I’m not surprised that the new Bentley Bentayga, the British automaker’s first SUV, drives smooth as silk on the normal roads of Palm Springs, California. After all, the brand is almost synonymous with luxury; it looks right at home in this desert town known for its ritzy citizens and mid-20th-century architecture. But would a $229,000 SUV actually perform like an off-road vehicle when the pavement disappears?
To get some answers, I left town. First stop was the Cahuilla Creek Motocross track in nearby Anza. The narrow, dirt track was designed for motorcycle racing; there are lots of sharp inclines followed by steep drops. A tight turn with a deep rut gets me tilting sideways into a position that seems impossible to hold, but the Bentayga doesn’t give ground, successfully maneuvering through an off-road course that would challenge any vehicle.
Fast forward a few hours and I’m down near Glamis, California, driving the Bentayga through the Imperial Sand Dunes where the only other traffic comes from wild open-air buggies sporting long-masted pennants—sometimes the only visible marker of their presence among the high dunes. It’s like getting lost inside a Mad Max film. The sand here is very deep in places and it’s easy to imagine getting so stuck, you’ll have to be pulled out. The powerful, 600-horsepower, 12-cylinder engine in the Bentayga keeps me out of trouble, even as sand momentarily covers the windshield, sliding off as I twist the wheel to navigate down the side of a dune. Admittedly, this is the type of extreme driving that most Bentayga owners are unlikely to encounter, but it’s nice to know that the Bentayga is monstrously capable in off-road circumstances. With four off-road and four on-road driving modes, you can set up the Bentayga for almost any condition with a simple twist of a dial.
One last test is for speed and handling on asphalt at the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, a 2.68-mile Grand Prix–style track. The Bentayga holds a steady line as I whip through the 17 turns while accelerating strongly on straightaways. Bentley says the Bentayga goes zero to 60 in four seconds and has a top speed of 187 miles per hour. After a few laps, I have no doubt the Bentayga can get me anywhere I want to go in a hurry, in sumptuous style and comfort that few can rival. Next time, I’m going to bring along the optional picnic hamper that fits into the rear cargo bay—the Champagne cooler and fine china tea set will up the ante on any tailgating experience. Of course, a lot of those other pretty cars in Palm Springs may have trouble keeping up.
From, $229,100; bentleymotors.com.