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Twin test: Bentley Bentayga vs Range Rover SVA

A modern limousine no longer resembles a stretched saloon: these days luxe is SUV-shaped

  • If you walk, a bicycle is luxurious. If you cycle in the rain with cramping calves, a bus becomes an affluent lifeboat, even if you do have to share the top deck with a man who smells of boiled cabbage and defeat.

    But if you have to deal with the vagaries of public transport on a regular basis, and eventually people who smell of far worse than vegetables and melancholy, then even a 1989 Toyota Corolla that whiffs lightly of damp Alsatian and long-dead cigarettes can seem grand. And thus we find that any concept of luxury is always a mutation formed though the lens of situation.

    But a luxury car has always had a bit of a blueprint. Long and limousiney. In fact, when the concept of a luxury car was formed, there were far fewer niches to fill, and hence far less opportunity for cross-pollinationand side-stepping of the hierarchy. A traditional luxury car has up until now been a barge, weighed down with marquetry and self-importance, but when we talk about the contemporary experience of luxe, the game has moved on. These days, a luxury car doesn’t need to be a wallowing mobile humidor. Modern global luxury is SUV-shaped.

    Photography: John Wycherley

    This feature was originally published in Issue 284 of Top Gear magazine.

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  • You want examples? Major upscale brands have realised that to fully crowbar sales in blossoming markets like China and Russia, they need an SUV. Maserati has the Levante, Lamborghini is planning the Urus, and even Rolls-Royce has a tall car in the pipeline. Far from being an evolutionary dead end, the SUV has made a comeback as the flag-bearer for posh.

    Take this new Bentley Bentayga as an example. It’s a Bentley, whose name imparts instant expense-stroke-luxury credibility. But it’s also an SUV with pretensions to speed. A basic £160k for a 600bhp, 664lb ft W12 twin-turbo titan of Sports Utility Velocity. A four-second to 62mph, 187mph testimonial to the ability of a torrent of burr walnut and quilted, hand-stitched leather to remain completely silent while beating physics over the head with a giant computer. A computer that manages algorithms so complex that when it uses the Bentayga’s 48V electric anti-roll control system as a weapon, the car can actually pervert the accepted notions of momentum and grip versus ride comfort. An SUV that juggles paradoxes faster than you can think: traditional but filled with tech, off-road capable but sports-car fast, big but nimble but comfy. A Bentley, except more so.

  • But why buy a Bentayga, when a well-specced Range Rover will do 90 per cent of the job for half the price? Well, in some markets, excess is justification: a blinged-up Range Rover is just that – some people actually want to spend more. The response from the Range Rover camp was steely and measured – the £156,000 SVAutobiography, weaponised by Land Rover’s SVA in-house bespokery merchants to provide a less challenging counterpoint to the Bentley’s speedy nature and polarising looks. Which means that the Bentley has reigned supreme as the most expensive luxury SUV for nanoseconds. It already has a challenger with some serious pedigree.

    It doesn’t help that the Bentayga is a really very confusing car. First up, it looks quite odd on the outside. The body-colour headlamp washer in the secondary ring of the smaller headlamp looks cataract ugly, there’s too much chrome mesh of grille on the front, the flying B vents on the flank are a bit try-hard and the side has one too many strakes in the body. Even the back is just a bit generic. It’s not pretty, or, to my eyes at least, even very appealing. It’s supposed to be sophisticated, but just looks a bit... bling. Even in the more sober spec we have it here. And bling, for me, isn’t luxury. Bling is wearing a fur coat. Luxury is wearing a fur coat inside out.

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  • Secondly, it feels traditional on the inside, but very much isn’t. There’s tech aplenty, even though it remains butlerish in its attention-seeking. Basically, it’s there if you need it, but not obvious: lane-keep assist, anti-collision, active cruise (which sort of leads to semi-autonomous traffic pilot), night-vision cameras, active ride, various mode settings for on- and off-road that affect steering, throttle, gearbox strategy and suspension. And yet all wrapped in the traditions of the familiar Bentley family – sumptuous leather, wood from real life trees but winnowed to an almost surreal perfection, more leather, and then some leather wrapped in leather. This is an Apple Store stuffed inside a stately home. The fist of technology, wrapped in the finely crafted glove of tradition.

