Bentley and Rolls-Royce defy expectation

Bentley’s new Bentayga SUV and Rolls-Royce’s Dawn convertible assert their positions at the very top of their respective categories – and for some surprising reasons, as Simon de Burton discovers

The Bentley Bentayga estate, from £160,200, has impressive off‑road capability
The Bentley Bentayga estate, from £160,200, has impressive off‑road capability | Image: Bentley Motors

Bentley shifted 10,100 cars last year, and Rolls-Royce 3,785. True, both numbers were down on 2014 due to a fall in sales to China and represent a drop in the ocean in terms of global car manufacture – but that doesn’t alter the fact that demand for the super-luxury models produced by these most celebrated of British marques is encouragingly strong.

In the face of stiff competition from ostensibly less prestigious names, however, neither can afford to rest on its laurels. Indeed, the gap between a super-luxury car and a mere luxury one is narrowing fast, and in an era when the latest offerings quickly become yesterday’s news, the need for the two to keep their line-ups looking fresh is more urgent than ever. As a result, the launch of a Rolls-Royce or Bentley isn’t quite the once-in-a-blue-moon occasion that it used to be – leading to the unusual occurrence of recent weeks that saw both makers release significant new models.

Breitling white-gold and mother-of-pearl Mulliner Tourbillon clock, from £150,000, for the Bentayga
Breitling white-gold and mother-of-pearl Mulliner Tourbillon clock, from £150,000, for the Bentayga | Image: Bentley Motors

Aside from their prestigious badges, however, the two could scarcely be more different: from Bentley, the much-anticipated Bentayga, the first of a coming wave of top-end SUVs; from Rolls-Royce, the exquisite Dawn, only the third convertible to have been created by the firm in close to 50 years. Of the two, Bentley’s Bentayga is probably the more significant. Since its founding by WO Bentley in 1919, the marque has traditionally been a builder of cars with more sporting inclinations than those produced by Rolls-Royce – so a hefty estate with four-wheel-drive capability and an options list that includes a boot-mounted “picnic hamper” designed by Linley and fitted with a fridge and a full complement of cutlery, crockery and drinking glasses might seem somewhat incongruous.

Rest assured, however, that the Bentayga upholds the Winged B’s tradition for performance, boasting a top speed of 187mph and the ability to accelerate from 0 to 60mph in just four seconds. It’s absurdly rapid for an “off-roader”, and while no one needs such performance, these are figures the Bentayga can’t do without if it’s to be taken seriously as the ultimate in its class.

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The car manages a similar level of overachievement in numerous other departments. The Naim audio system, for example (one of a choice of three) is claimed to be the most powerful ever fitted in an SUV – with an output of 1,960 watts fed through 20 speakers dotted around the car, and “bass shakers” enhancing the sound by vibrating beneath the seats. The car’s handling, too, is said to exceed anything previously available in an SUV, thanks to 48-volt electric active roll technology that instantly counteracts the wallowing once typical of cars of this type. And then there are the dozen ultrasonic sensors, five cameras and short- and long-range radar systems that contribute to features such as City Safeguard, which can anticipate a front-end collision and set the car up accordingly; the autonomous-steering park assist; the impressive, aircraft-style head-up display; and the comprehensive touchscreen infotainment system, complete with WiFi and 32GB Bentley Entertainment Tablets that can be used either in the vehicle or as handheld devices out of it.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of luxury from the options list, however, is the very antithesis of the modern technology we have come to expect from such cars: a mechanical tourbillon clock made by Breitling, hewn from gold and mounted in a dashtop pod. There’s no need for an owner to worry about rewinding, of course – that’s periodically taken care of by an automatic system designed specifically for the Bentayga, which partly accounts for the fact that, at around £150,000, the clock is an extra that costs almost as much as the £160,200 basic price of the car itself. And, we’re assured, it’s proving popular…

Road testing the Rolls‑Royce Dawn, from £250,000, in South Africa’s Western Cape
Road testing the Rolls‑Royce Dawn, from £250,000, in South Africa’s Western Cape | Image: James Lipman/Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

Add to all this the usual acreage of quilted leather available in 15 colours, the forests of veneer in seven varieties of wood, the eight wheel designs, the 90 paint colours and the beautifully engineered fixtures and fittings, and it becomes clear that no luxury stone has been left unturned in the pursuit of making the Bentayga the most sumptuous SUV on the market. And as much, of course, was expected.

