A luxury SUV is a notion pregnant with paradoxes. It’s a lifestyle merchandise that melds creature comforts with essentially utilitarian vehicles. And for the last four decades, the Range Rover has been leading a life of contradictions trying to blend all the incongruities that define a luxury utility vehicle into a well-oiled machine. And to its credit, it’s managed to do that remarkably well, serving up an exquisite amalgam of its farmland workhorse legacy and a rarefied atmosphere of luxury. Ever since the Range Rover created the premium SUV niche, many mighty names from the automobile world including Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche have attempted to displace it from the top, but the Rangey stayed put, undisputed, absolute, and lonely. As fate would have it, the usurper wasn’t destined to come from the plains of Bavaria or the hills of Württemberg. Instead the pretender to the Range Rover’s throne proved to be a compatriot with as storied and even more blue-blooded a lineage. Indeed, Bentley announcing its incursion into the luxury SUV class with the Bentayga was the first serious threat to Range Rover’s 40-year reign at the top of the SUV peak. And tidings of an even bigger threat brewing in Goodwood in the form of Project Cullinan added to the disquiet. 

But Land Rover had a plan, and a solid one at that. It called upon its Special Vehicles Operations, or SVO, to come up with a new flagship luxury barge that’s loaded with enough armour to stave off any high-profile offensive. What they came back with is one of the most magnificent SUVs ever built, the Range Rover SV Autobiography.

Bentley announcing its incursion into the luxury SUV class with the Bentayga was the first serious threat to Range Rover’s 40-year reign at the top of the SUV peak.

So, when we got hold of a Bentayga here in the UAE, we didn’t have to think much about what other car we should get to go head to head with the Bentley. And what we have here is the ultimate luxury SUV twin-test.

The most important duty of any über-luxury vehicle, whether a saloon or an SUV, is to proclaim the arrival of its ultra-affluent owner to the less fortunate general public. This makes its external appearance a key factor. And in this all-important aspect, the Bentayga trails the Range Rover by a long margin. Although it’s not as revoltingly hideous-looking as the EXP 9 F concept shown at the 2012 Geneva show, attractiveness is definitely not one of the Bentley SUV’s strengths. Where we expected a Bentley SUV to ooze elegance and grace, it smacks of flamboyance. The large, shiny honeycomb grille and jewel-like headlights add to the overall flashy appearance. The SV Autobiography, on the other hand, doesn’t try to be anything else but a Range Rover. It radiates restrained sophistication with its clean, classic lines given a touch of distinctiveness by the Rolls-Royce-like dual-tone finish. While the upper body is cloaked in Santorini Black, the lower half is painted in a maroonish hue called Montalcino Red. Apart from this, and the considerable increase in length, the SV Autobiography is also distinguishable by its Graphite finish front grille and lettering on the bonnet, which add even more subtlety, along with the special SV Autobiography badge on the tailgate.

Both the cars offer a mind-boggling array of individualisation options. While the Bentley customer can choose from over 90 exterior shades, the Range Rover buyer gets to pick from 60 hues, out of which one is solid, 28 metallic, and 31 are ‘special’ paints. The Rangey can also be specced with its roof painted in body-colour, black or silver. The Bentayga can be matched with any of the 10 alloy wheel options offered, while the SV Autobiography offers two less.

There aren’t many other utility vehicles that can afford you the sense of occasion behind the steering wheel that the Range Rover does.

