The idea of a Bentley SUV wasn't exactly guaranteed to work out. The first stab at it, the EXP 9 F concept car of 2012, was widely panned; it took the company nearly another four years to finally roll out its actual production model, the Bentayga impressed some reviewers and put off others.
Buyers, however, clearly haven't taken issue with it. As with Lamborghini and Porsche, the SUV has become the brand's best-seller, due to a combination of both the global appetite for sport-utility vehicles and the fact that it's the most-usable-yet-least-expensive car in the lineup. Even with the arrival of competitors like the Urus, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan and the upcoming Mercedes-Maybach GLS600, Bentley probably could have left the Bentayga alone and still racked up another 20,000 sales in the next three and a half years.
But resting on your laurels doesn't get you very far in the world — especially in the realm of luxury cars, where there's always something shiny and new to tempt flush buyers. So Bentley freshened up the Bentayga for the 2020 model year — and since the coronavirus pandemic meant they couldn't fly us out somewhere to drive it, Bentley sent an early Euro-spec version over to the States for us to try. Here's what we found.
The Bentayga's 2021 updates are fairly minor
You'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the pre-facelift Bentayga and the post-update version at a glance, if you're looking at the SUV from the front; the headlights have been subtly updated to bring the Bentayga more in line with the Continental GT and Flying Spur, and the other changes are even more minor.
The back is where the bigger visual alterations arrived: the rectangular tail lights of old have been swapped out for 3D oval ones more like other new Bentleys, and the tailgate redesigned to be wider but tuck in near the car's belt line to make it look less massive. The new tail lights give the rear end a slight resemblance to a frog, especially on green vehicles like my Viridian-painted test car, but overall, it's an improvement, however, slight, to the Bentayga's looks.
Inside, Bentley made a few more noticeable changes. Chief among them for drivers will be the 10.9-inch touchscreen infotainment system similar to the one in other recent Flying Bs; sadly, the optional rotating display function didn't port over, though everything else that makes it one of the best infotainment systems on the market certainly did. New trim and seat options are available, among other little adjustments like changing the air vents.
The Bentayga didn't need much updating anyway
Traditionalists may have poo-pooed the Bentayga as heretical when it arrived, but the fact is that Bentley's mission — making very luxurious, very fast cars without worrying about price or weight — meshes far better with the concept of an SUV than, say, Porsche's historical M.O. (As it turns out, the Bentayga is the lightest member of the Bentley family, which goes to show how much sound-deadening material goes into, say, a Conti GT).
The Bentayga has always driven pretty much like a Bentley should: capable of cruising along sedately when desired, but also able to haul ass like few cars when you hammer the gas. The updated version proved no different during my weekend with it; it was happy to cruise around in near-silence on quiet suburban back roads or blot out the noise of the city in slow-moving urban environments, but also able to yank itself around tight turns with impressive skill and accelerate up to and beyond highway speed in no time. (Car and Driver's testing, for the record, found the 2021 Bentayga blitzed from 0-60 mph in 3.3 seconds.) And if that's still not enough performance for you, don't sweat: Bentley has already announced the imminent arrival of a W12-powered Bentayga Speed making 626 hp and 664 lb-ft.
Like all Bentleys, the combination of attributes makes for an utterly sublime way to cover distances, be it just down the street or across a continent. Unlike the rest of the lineup, however, the Bentayga can also hop curbs, scramble up rocks and plow through sand and snow that would stymie lower-riding cars. It's not the sort of ride you'd pit against a new Bronco or Wrangler on an off-road course, but it's enough to carry its owners up an unplowed roads to their ski house or down a two-track to a glamping yurt.
The back seat is a Bentley-worthy place to relax
The front left seat (or front right, if you're in the carmaker's home market of England) remains the best place to appreciate the Bentayga's skills — but the second row is now a finer place to spend time than before, thanks to interior alterations that add extra legroom. In the case of my captain's chair-equipped example, there's an extra 1.2 inches of knee room than the pre-facelift model, and an extra four inches when you recline (yes, the seats recline).
In practice, that means even my leggy six-foot-four frame can fit comfortably in the second row, with enough elbow room to sprawl out in comfort. It may not be the chauffeuring equal of, say, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class with its First Class second row, but it's one of many little changes that make the Bentayga that much better.
2021 Bentley Bentayga V8
Base Price (Price as Tested): $170,300 ($228,755)
Powertrain: 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V8; eight-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
Torque: 568 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: 14 mpg city, 23 mpg highway (2020 model)
Seats: Four with the captain's chairs in back, five with a bench seat, and seven if you get the optional third row and have some very small