rivalling 2440kg, it could still hustle from standstill to 100km/h in a head-spinning 4.1 seconds.
The $335,000 Bentayga diesel is heavier still, showing 2449kg on the sales. But it's no slouch either, managing to cover the benchmark sprint in a Cayenne-crushing 4.8 seconds flat.
But Bentley's newest SUV uses the same all-new 4.0-litre twin-turbo (in the 'hot' V) powerhouse V8 that's also found in the upcoming Lamborghini Urus and Porsche Cayenne Turbo, although in the Bentley it's specifically tuned and calibrated to put out 404kW and 770Nm of torque, whereas the Lamborghini makes 478kW and 850Nm, and the Porsche almost identical outputs to the Bentayga.
Either way, and in any guise, it's a potent bit of Porsche-developed hardware capable of hurling the Bentayga V8 from standstill to 100km/h in a rapid 4.5 seconds. Frankly, it feels quicker than that number might suggest, particularly when you rotate the drive-mode selector to Sport, flatten it, and enjoy the back-slapping jolt as the twin-scroll turbos kick in.
But even then you're patently aware that this powerhouse of an engine is barely out of cruising mode. This is one hell of a V8 with seriously savvy engineering at its heart. Even when the tacho nudges its 7000rpm redline, it still feels like it's got so much more firepower to unleash. You've only got to glance at the Urus's outputs to realise its ultimate potential should Bentley ever feel the need to turn the wick up and do a Supersport version.
Thankfully, we also got the chance to open it up on some derestricted sections of a German Autobahn, but were limited to around 240km/h on this occasion due to the operational restrictions of the full-strength winter tyres fitted to our tester. Either way, you don't need to see the spec sheet to know that the Bentley Bentayga V8 is one very quick SUV.
Mind you, the V8's throttle calibration is so sensitive that with a light foot on the right-hand pedal, it's quite comfortable moving along at low speeds in its high-strung setting. Of course, there are several other settings including Bentley, Custom and Comfort, the latter of which offers the least aggressive throttle mapping, though it's not doughy like some.
And in the unlikely event that you're suddenly concerned about the Bentley's thirst for premium fuel, the V8 has got that covered too. When light engine loads are detected, the V8 essentially downsizes to a V4, not that you'd ever know it because the switch occurs in less than 20 milliseconds. In fact, so seamless was the transition during development, the engineers had to install a dash-mounted LED to let them know whenever the deactivation occurred, because it was impossible to tell otherwise.
It also saves a few more drops of fuel by using a more advanced stop/start system, which can activate just before the vehicle comes to a full stop. Every little bit counts, right?
The end result is a claimed 746km range from an 85-litre fuel tank, or 11.4L/100km (combined), whereas the W12 uses 13.1L/100km, while the diesel version is naturally the most frugal of the litter with 8.0L/100km.
The Bentley boys also worked hard on getting the most out of the exhaust note without resorting to artificial tinkering. And if you ask this reviewer, they pretty much nailed it. In this setting it sounds a lot like the thundering Audi RS6, only more refined.
Actually, there's a proper naturally sourced, muscle car-like burble from the very instant you hit the exquisitely knurled starter button and the V8 fires. It's more than just satisfying, I can assure you.
It's not just the power and pace that excite with the latest Bentayga, either. There's a ton of dynamic mastery at play beneath this Bentley too, not least of which is the active roll control first employed on the W12 version – a 48V-powered system that effectively maintains a bolt-upright approach through corners, no matter how tight they are or how quick you take them, within reason.
It's hugely effective at moderate pace, and importantly doesn't feel in any way contrived or overly managed like others (including the SQ7), though we weren't able to properly lean on it due to heavier than expected traffic in this part of Austria.
The same thing can be said of the electric power-assisted steering. It's a variable-ratio system that has been effectively tuned to deliver natural feel to the vehicle, with just the right degree of weighting that telegraphs plenty of useful feedback through the steering wheel. Behind the wheel you feel properly connected as the steering effort builds gradually – right from dead-centre to full lock. There's a good deal of resistance, but again it feels natural.
That's also one of the key reasons why this 5.14m-long Bentayga seems to shrink around the driver and inspire a good deal of confidence even on the tight, ice-walled B-roads that we encountered on the drive program.
It's also incredibly quiet. Even at 230km/h there wasn't any of the usual tyre roar or wind noise that you would expect at these speeds. At 130km/h it's almost silent inside the cabin. The acoustic glazing helps, as do the double-glazed windows. Thankfully, though, you can still hear the V8.
