For those of typical means, ultra-luxury automakers like Bentley exist in a vacuum. We see an M3’s worth of options on a Flying Spur and scoff at something so preposterous, so alien to our understanding of a dollar’s value.
It’s true enough that the law of diminishing returns tends to really kick in when MSRPs soar into six-figure territory and beyond: Is a Bugatti Chiron 50 times better than a C8 Corvette? Probably not. But years ago, when I was handed the keys to my first Bentley press car, I approached the prospect with a similar mindset and came away a changed man.
The value of some elements of automobile design simply do not translate well to a press release or a stats sheet – things like the material quality, or the action of the switchgear, can be difficult to quantify in a way that illustrates their importance in the larger scheme of things. And while Bentley may have parent company Volkswagen to thank for some of the inherent strengths of its vehicles (along with sister brands like Porsche and Audi), much of what makes Bentley models special is still unique to the English automaker.
But is that enough to prove out a Bentley’s worth? I packed an overnight bag, hopped behind the wheel, and headed due south in order to find out.
(Full disclosure: Bentley dropped a vehicle off at my home in L.A. so I could drive down to a five-star resort in San Diego, where they had collected together a number of different vehicles from the company’s current lineup. After some seat time, I was fed a fancy dinner and drank probably one too many Moscow Mules. The next day I drove back up to L.A. in a different Bentley, which I spent additional time with over a weekend.)
My steed for the trip down to Rancho Santa Fe was a Bentayga Hybrid. This PHEV represents the company’s first big step into electrification, pairing a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 and electric motor for a total powertrain output of 443 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, and the 17.3 kWh lithium-ion battery pack offers up to 31 miles of ICE-free motoring.
I’m not sure if the gleaming Glacier White paint or the 22-inch wheels are to thank, but this Bentley seemed to get the most attention of the bunch, which is odd considering that aside from the small hybrid badges on front doors, the aesthetic really doesn’t deviate much from a standard Bentayga. Whatever the case may be, I tried to ignore the knuckleheads who went out of their way to post up right behind the D-pillar to get a better look at this big bruiser and let the blind-spot monitoring do the worrying for me.
Turns out it’s pretty easy to do that with obscenely soft leather, back massaging, and a Naim system at your command, the latter of which provides some of the best in-car audio you’ll hear anywhere. Naim should be standard in all Bentleys – it’s a truly standout, exclusive feature that significantly enhances the overall experience of being in a Bentley – but it’s actually the top-tier option among three available systems. Regardless, if you’re dropping this much coin on a vehicle and you’re not willing to spend the additional $8,800 required to equip it with a Naim system, you’re doing it wrong.
The electric motor provides enough juice to keep the V6 off for a significant amount of time during typical driving situations, providing the cabin with vault-like solitude as you glide around town. But jockeying for position in traffic on L.A.’s freeways is often unavoidable, and there were a few times when I dropped the hammer to make a pass only to be greeted with a beat or two of no forward thrust while the powertrain processed the request. Once sorted out, the combined output provides enough push to get the job done, but don’t expect staggering acceleration or the effortless passing power that Bentleys are usually known for. Even with 443 horsepower on tap, 5,800 pounds is still a lot of mass to move.
And let’s face it – fuel economy is probably not a top priority for most Bentayga buyers. For those who’re looking for a bit more urgency, the Bentayga Speed will definitely get the job done. I settled in behind the wheel of this W12-powered beast not long after I arrived in Rancho Santa Fe, and the difference in response was stunning.
At the moment there’s a dispute over whether the Bentayga Speed or the Lamborghini Urus is the fastest SUV money can buy. Both top out right around 190 mph, so really it depends on who you ask. More importantly, both also reach 60 mph from a standstill in under four seconds, which is a far more useful performance metric out in the real world. The upshot is that the 626 hp, 6.0-liter boosted twelve-cylinder mill – along with its retuned chassis – reinvent the Bentayga as a legitimate performance machine without forfeiting any of the creature comforts of the Hybrid.
Curiously, the Speed also seems to have more versatility, too. While the Bentayga Hybrid offers Sport, Bentley, Comfort, and Custom drive modes, the Speed comes with no less than four additional drive modes dedicated to different terrains like snow and sand. That seems a bit odd considering its primary mission, but it’s worth noting that those additional modes are also present on Bentayga V8s, so this is perhaps an indictment of the Hybrid more than anything else.
I swapped into a Flying Spur V8 next which, to my surprise, turned out to be my favorite of the bunch. It’s a big four-door sedan with real presence, and since its architecture is shared with the Porsche Panamera, it handles surprisingly well for its size. Despite being down 84 horsepower, I also found myself preferring the V8 over the W12. Ostensibly two V6s fused together with a common crankshaft, the W12 just can’t match the muscular growl of the twin-turbo V8, and the Flying Spur certainly never felt like it was lacking for grunt.
But the Flying Spur also highlights a trouble spot for Bentley: Technological uniformity. While the 2021 Bentayga received a new 10.9-inch infotainment system with wireless Apple CarPlay compatibility, the Flying Spur is outfitted with a larger 12.3-inch touchscreen display that does not support wireless CarPlay and makes little effort to hide its Porsche roots. Strangely, the Flying Spur’s older system was significantly faster to respond to inputs and can be optioned with Bentley’s extremely cool rotating display, while the newer Bentayga system cannot.
In any case, the Flying Spur V8 strikes me as the most honest interpretation of the modern Bentley ethos. I’m not quite sure who the intended buyer of the Flying Spur is, though – I mean, if you’re buying a four-door because you’ve got a family, the Bentayga is probably the better option, right? And if you’ve got the money for a Flying Spur, chances are you’ve probably already got a sports car for the weekend sitting in your garage.
Then again, maybe it’s just well-heeled guys who think like me. When I returned to the hotel with the sedan, a Bentley representative walked up and asked me what I thought of it as I sat in the driver’s seat with the four-liter burbling away. I gave it a moment of consideration before delivering my response.
“…I want to go do a heist with this thing.”
For the drive back to LA the following morning, Bentley handed me the keys to a Continental GTC Mulliner. Although it’s mechanically identical to a standard Continental GTC, the Mulliner scores a number of exclusive bits and pieces from Bentley’s in-house special projects division, like unique 22-inch wheels with self-leveling center caps that keep the Bentley logo upright as the wheel rotates, and the diamond texturing on the center console, which is Bentley’s first use of a multi-machined panel process.
Like the Bentayga Speed, this particular GTC is outfitted with the W12, and like the Flying Spur, it’s built on a platform derived from the Porsche Panamera. All signs seem to point to performance with this combination, but while the Continental is certainly capable of hustling when called upon to do so, it’s really at its best with the top down and chill vibes up. With the drive mode set to Comfort, the air suspension smoothes out the worst pavement that Los Angeles has to offer, and a leisurely pace provides some time to consider how remarkably weighty and substantial everything you interact with feels.
Like many automakers right now, Bentley is preparing for big changes in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, though, the company’s current portfolio of vehicles is an interesting mixture of old school and new school philosophies that have been honed to a fine point over a long period of time, and it shows.
Although we’re not at the end of an era just yet, we may find ourselves looking back at this point in time many years down the road for a reminder of what the pinnacle of posh looked like on the cusp of a thoroughly re-engineered and as-yet untested playbook.
[Images © 2021 Bradley Iger/TTAC]