What is perhaps surprising, however, is that the Bentayga isn’t just a very comfortable barge piled high with every conceivable extra, but a highly competent, versatile, real-world car that succeeds in keeping the inevitable SUV compromises to a minimum. Its on-road performance is as exciting as the on-paper figures imply, but what many people hadn’t anticipated was just how good it is – all 2.5 tonnes of it – when taken off the tarmac and onto the rough.  

The Dawn’s mandarin leather interior
The Dawn’s mandarin leather interior | Image: James Lipman/Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

For the purposes of my road test, the “rough” was actually the unforgiving desert outside California’s Palm Springs, where the Bentayga amazed with its ability to tackle the sand. My visit coincided with the annual Glamis Quad event, which sees tens of thousands of off‑road driving enthusiasts converge on the area for a weekend of dune bashing – and the disbelief in the eyes of those who witnessed a fleet of Bentaygas effortlessly following in the tracks of the gossamer-light, balloon-tyred machines built specifically for the task said a lot about the car’s all-terrain competence. It really is an all‑round impressive automobile, a Bentley for the 21st century that, when the line-up is extended in the future to include both diesel and plug-in hybrid-power options, is predicted to sell at a rate of 5,000 units annually.

But what of Rolls-Royce’s latest attempt at capturing the imaginations of car buyers with six-figure sums to spend? The Dawn certainly won’t tackle a sand dune, nor will it touch 187mph (although it’s rapid enough), and unlike the Bentayga, it’s probably not something you’ll see on a pheasant shoot or carrying a family to the ski slopes. Yet it’s a very long time since I’ve been behind the wheel of a new car that makes both its occupants, not to mention the actual act of driving, feel so completely and utterly special.

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The Dawn, you see, is a rather brilliant combination of traditional Rolls-Royce character, modern engineering, beautifully considered design and, believe it or not, practicality. Wafting around South Africa’s Western Cape, top down in the late summer sun, it was difficult to imagine being in a more appropriate car for the less-than-arduous conditions – in fact, it was difficult to imagine being in any other car, full stop.

With 6.6 litres of twin-turbocharged V12 engine propelling it, the Dawn goes about its business with an effortlessness that borders on insouciance, Rolls-Royce’s wonderfully gimmicky power reserve meter rarely showing less than 85 per cent on tap, even during relatively spirited driving. Its steering wheel – thin-rimmed, fingertip-light, perfectly weighted – could belong to no other make of car and is refreshingly devoid of gearshift paddles. Mechanical noise is non-existent, tyre noise almost so, and gear changes (through the marque’s satellite-aided transmission, which predicts the road ahead) imperceptible. In a Dawn, even speed bumps cease to be irritating.

It’s said that millions of pounds were invested in the development of the fabric roof alone, a sumptuous, six‑layer affair stitched together using immaculate French seams to help ensure that the Dawn is, quite simply, the quietest convertible ever made. When it is raised or lowered, not a sound emanates from the electric motors, which perform the operation in just 22 seconds, while placing it in the closed position is to find oneself inside an almost hermetically sealed cocoon of automotive excellence – a world quite separate from the one outside. And unlike many convertibles, the Dawn is as attractive with the roof up as it is with it down, if not more so. A small back window and rakish lines lend the car the look of a high‑class hot rod, belying the fact that inside there is comfortable seating for four adults (this isn’t the usual, convertible compromise of a “two-plus-two” setup) and adding impetus to Rolls-Royce’s drive to attract a younger clientele – who, it is hoped, will also be won over by the Dawn’s rotary-controlled, touchpad and voice-activated media and navigation system.

At the age of 52, I don’t fit into the thirty- to fortysomething “younger clientele” bracket at which Rolls‑Royce is aiming with the Dawn and, quite honestly, I don’t really care about the car’s infotainment system. But if I had the requisite £250,000 entry price, plus another £100,000 or so for a few extras, I would buy one tomorrow and drive it every day – right into my twilight years.

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