Sadiq Khan is getting tough on diesels. From April 2019, owners of the most polluting cars will pay £12.50 (on top of the existing C-charge) to enter central London. And the Mayor has hinted that diesels could eventually be banned from the city altogether.
Probably not the ideal time, then, for Bentley to launch the first diesel engine in its 98-year history. Especially when said engine is a mighty 4.0-litre V8 shoehorned into a 2.4-tonne SUV. But don’t dismiss the black-pump Bentayga just yet. This is, by some margin, the most efficient Bentley you can buy.
The Bentayga debuted last year with 6.0-litre W12 petrol power. Performance was suitably prodigious, but even Bentley owners baulked at fuel economy of 21.6mpg. Enter the diesel, which is down on power (435hp plays 608hp) but develops an identical 664lb ft of torque. And economy of 35.8mpg means far less frequent fill-ups.
Before driving the Bentayga, I’m offered a tour of Bentley’s production line in Crewe. Frankly, it’s unlike any other car factory I’ve visited (and I’ve visited a few). I watch leather being hand-stitched onto steering wheels – a process that takes four hours – and wood veneers being painstakingly cut, sanded and buffed. “That’s the difference between premium and luxury,” opines Peter Guest, the man known here as ‘Mr Bentayga’. “A Bentayga takes around 130 hours to build, versus about 10 hours for a mass-production car.”
It’s also the reason a Bentayga diesel is nearly twice the price of an Audi SQ7 – a ‘premium’ SUV that’s virtually identical under the bonnet. But while the Audi rasps and growls, Bentley favours subtlety over sportiness: an iron fist in a Connolly leather glove. Fire up the V8 and there’s no cough or clatter, just a muted throb that’s indistinguishable from the petrol W12.
We head east from Crewe, climbing into the Peak District on roads that are slightly too small for a seven-seat SUV. Bury your foot in the shag-pile and the Bentayga will blast to 62mph in less than five seconds: quicker than a Porsche Cayman. But that’s slightly missing the point; monstrous shove, rather than outright speed is this car’s defining trait. With two turbochargers plus an electrically-driven supercharger, maximum torque is available from just 1,000rpm, making progress utterly effortless.
I’ve never liked SUVs – nor am I sold on Bentley’s styling. Yet there’s something beguiling about the Bentayga.
Well, until we reach a boggy green lane that is. Peter instructs me to shift into ‘Mud and ruts’ mode and £200,000 of hand-crafted luxury plunges headlong into the Cheshire countryside. We follow a rocky track down through a tight corridor of trees, the Bentley’s hill-descent control system holding us at a steady speed. At one point we stop to take some photos, terrified of muddying the cream carpets as I clamber back in. It all feels wonderfully incongruous.
Indeed, never mind the car, this is one of the most improbable public roads I’ve ever driven. We slither through deep ruts and clamber over tree roots, waving to a group of startled ramblers as we roll gently past. Then it’s time for the pièce de résistance: a drive upstream along a rock-strewn river bed. Parting the waters with the Bentley’s prominent prow, I can’t help but marvel at the car’s breadth of ability. Few owners will ever take their Bentayga beyond a muddy gymkhana field, but Peter has made his point.
I’ve never liked SUVs – nor am I sold on Bentley’s styling. Yet there’s something beguiling about the Bentayga. This formidable 4x4 takes life confidently in its stride, imbuing its driver with a sense of calm invincibility. Crucially, the car’s core appeal isn’t dented by its new engine: far from it. You’re rarely likely to notice the difference, so it seems bonkers not to save £27,000 and go diesel.
Unless you’re still worried about being banned from central London, of course. In that case, may I suggest waiting for Bentley’s next move? A plug-in petrol/electric hybrid Bentayga arrives later this year.