Bentley’s Least Expensive Offering Is Now Its Best SUV

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(Bloomberg) — Bentley is on quite a roll this summer. Especially for an automaker that sells only 10,000 prohibitively expensive cars globally each year.

In June it presented the all-new V8 version of its best-selling car ever, the Continental GT. A week later, its 12-cylinder counterpart beat a Porsche 911 Turbo S to set a new Pike’s Peak record.

On July 10, Bentley will host a 100-year anniversary celebration at company headquarters in Crewe, England, where a parade of vintage cars and dignitaries (some of them will be rather vintage, too) will regale guests with the kind of pomp and circumstance the British empire has perfected over centuries. Executives have hinted they’ll introduce a new concept car. In August, during Monterey Car Week, Bentley will unveil the new Flying Spur, the third generation of its $230,000 flagship and what it claims will be the fastest sedan on earth.

And just two weeks ago in Palo Alto, I got my hands on the new 2020 Bentley Bentayga Hybrid.

The $158,000 SUV is the least expensive car of the Bentley portfolio and, with the holier-than-thou “hybrid” badging spackled onto the already nondescript Bentayga body, the least attractive. But as the eco-conscious, image-conscious part of a model line that has roughly doubled Bentley’s output since it emerged, it embodies what a Bentley SUV should be better than its V8, diesel, and W12 counterparts.

More important, this is the first step on a path that will have Bentley offering a fully electric vehicle for sale by 2023 and hybrid options in all of its models by 2025. And it’s not just lip service to eco-purists: It gets 50 gasoline equivalent miles per gallon, with 16 miles of electric-only range. By comparison, the Bentayga Diesel gets 35.3 mpg in combined fuel efficiency; the Bentayga V8 gets 17 mpg.

Driving the rig, you can choose between three modes—Hybrid, Hold, and EV Drive—by pushing a button on the center console, allowing for a lot of control over how and when you want to use the electric-only driving range.

Hold conserves battery energy until a certain point or time frame, such as when you enter the center of town, or for the last 30 minutes of your trip, which you can program. EV Drive forces it into all-electric mode. In Hybrid mode, the most complex, the car switches between gas and electric power to maximize electric power usage and minimize emissions. It uses the car’s navigation system to preserve battery charge for more urban areas and enables the car to “coast” (Bentley’s word) as the gas engine switches off and the electric motor kicks in.

As I rolled slowly past the gated estates of the Palo Alto and Menlo Park nouveau riche, I initially had no idea which mode I was in—and it felt great, free of care from manually monitoring my own settings. (Later investigations into the depths of the information screens behind the steering wheel confirmed it was Hybrid, and on the easy-to-use touchscreen console, you can also always see exactly where you stand, what power is coming from where.)

Through the panoramic sunroof stretched above me, palm fronds slowly scrolled by like fish flitting through a sapphire sky; the interior was so quiet, thanks to eight layers of noise isolation, that even with the combustion engine running, it felt like reclining through a silent movie tinted in brilliant technicolor greens and blues. I had thought maybe I would hear or feel the difference between drive modes, but that wasn’t the case as I flipped through the options.

Instead, what I felt was responsive, engaging steering and feedback from the Bentayga Hybrid powertrain. The high ride height, supportive and sporty fluted leather seats, and well-done handcrafted trappings of interior finery lulled me into a meditative state of calm. This was not an experience conducive to rapid states of acceleration. On the contrary, the sum total feel of the Bentley Bentayga Hybrid is one of serenity, like a placid float down some tributary in Cheshire, cool and shaded in the summer heat.

Even simple adjustments made for tactile pleasure, with diamond knurling on the console’s chrome knobs and the push-pull stops on the chrome vents organized like those on old pipe organs. I played Neil Young, Cigarettes After Sex, and Mazzy Star on the superb Naim sound system. It was lovely.