More remarkable still is the optional carbon-ceramic braking system fitted to our tester. Mind you, it's not that Bentley doesn't have enough faith in its standard steel brakes, and with good reason. That system alone provides 400mm front rotors clamped by Brembo six-piston calipers, which should be more than up to the task when you consider the Bugatti Veyron (no lightweight itself) was equipped with 407mm rotors up front and able to pull the car up impeccably from huge speeds.
The Bentayga V8 goes one better by offering buyers the most powerful braking system ever on a series production vehicle. Try 440mm front rotors and colossal 10-piston calipers (again by Brembo) for God-like stopping power with your family taxi.
Apparently, they are able to withstand operating temperatures in excess of 1000 degrees centigrade. Equally impressive is the genuinely linear pedal feel from the very moment you start to apply the brake pedal – they simply don't feel like carbon ceramics, at all. We also like the fact the entire system wipes more than 20 kilos off the Bentayga at the scales.
Ride comfort is satisfyingly cushy in the softer settings thanks to the Bentayga's sophisticated multi-mode air suspension that includes four on-road modes and four off-road modes. Scroll down to Sport, though, and things firm up considerably as the Bentley readies itself for more serious cornering work. The system works in concert with active roll bars. Unfortunately, we weren't able to really exploit the technology outside of a few short squirts on some S-bend sections, but it feels immensely tied down for an SUV of such mass.
Obviously, more varied suspension testing will need to wait until we get the latest Bentayga on local roads, which are far worse than anything that was served up on the test route in Austria.
Off-road testing also included some proper ice driving, where we got to cycle through the range of off-road settings. What impressed most was the sheer grip available during a straight-line launch at full throttle. Not a hint of wheel spin or loss of traction with the accelerator pedal nailed to the floor. That was quite remarkable given the exposed blue ice that plagued parts of the course. Even drifting the Bentayga proved to be a relatively stress-free exercise.
Inside is exactly what you'd expect of a hand-crafted Bentley. It takes around 130 man-hours to assemble a single Bentayga, and it's a sure bet that the greater majority of those hours are spent on the interior. It's a special place for sure – regal even. From the hand-stitched needlework that adorns everything from the door grabs to the exquisitely knurled knobs throughout the entire vehicle, even down to those buried deep below the dash and out of sight.
The leather itself is beautifully supple and well beyond what you might be used to at home. It makes for some of the most comfortable chairs in the business. The bolstering (front and back) is both unobtrusive yet pronounced in its ability to grip your torso in the tight bends.
Our tester had the four-seat configuration (Bentayga offers four, five and seven), and the rear pews look no different to the pews up front complete with Bentley wings embroidered below the headrests. Given the majority of Bentley buyers own between five and eight cars, you'd have to think the four-seat arrangement might be a popular choice given the extra space it affords rear-seat passengers.
Our tester had swapped out the popular wood trim for a high-gloss carbon-fibre finish, which seemed to fit nicely with the V8's sporty skew. And, just for the record, there are up to 15 separate bits of trim in each Bentayga and up to 58 individual craftspeople that work on veneer at Bentley, and all of it, including the leather, is created in-house.
There's a new-look wood and hide crafted steering wheel that uses a solid wood base and is a thing of rare beauty, while the fit and finish throughout this SUV are simply exemplary.
The cabin is a mix of state-of-the-art technology and old-world charm. The lone 8.0-inch display looks a bit small in comparison to similarly sized models from the likes of Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz that boast dual screens far more flamboyant in design, but it's not something you tend to give a second thought as it fits the Bentley's style, to be honest.
On-board tech includes up to 12 ultrasonic sensors, five cameras plus short and long radars. The Bentayga also gets a full suite of all the latest active safety systems, but adds kit like night vision and trailer assist, too.
Whatever you may think of the styling (we can sure guess), the new Bentley Bentayga is a beautifully polished automobile of exceptional quality. The twin-turbo V8 is a masterclass piece of engineering that adds a level of engagement and excitement to the mix that should catapult this deluxe SUV to the top sales position in the entire Bentley line-up.
Whether it will be enough to convince owners of the equally svelte 5.0-litre Range Rover SV Autobiography to look at stepping up, though, is yet to be played out. But this is a Bentley, and that guarantees considerable cachet, so things are going to get interesting.