KITZBÜHEL, Austria – For all their titanic outputs and golf club bragging rights, it seems as though Bentley’s W12 models are slowly losing ground to their smaller, more vociferous V8 stablemates. Now the Crewe luxury carmaker has slotted a V8 turbopetrol into the nose of its controversial Bentayga SUV – could this be the pick of an unconventional litter?

Porsche’s hand in Bentley’s heart

Bentley could well have plonked its old-as-the-hills 6,75-litre V8 into the Bentayga’s snout, but instead decided to allow its engineers to tinker with the 4,0-litre, 32-valve, twin-turbo V8 petrol unit that’s doing service in the Porsche Cayenne Turbo. Like a number of its Volkswagen Group peers, this unit can deactivate four cylinders under light engine loads to bring its thirst to a manageable 11,4L/100 km, but can still serve up all 770 N.m of torque from just under 2 000 r/min and spool up to a heady 7 000 r/min redline.

Those looks...

Not since the Mulsanne’s unveiling has a Bentley been subject to so much scathing press regarding its styling, but since personally encountering the firm’s first SUV I have to say that I’m no longer in that camp. Speaking with the man responsible for styling the Bentayga, Bentley designer, Crispin Marshfield, he admitted that the brief to apply such signature touches as the rear wheel arch "haunches" and the stepped square bonnet that flows into a huge grille flanked by a quad-headlamp array was no mean feat. He made the fair point that people recoiled when Porsche wheeled out the Cayenne, but that it has evolved into a design that adheres to the firm’s aesthetic language. And the Bentayga’s evolution will reportedly take the shape of a coupé-bodied version in a similar mould to the Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupé and BMW X6.

Although larger than its already sizeable Audi Q7 relative in every direction, the Bentayga manages to look both taut and imposing. It’s a very colour-sensitive design that plays well with darker hues and – rather oddly – dispensing with the chrome brakelamp surrounds does wonders for the tail, not to mention the model-specific exhaust tips.

What’s it like to drive?

In a word, brilliant. Although it tips the scales at 2,4 tonnes and its body is loftily perched 245 mm from the blacktop, the Bentayga manages to serenely swallow up stretches of motorway. The double-layered glass and no-doubt copious amount of sound deadening allied with thick carpets, contributes to an environment that’s cathedral-quiet, while the fit and finish of a cabin with a good acreage of wood and hide is of such a high standard that the only creak you’ll hear is that of posterior gracing quilted leather seat panel.

Buried within the Bentayga’s innards is an adaptive air suspension setup that’s fed by a 48V electrical system. Not only does this multi-mode system do an impressive job of effortlessly gliding the Bentayga over broken surfaces, it also integrates an electric active roll module that reads weight distribution under cornering and will stiffen or slacken the appropriate corner of the car’s suspension. The result is that under rigorous inputs, where other high-powered SUVs would be otherwise wallowing and tripping over their own feet, the Bentayga corners flat and true. Factor in steering that’s direct and weights up pleasingly when pressing on, and the Bentayga’s on-road manners render it genuinely agile – something that’s hard to reconcile with something as broad and bluff-sided as the Bentayga.

Although it lacks the W12’s outright punch, the V8 is no lightweight and its willingness to spool up and the nice dollop of torque it serves up in a broad, near-4 000 r/min swathe across the rev range, helps belt the Bentayga’s not inconsiderable bulk along at an eye-widening lick. But perhaps best of all is the V8’s soundtrack. Where the W12 goes about its business with a demure burble, the eight-cylinder unit emits a guttural, staccato growl when leaning on the accelerator, before settling into a quiet rumble when easing off into constant-load conditions. If there is a small fly in the ointment it’s the transmission’s lethargy when downshifting via the paddle shifters. Otherwise, the eight-speed torque converter unit gels very well with the engine, providing smooth and well-measured shifts.

Summary

Aesthetically, it may not be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, but the Bentayga’s virtues haven’t been replicated anywhere else. I have to say that the last time I experienced anything like this pleasing amalgam of old-world luxury charm, serene distance-devouring ability and rapidity was behind the wheel of a Continental GT ... the V8 one, at that. And like the GT, the Bentayga V8 is probably the pick of the litter, something even a number of the W12-enamoured Bentley engineers admitted when asked.