This is not to say the 335 bhp V6 engine paired with the 126 bhp 94kW “e-Drive” motor wasn’t fast. On the contrary, the minute I jumped onto Highway 1 heading south, this mild-mannered behemoth put its head down like a compliant draft horse leaning into its harness; it can hit 60 mph in 5.2 seconds. That’s faster than a Porsche Cayenne, though not as fast as the 4.7-second Cayenne Hybrid, but with a beefy 516 pound-feet of torque and an eight-speed all-wheel drive so seamless as to be undetectable as you accelerate—there’s only a subtle sensation of increasing speed as the world starts to fly by.  This is the same as in the regular Bentayga, as are the excellent brakes.

So, plenty of power here. But still … a V6? From Bentley?

“You’re not saying it wasn’t fast enough, are you?” Chris Craft, Bentley’s board member for sales and marketing, asked me when I pressed him during lunch in Palo Alto about that V6. No, I replied, but Bentley has never made a V6 engine in any of its cars, ever. Why do it now? “It’s the right engine for the car,” he kept saying. Such a pat answer begged for a deeper explanation.

Turns out the V6 engine comes from Audi. “It was the best option we had at the time,” Craft said, acknowledging the common practice of automakers in the same group sharing parts and components and technologies to save money and maximize economies of scale. (When asked in an email to confirm which specific V6 Audi engine it uses, a spokesman was less forthcoming: “As you can imagine, with all group products there are synergies leveraged, of course, however I wouldn’t address this as an Audi V6 since we do engineer them specifically to be Bentley’s.”)

Will some purists care that their Bentley packs a V6? Maybe, but then again, that small if vociferous group of buyers probably already owns a Continental GT or a Flying Spur or both, and they likely won’t care that the hybrid—which, let’s face it, is already far away from those Bentley Blowers—has half the cylinders of that W12. The vast majority of Bentayga Hybrid customers (roughly 15% of total Bentayga buyers, according to the company) won’t care a fig about what’s under the hood, if they even think to ask.

No, Bentley’s strength here is the comfort and convenience of the vehicle. The cabin feels more advanced than its BMW Group competitors, with a high-resolution 8-inch touchscreen, traffic sign recognition (telling you speed limits and upcoming turns in your route), and Top View, a system that uses four cameras to display an overall picture of the car’s surroundings for parking and driving. The 10 speaker-audio comes with optional rear-seat entertainment.

A My Bentley app offers many online services that allow seamless connectivity, such as the ability to remotely activate charging if, say, you’re at home and want to prime the parked SUV before you leave. An E-charging function can search for stations near your destination and send their location directly to the navigation system if you need to supplement the regenerative braking. In a matter of seconds, My Cabin Comfort lets you start a trip with the cabin heated or cooled to an optimum temperature of 72F while keeping the battery fully charged, and then it maintains it wonderfully. A full charge of the battery from a domestic household socket takes 7.5 hours; a full charge from an industrial connection installed at home takes 2.5 hours.

The upper cabin is trimmed in Eliade, a soft, technical fabric (sustainable, too, Bentley says); lacquered veneers encircle the cabin. Naturally they can come in dozens of rich tones. Infotainment with navigation, voice control, and text-to-speech comes standard; mood lighting and a parking heater with remote are optional.

I could have used one or two USB outlets in the back seat—there were none, even as options, and this feels retrograde for a luxury car in 2019. I also wish a passenger could program the Bluetooth system while the vehicle is in operation. If you want the massage seats in the rear of the Hybrid, be sure to choose the four-seat option, not the five-seater, which doesn’t offer them.

But those are minor gripes, in the scheme of things. The sum total of the 2020 Bentayga’s Hybrid parts provides the kind of relaxation usually reserved for spas or your private jet.

Sure, it’s not a superquick driver’s SUV, such as its Bentayga V8 Speed counterpart (60 mph sprint in 3.8 seconds). Its homely shoulders and lovely lattice grille like the kind you’d see as a fence along your grandmother’s garden aren’t going to strike fear into the heart of friends and foes.

But leave the gilded, roaring, chart-topping tank of an SUV to the Rolls-Royce Cullinan and the supercar-style performance to the Lamborghini Urus. With the Bentley Bentayga Hybrid, it’s going to be clean, smooth sailing all the way home.

Deliveries start in the third quarter of this year and in Q1 of 2020 for the U.S.