Things are more even in the cabin, where both the Bentley and the Range Rover score on different scales. The Bentayga is typical Bentley inside, with acres of diamond-stitched ‘Brunel’ leather, glossy ‘Madrona’ veneer, and knurled and brushed metal controls and handles. The front seats are arguably the most thickly padded in any SUV, and sinking into them is a highly delightful experience. The level of craftsmanship, and the quality of leather and wood are hitherto unseen in the SUV segment, and are of a class that only craftsmen from Crewe and Goodwood can deliver. The dashboard design that echoes double Bentley wings, precision finishes and detailing all add to the overall air of ultra-opulence. However, the same level of luxury hasn’t been carried over to the rear seats, which although padded, contoured, and diamond-stitched, don’t feel as special as the front buckets or for that matter the Range Rover’s rear chairs. The two individual back seats of the SV Autobiography are power adjustable in multiple ways, and thanks to the 186mm additional legroom freed up by the longer wheelbase, you can stretch out and relax, while getting your back cooled, heated or massaged. And if you’re in the mood to get some work done on your laptop or have a quick meal, there are two power deployable tables that rise up from under the centre armrest at the touch of a button and a chiller compartment to keep your drinks cool. The Rangey also comes with plush semi-aniline perforated leather seats, dark cherry and ivory interior trim and deep-pile carpets similar to those seen in Rolls-Royces. The cabin design also mirrors the exterior styling with plain, simple lines for the dashboard and the door trims. If the Bentayga’s cabin is reminiscent of the Flying Spur’s (I know there’s the Mulsanne, but it simply doesn’t feel as special), the SV Autobiography’s passenger cell is more like an elevated version of the Mercedes-Maybach’s.

Expectedly, both SUVs are also packed with the latest safety and comfort technology. Our Bentayga comes with All Terrain Specification as well as City Specification, Front Seat Comfort Specification, Jewel fuel filler cap, panoramic roof, Bentley Signature Audio, Blind Spot Assist and Exit Warning, head-up display, Night Vision, Park Assist, and Top View Camera, among others.

Meanwhile, the Range Rover features deployable side-steps, Wade Sensing to aid its 900mm wading capability, twin-speed transfer box, Adaptive Dynamics, Automatic Load Levelling, Emergency Brake Assist, Hill Descent Control, Roll Stability Control etc.

The main differentiators though are under the skin, with a 6.0-litre twin-turbo W12 engine snarling behind the Bentayga’s flashy grille, while its rival makes do with a smaller but supercharged 5.0-litre V8 under its bonnet. The larger mill is good for 600bhp and 900Nm of twist, while the eight-cylinder manages to churn out 542bhp and 680Nm of torque. The difference in size and output shows in the cars’ performance as well, with the Bentley hitting 100kph from nought in just 4.1 seconds and the Range Rover taking a more leisurely 5.5sec to do the benchmark sprint. Also, while the former cruises along to a top speed of 301kph, the latter maxes out at a more plebeian 225kph. So naturally, the Bentley cuts a swathe through the Range Rover in a straight line race from a standing start. And it steers and handles better, too, feeling more like a large but nimble saloon than a gargantuan SUV. The Range Rover SV Autobiography, meanwhile, feels a bit wallowy and top-heavy when pushed through corners at speed, although at constant highway speed drives, it’s as steady and poised as the Bentley. However, one point to be noted here is that there are many other SUVs, albeit with less ostentatious badges, that can do the same. But there aren’t many other utility vehicles that can afford you the sense of occasion behind the steering wheel that the Range Rover does, along with smooth, effortless performance and off-road ability that’s the stuff of legend. Not even the Bentayga.

So naturally, the Bentley cuts a swathe through the Range Rover in a straight line race from a standing start.

When it comes to ride quality, both SUVs are pretty much on a par, cosseting their occupants in impeccable comfort and refinement that’s unmatched by any other vehicle this side of a Rolls-Royce Phantom, Mercedes-Maybach or a Bentley Mulsanne.

So, do we have a new king of luxury SUVs? The answer is, we now have two different kingdoms. One, the long established, conventional luxury SUV realm over which the Range Rover has reigned supreme, and has tightened its grip over with the SV Autobiography. The other, a new-fangled empire created by the Bentley Bentayga, which will be populated by a completely different genus of millionaires, who never found it appropriate to vow allegiance to the Range Rover. And there’s not much scope for defection from one domain to the other here, either. For those who find appeal in one, will never like the other.