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Introducing the Bentley Bentayga Speed: the world's fastest SUV

Meet the world’s fastest SUV, the new Bentley Bentayga Speed. To win the title, the Bentayga Speed had to first see off an ultra-fast sibling rival from wider Volkswagen Group family – the more bullish Lamborghini Urus. This, the new Benta Speed does, but only by a whisker. The Urus, built in the same factory that once spat out the legendary Contach supercar, tops out at 305.5kmh. The new Bentley imposes its dynamic superiority ever so gently by reaching a V-max that’s just 0.5kmh faster at 306kmh.

While top speeds of this magnitude may be irrelevant in a New Zealand driving context, such dinner table bragging rights are important when $300,000+ sums are required to buy either luxury SUV. Bentley also lay down a further claim for the Bentayga Speed that possibly has more appeal to many, calling it ‘the world’s most luxurious SUV’.

Having visited both factories and compared the human craftsmanship that goes into each vehicle, I can confirm that the British SUV has the edge on its Italian rival here as well, but the margins are again very close. And you will pay more for the Bentayga Speed when it arrives here towards the close of the year. The V8-powered Urus costs $339,000 in New Zealand before loading in the options, while a base Bentayga W12 is $350,000. Pricing for the Bentayga Speed has yet to be announced, but given all the effort Bentley has put into claiming that ‘world’s fastest’ title, it’s likely to be a number at least 30 grand north of the cost of an ‘ordinary’ 12-cylinder Bentayga.

The extra premium will be worth paying for the sake of heritage alone. For speed has been a Bentley core value ever since wings were first attached to a large white ‘B’ on an ebony background to create the emblem for the brand. That was precisely 100 years ago, and, a decade later, the word ‘Speed’ was added to the name of the Bentley model that won the brand’s fourth victory in the grueling 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans, when the new supercharged 6.5 litre Speed Six crossed the finish line first in 1929. The Speed Six would repeat the feat the following year.

Fast forward nearly 80 years and you’ll find Bentley reviving the Speed nomenclature for a new range of performance variants, starting with the Continental GT Speed back in 2007. Speed variants of the Flying Spur and Mulsanne luxury saloon cars soon followed. It was inevitable that a Bentayga Speed would join the performance party, especially given the impact that the SUV has had. For the Bentayga now captures 52 per cent of sales for Bentley, helped by the lower sub-300K entry prices of the V8-powered petrol and diesel models.

Like the previous 21st Century Bentleys wearing the Speed badge, the extra drive towards far horizons comes courtesy of performance enhancements to the 6.0litre W12 twin-turbo engine that Bentley manufactures in-house. An extra 30kW of power is liberated by new engine management software that increases the boost-pressure of the turbos. With 467kW of power and 900Nm of force on tap, the Bentayga Speed can reach 100kmh from a standstill in 3.9 seconds. Assisting the launch of the 2.5 tonne luxury SUV is an eight-speed automatic gearbox, driving a permanent all-wheel-drive system with a centre differential divvying up 40 per cent of the driving force to the front wheels and 60 per cent to the rears. A further boost to traction is the stickiness of the 285/40 Pirelli P-Zero tyres that the enhanced Bentayga wears on ten-spoke 22” alloy wheels.

So where did Bentley choose to show off the newest Speed? The ultra high-speed oval at Nardo in Italy would seem an obvious choice given the potential for high driving velocities. Instead, a race circuit located on an island in Irish Sea was selected, but it wasn’t the infamous TT circuit at the Isle of Man. Enter Angelsea, a modest and technical track that will be immediately familiar to viewers of Fifth Gear. It’s a tight and twisty little number with lots of surprise hairpin turns lurking in its topsy-turvy topography, and few opportunities for the Bentayga Speed to fully stretch its legs.

Still, this was the perfect place to assess how the Bentayga Speed would handle the roads of the Coromandel peninsular, a likely weekend destination for Auckland buyers of the high-rise Bentley. It would also test the extra programming of the Speed’s air suspension and active stabiliser bars when the ‘sports’ setting of eight driving modes is engaged.

How did it do? Amazingly well for a weighty SUV that rides high and must fulfill the promise of the Bentley brand to deliver both luxurious comfort and lively performance. The latter qualities are often polar opposites, and while I suspect the Urus would set faster lap times around Anglesea due to the 100kg-lighter engine that it carries over its front axles, the Bentley hit the ride/handling target smack in the middle of the bulls-eye.

The first session at the track was driven in ‘Bentley’ mode, a default setting shared with the base Bentayga W12 that served to show how good the non-Speed model is at disguising all the metal on the move. Helping this impression was the rear-wheel-steering system, which made the SUV handle like a car weighing a tonne less than the Bentley. Turning off the stability system also added extra steering from the rear tyres.

Second time out, we were encouraged to select the ‘sports’ mode – the only mode where the Speed differs from the Bentayga W12. This stiffens the active front stabiliser bar more, noticeably sharpening the steering of the Bentayga by reducing body roll and adding more grip of the inside front tyre to assist the opposite one doing most of the work. Also of note: the reduced pitch when braking as more robust compression damping held the front of the car up more. According to Bentley’s top skid-master, Andy Marson, it’s the 48-volt electronic architecture that has allowed extra refinement of the handling of the Speed:

“There’s no changes to the geometry, or the ride height of the vehicle, but the ‘toys’ of the Volkswagen Group allow instant changes to the damping and stabiliser stiffness that enhance handling and chassis balance.”

The rasp of the W12 also takes a turn for the primal in the sports setting, adding to the emotional appeal of the Speed. If that’s not enough, a louder titanium exhaust is available, factory-fitted, from Akrapovic, the top-end Slovenian pipe-supplier to many MotoGP teams. Even without the latter, the W12 is an absolute monster of an engine in more ways than size.

“We’ve always had a reserve of power built into this engine,” explains Bentayga line manager, Chris Cole.

“There’s a theoretical level of power we can get out of it, and there’s an achievable level in terms of how much we can extract without affecting emissions and other targets.

“We’re at that sweet spot now in terms of what’s achievable – there are no reserves left.”

Hence lots of consideration was given to the design of the rear spoiler for the Bentayga Speed, which had to balance downforce against drag to achieve the target top speed. Zero-point-five kays faster than Urus. Job done.