  • It also works as a fast thing, of that there is no doubt. The Bentayga manages to unfurl a road like no other SUV. The engine is so powerful from so sub-bass low (664lb ft from 1,350rpm) and so ear-avoidingly quiet that it does a fair impression of an electric vehicle. Near-instant torque, a vague purr of W12 somewhere in the inconsequential distance of the rear window. The fragrant interior barely tilts even when attacking a B-road at speed, and the only slight disquiet comes from the fact that your inner ear might become fatally confused and give up entirely – because the blurry views don’t match the odd manipulations of the g-forces or the eerie quiet. It’s both brilliant and numb, amazing and at the same time imperiously unengaging. In terms of the market, though, the big Bentley makes sense. It’s an SUV developed specifically to give people who wanted to spend more than a Range Rover on an SUV somewhere British to go. The Range Rover may be fighting back with the SVAutobiography – but from a slightly different angle.

  • The SVAutobiography is more focused on the traditional luxury tropes than the flying B’s sportiness. It’s handsome and sober-suited – even the £9k two-tone paintjob manages to look really rather good – and features space rather than pace. This LWB V8 diesel is equipped with only four seats, with a pair of thrones in the rear that have enough legroom for giraffe-human hybrids – obscenely wealthy mutants who like champagne (there’s a wine chiller back there), multimedia and slide-out workstations. It’s immediately nowhere near as fast or dynamic as the Bentayga – although it does very well for such a huge machine – and tries to offer a more club-class experience from the rear seats, rather than a pilot’s eye view. It’s the wading-capable, Terrain Response-equipped version of a Rolls-Royce Phantom. If space is luxury, then the RR LWB wins hands down.

    And yet, to be blunt, in pretty much every other area, it doesn’t. Which do you think rides better? The LWB Range Rover? Nope. It’s the Bentley.

  • With both on 21in wheels, the Bentayga has a ride quality somewhere between feather bed and severed nerve endings. The RR is by no means intrusive, but it just can’t filter potholes or expansion joints quite so perfectly. It also feels a bit lollopy next to the Bentley, whose mechanical bits feel RWD in most situations (unsurprisingly like the Conti GT). The Bentayga turns in hard and accurately and maintains a flat and committed posture totally at odds with the soft furnishings. Doing that wonderful Bentley thing of confounding expectations by being much, much more dynamically capable than you first assume. The Range Rover actually manages to feel a bit boaty, and while corner carving isn’t a luxury car’s primary objective, the way the Bentley slackens its suspension going straight and levels off when turning actually makes it more comfy than the Range. No, the Range Rover isn’t slow – it’s more than capable of hitching up its skirts and using that diesel V8 to get moving, but it doesn’t get one over on the Bentayga on the slow stuff either.

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  • And it might look better on the outside, but the SVAutobiography also makes do with generally woeful infotainment and graphics, and a confusing, button-heavy dash layout. It all works, but again, compared with the Bentley it’s just not as good – and both cars cost near-as-dammit exactly the same. In fact, the essential nature of the problem is that the Range Rover SVA isn’t a bad car – it’s actually lightly exceptional – it’s just that it doesn’t feel £50k more valuable than a Range Rover Autobiography LWB with the same 4.4 V8 diesel for £107,150. You’re talking about paying for excess, rather than real value.

  • The Bentayga, on the other hand, feels luxurious in that it marries lots of different things into one package. It’s sporty but exceptionally comfortable, fast, quiet, technological but subtle with the integration of the computers, and has a typically wonderful Bentley interior. Bluntly, it feels like it should cost a lot of money, where the SVA doesn’t feel like enough of a jump over the “standard” car. And yet personally, I still don’t think either of these cars really hit the mark.

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  • The Bentley isn’t handsome enough, and I’m too tight to want to spend more on a Range Rover that doesn’t offer a significantly more interesting experience than its nearest sibling in the range. And that seems to be the thing about luxury – no matter how you define it, a luxury item has to have some indefinable quality that makes you desire it for itself, over anything else. Both of these cars will no doubt service a market that requires them. But in the UK, there are other choices that have more appeal.

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