What a difference four months makes. CarAdvice got to experience the new, revised Bentayga in South Africa back in early February, when COVID had barely impinged on the international consciousness, and when we’d be able to drop the story to coincide with the car’s official unveiling in April.
That plan obviously changed fairly dramatically as the pandemic bit, which is why you’re only reading about it now – and also why you’re not seeing masks or careful social distancing in any of the pictures.
You’re also not seeing finished cars, of course – for those, see our reveal story – with the cars I drove in South Africa being late development prototypes wearing a sizeable amount of visual cladding to guard against early revelation. (Don't worry, dear readers, we've added some shots to the gallery - Ed.)
The level of disguise seemed disproportionate for a mid-life facelift, but made sense when seeing the renderings that proved the Bentayga has been given considerably more than that.
Despite having got to this segment first, Bentley is now facing growing competition from the Cullinan, Urus and (soon to be launched) Aston Martin DBX, not to mention the Maybach version of the Mercedes GLS. All of which dictated a more sizeable visual makeover than cars normally get at this point in their life.
The first Bentayga was a major sales success for Bentley, representing nearly half the brand’s total global sales last year, but its appeal has been based on styling more shock and awe than classical elegance.
The revisions haven’t removed the bling that many buyers are clearly drawn to in this part of the market, but have made the Bentayga look a little more chic than freak.
At the front, that means both a broader radiator grille as well as ‘cut glass’ elliptical LED headlights designed to offer some family resemblance to the Conti and Flying Spur.
At the back, the bigger change of an all-new wraparound tailgate incorporating oval lighting elements; previously the lights were split by the boot aperture. This change has given the guys designing the prototype’s disguise their biggest challenge – creating a wrap that looks like the rear light units without revealing the presence of the new ones beneath.
It doesn’t take long to discover that mechanical changes are limited. Very limited: a 20mm increase in the Bentayga’s rear axle track is the only one to have made any discernable alteration to the way the car drives.
Beyond a few software tweaks, every other dynamic component is carried over unchanged – although that doesn’t mean that there’s any shortage of things to talk about with the engineering team I’m shadowing in South Africa.
My first question is around why the visual makeover hasn’t been matched with a similarly comprehensive mechanical one? “Because owners love it,” says Vehicle Line Director Chris Cole, “the overwhelming feedback we have had from customers about the car is ‘don’t change the way it drives.’”
The need to introduce so many new components to the revised car means the sign-off process is still a complicated one, with the cars in South Africa running with a comprehensive data-logging system which, in addition to automatically recording many parameters, also allows the engineering team to add details to the level of individual creaks and rattles so that these can be chased down later. Some of the Western Cape’s rougher roads, and a modest amount of gentle off-roading, proved an ideal breeding ground for these.
The revised Bentayga will be launched with the 404kW 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 that makes up the bulk of global sales, which is set to be the most potent engine sold in many markets, including Europe.
Fortunately the W12-powered Speed version is set to live a little longer in certain territories, including both Australia and New Zealand – and in South Africa I got to drive prototype versions of both powertrains.
The V8 remains entirely impressive in its own right, with effortless muscularity from low engine revs and impressively lag-free responses when you want faster progress.
It’s outstanding at the sort of gentle, small-throttle cruising that Bentleys are expected to deliver, but also when prodded into life and asked to make a serious challenge on its 7000rpm limiter, with plenty of snarl and rasp at the top end.
MORE: 2021 Bentayga unveiled
As before, it features cylinder deactivation, shutting down four under gentle use to fractionally boost economy, but it remains almost impossible to feel this happening.
Yet the W12 is, as it's meant to be, better. It doesn’t sound quite as good as the hard-edged V8, and the extra mass of the heavier engine can be felt in tighter turns, but the sheer quantity of thrust created by 497kW and 900Nm remains entirely special.
Bentley has already admitted the W12 won’t be around for much longer, and we’ll miss it when it’s gone. There will also be a Hybrid version using a developed version of the plug-in powertrain of the first-gen model, which Bentley promises will be its most economical car of all time on official WLTP figures.
The 20mm increase in rear track is reckoned to have improved the linearity of the Bentayga’s responses, although I couldn’t detect an obvious difference. The V8 turns impressively well for something this size and shape, the prototype finding huge grip (and impeccable traction) from its 22-inch Pirelli P-Zeroes.
The Bentayga was the first big SUV to get a 48 Volt active anti-roll system and although several others have followed the same path the Bentley’s ability to stay flat under hard cornering loads is still impressive.
I also got to experience the Bentayga’s revised cabin – at least, once the fabric that protects the panels from spy photographers had been rolled up.
The new 10.9-inch dashboard touchscreen is bigger and much more crisply rendered than the display of the first car, and backed by smarter hardware that now supports wireless Apple Carplay integration.
There’s also the option of a rear seat tablet that wirelessly connects to the infotainment system, and which worked intuitively well. Rear space has been improved with a redesigned seat frame, in the four-seat version with individual rear chairs this has increased legroom by 30mm with the seats upright, and 100mm in full recline.
Customer deliveries will begin in the third quarter of the year, and we’ll be driving the production version before then. We don’t have pricing yet, although have been told not to expect a significant hike over the outgoing model.
The Bentayga might have been first to its segment, and enjoyed several years without significant competition, but life has gotten harder recently and Bentley execs admit they see the Aston DBX as a serious challenge.
The Bentayga hasn’t changed radically, but it should still be a serious competitor for anyone looking for the best luxury SUV.
Bentayga V8 prototype (2021)
Engine: 3996 cc, V8, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, all wheel drive
Power: 404kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 770Nm at 1960 – 4500rpm
Top speed: 290km/h
Weight: 2416kg (EU)
MPG: 11.4 l/100km [WLTP]
CO2: 260 g/km [WLTP]