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y eyes saw the black shape the first time it whipped across the rear view. It just didn’t register mentally. Why I might be seeing things was explainable, I told myself. There was the jet lag. And the enormous sand mountain looming ahead. And the driving expert in my passenger seat demanding “heavy throttle” from my right foot. And possibly a case of early-onset dementia, when I added it all up.

The truth was weirder. I was driving a $250,000 Bentley across California’s Alogodones Dunes, and a goddamn pirate flag was chasing me. My brain deserved a pass.

I had arrived the day before to glean one answer about the 5,340-pound beast tamely sitting on its rubberized knuckles in the corner of the room. Actually, it was an opulent patio, attached to a stunning mid-century residence. The kind with running outdoor fireplaces in a town where daily temperatures still ranged between 80 and 60 degrees in February. The kind where the flames spring up, as if out of thin air, between lines of smoothed river stones. It was a habitat designed for the world’s most luxurious SUV to feel right at home, and it worked.

But whether a vehicle built by Bentley would look natural in these kinds of settings was never in doubt. Ensuring the Bentayga “looked like a Bentley” was actually a top priority according to Senior Exterior Designer Crispin Marshfield. It’s why fundamental elements like the brand’s iconic matrix grille, four round headlamps and ultra-sharp power line body styling are all so boldly present and accounted for, along with a deliberate muscular rear haunch drawn directly from the Continental GT. Confusing this strong family lineage with a lack of evolution, however, is huge mistake.

The Bentayga’s flush headlights in particular are a remarkable feat of automotive craftsmanship, made possible by creating that entire front panel from a single piece of aluminum using so-called superforming, which involves pressure heating the metal to a point of fluidity in order to “drape” it around a desired mold. The side panels are made the same way, creating what technically qualifies as the single largest pieces of stamped aluminum in the industry. This method wasn’t simply chosen for bragging rights, though. The design’s extensive use of aluminum helps shave 520 pounds of bulk off the body compared to an all-steel approach, translating to increased performance.

And while W12 engines (roughly two V6s, placed side by side) have appeared in Bentleys and other vehicles from the Volkswagen group before, the Bentayga’s 6.0-liter twin-turbocharged power plant, which produces a Scotch-spitting 600 horsepower and 664 lb-ft of torque, is truly new — if not NASA-grade — given it’s capable of boosting the penthouse-on-wheels from 0-60 in 4 seconds flat. That qualifies the SUV as the fastest on earth. It’s also a full 0.2 seconds faster than Aston Martin’s Rapide S and a whole second better than even the fastest Range Rover, if intra-island bragging rights are important. What’s possibly more impressive is the engine’s ability to deactivate six of its cylinders in select cruising scenarios, helping push the Bentayga’s combined gas mileage to the slightly-above-shameful threshold of 21.6 mpg.

Under the Hood

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Engine: 6.0-liter W12
Transmission: eight-speed automatic; permanent all-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 600
Torque: 664 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 4.0 seconds
Top Speed: 187 mph
MSRP: $250,000

Naturally, the interior specifications are just as ludicrous in the best possible way. The hand-crafted leather and wood trim options are endless, per usual, and a substantial reason why the Bentayga takes a whopping 130 hours to build (compared to roughly 10 for most cars). And while an in-dash Breitling chronometer is a present by default, there’s the option to upgrade to a bejeweled Breitling for Bentley Mulliner Tourbillion for a cool $160,000 more, or roughly the price of a Porsche 911 GT3RS.

Bentley even addressed its lone traditional weakness in the past — technology — by stuffing every conceivable bleeding-edge feature in the industry inside. There are dual 10.2-inch entertainment tablets, 4G wi-fi, a heads-up display and CarPlay support to go along with an optional Naim Audio system, as well as streaming Google Earth, Street View and real-time traffic data. Then there’s the bevy of driver-assistance innovations like night vision, traffic sign recognition, blind spot warnings and lane keep assist, all enabled by 12 ultrasonic sensors, 5 cameras, and both short- and long-range radar. Still, none of these details addressed the quarter-million-dollar question. Was the Bentayga a “real” SUV? Or just another crossover with a supercar engine?

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he answer came the moment I mashed down on the gas, willing all 600 horsepower of the massive 6.0-liter twin-turbocharged W12 engine to my rescue in the dunes. It chortled to my orders, cockily pointing the car’s nose towards the sky like Babe Ruth calling his shot. Racing to the top and turning to trace the upper edge of the summit, I glanced back to reassess the pursuit. The black pirate flag I had spied in the rearview was attached to a fire-engine-red dune buggy which had stopped at the base of the hill. A pale hand shot out from between its roll cage bars and gave a thumbs up.

Our dance in the dunes continued for much of the afternoon as I pressed the Bentayga’s mechanical systems up, around and over countless false horizons in search of any sign of frailty. Yet the moment never came there, nor in more traditional off-road settings. Bouldering it was not, but steep hills and descents were handily managed without incident, even with wheels off the ground.

Putting 664 lb-ft of torque at a driver’s disposal is a miracle cure for most traction problems, but it’s not the only reason the Bentayga goes where it wants.

Putting 664 lb-ft of torque at a driver’s disposal is a miracle cure for most traction problems, but it’s not the only reason the Bentayga goes where it wants. The oil pan and pickup system are also guaranteed to work at up to 30-degree angles in all directions, and its variable all-wheel-drive system with a Torsen center differential is available with four off-roading modes tweaked for various terrain types, as well as hill-descent control and a bevy of skid plates. The central infotainment system and front parking camera also pitch in, showing details like wheel articulation and side-slope angles, in addition to offering a handy glimpse of the road ahead when peering over sharp terrain. Though it won’t win at Dakar, there’s little doubt that the Bentayga’s off-road chops can take drivers farther than almost any other civilian SUV on earth. That is, if they’re not too busy melting down the SUV’s stock Pirelli Scorpion tires out on the track.

Yes, this English behemoth can also go preposterously fast. Up to 187 mph, to be exact, should your sanity be strangled by the grip of the wheel. And in more than just straight lines, as my dedicated track time proved. In fact, the Bentayga’s so-called Bentley Dynamic Ride system might very well be the most impressive thing about the ultra-luxury whip. It relies, at the most basic level, on a series of fast-acting 48-volt motors to operate actively against natural roll, ensuring the beast sticks smack-flat to the road like a Kardashian face to a camera.

The Bentayga did so much so well for an SUV, that a new question took hold in my head as I handed over the keys for the last time. What took them so long to build one?

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According to some employees, the itch to build an SUV started as early as 2002. Whether by luck or shrewd calculation, the eventual delay was fortunate. Launching the “world’s most expensive SUV” in the austere wake of the ‘08 financial crisis would have been tone deaf. The same goes for the “greening” of the auto industry sparked by pricey gas at the turn of the decade. In the six months since its reveal in 2015 though, over 5,000 Bentaygas have been purchased, already amounting to half of what Bentley had sold across its entire line in the three previous years. The success hints at what the company had long suspected — that the world’s elite were dissatisfied with SUVs whose bulky exteriors and ride heights existed only as vestigial traits for a purpose long forgotten.

It seems laughable (to put it nicely), for most of humanity. But we’re all guilty of the same sentiment at some level. Whether it’s a zero-degree-rated sleeping bag, the latest smartphone in our pocket, or a stick of 24-hour deodorant, few of us ever push the things we buy to their engineered limits. Yet we’re still wooed by the idea that they’re capable of it all.

Luckily, showing what’s possible when the need for compromise is dismissed has always been Bentley’s own special brand of magic, and in this area, its new Bentayga is no exception.

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