Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to drive all sorts of cars with a decent variety of drivetrains. One that had always intrigued me was the W12, a Volkswagen-Audi Group exclusive that was equal parts clever and interesting. First developed for the Audi A8, it quickly found a home in VAG-owned Bentley models across the lineup. And over twenty years later, it’s headed for retirement. Bentley announced that production will cease in April of next year.
Naturally, I reached out to Bentley and asked if I could experience their unique twelve-cylinder before the opportunity slipped away in favor of smaller electrified options. Their response was to send over an SUV that cost about as much as the house I grew up in – the 2023 Bentley Bentayga Speed.
The Basics of the W12 Engine
Bentley’s W12 is set up a bit differently than the V-shaped twelve cylinder engines that BMW, Mercedes-Benz and others have used. Where a V12 has two long banks of six cylinders each, the W12 has four banks of three. It’s derived from the Volkswagen group’s VR6 six-cylinder, which places six cylinders in a staggered V-ish layout with a very narrow 15-degree angle separating the two. That narrow angle means a VR6 can use one cylinder head instead of two, and thus ends up narrower than a traditional V6, helping with packaging.
When the edict came from then-CEO Ferdinand Piëch to make a twelve-cylinder, engineers got clever and effectively shoved two VR6s together at a 72-degree angle. The result is an engine that is short front-to-back, given it’s only three cylinders deep instead of six, and is instead somewhat wide. It uses one crankshaft and only two cylinder heads, and overall, it’s smaller than the Group’s 4.2-liter V8 developed around the same time.
This W12 has been installed in countless Bentleys since its inception in 2001. It’s always displaced six liters, though in 2003 Bentley started bolting a pair of turbochargers to it for even more power. In my 2023 Bentley Bentayga Speed, the twin-turbo W12 produces 626 horsepower and 664 lb-ft of torque.
The Bentley Bentayga Speed
Okay, so on to the car the W12 came wrapped in. The Bentley Bentayga is the brand’s SUV, a response to ever-shifting preferences for the body style. First launched in 2016, the Bentayga was facelifted in 2020 and received some updated styling as well as interior revisions. Given Bentley’s familial relationships, the Bentayga rides on the Group’s MLB Evo platform, a platform that now underpins the Audi Q7 and Q8, Lamborghini Urus, Porsche Cayenne, and (in other markets, sigh) the Volkswagen Touareg.
The 2023 Bentley Bentayga can be had with a whole host of drivetrains, from a plug-in hybrid V6 to the mack-daddy W12. Getting a Bentayga Speed is the only way to get the W12 in this final year. The big (well, not big) engine sends power through a ZF eight-speed automatic and all-wheel drive.
Everything else around the drivetrain in the Bentayga Speed is, predictably, also a bit extra. Brakes are gigantic with 15-inch rotors on both axles. Suspension is a mix of standard air springs and optional adaptive dampers.
And speaking of options. My goodness, the options. People buying cars at this price point likely don’t care about options pricing quite so much, but seeing an entire Toyota Supra of options on this Bentayga’s window sticker was a lot to process.
Bentley built this Bentayga Speed with the Styling Specification (carbon fiber bits, front splitter, rear spoiler) and Blackline Specification (blacked out trim), as well as black 22″ wheels.
Inside, there was seating for four, not five, with full separation from the cargo area and a touchscreen remote so rear passengers can control much of the car’s comfort features. That alone added $11,560 to the sticker. The “Touring Specification” adds adaptive cruise, lane centering, a heads-up display, and night vision. The $9,150 Naim for Bentley sound system rounds things out with 1,720 watts of power and 20 speakers.
MSRP came in at $324,570. I promptly called up two friends and took the Bentayga to visit my parents at the beach. Yes, I got sand in a Bentley.
The Bentayga Speed Driving Experience
Despite all of the hardware, the Bentayga Speed is not really the one you buy for a sporting experience behind the wheel. It’s most fun, truly, when left in the default “Bentley” drive mode or the slightly-softer Comfort mode. Keeping the suspension soft has two benefits – practically, your passengers enjoy a fantastic ride; hilariously, the nose pops up like a speedboat every time you mat the throttle and open up that W12 to pass slower traffic.
Passing others on two-lane roads was the single best aspect of driving the Bentayga Speed. There is an excessive amount of power on tap, but between the body movement and unique W12-born-from VR6 warble, it was just so beautifully dramatic. The three of us laughed every single time I found a passing zone and went for it.
There’s more aural drama in Sport mode as the exhaust opens up and some programmed-in burbles make themselves known, and the throttle response tightens up nicely as well. Paddles command the transmission and indeed it listens, mostly, so you can keep the revs high for maximum noise out of the twelve-cylinder. And why not? You’re not going for a high score on MPG anyway. I think I achieved twelve, mostly because I liked the sounds the W12 made when I kept my foot in it.
Steering was about what you’d expect from something like this. It’s accurate with good weight to the wheel, not too heavy or one-finger light. Feedback is good, encouraging you to hustle despite the comfort-first ride and 5,500-pound curb weight. Braking is similarly confidence-inspiring, with good initial bite and pedal feel.
Let’s Talk About the Interior Bits
When you’re not cackling maniacally as you blow the doors off of a Sentra, the Bentayga Speed is a wildly comfortable, quiet place to spend time. Every seat in the house is a great one, with plenty of adjustability and comfort for people short and tall alike. I thought the four-seat specification was silly at first, but it ensured whoever was in the second row had the same ventilated, massaging thrones as the two of us up front.
We all loved how quiet the interior was and the quality of most materials inside. The metal push-pull “rods” to open and close air vents were a fun, classy nod to Bentleys of decades past. I was happy to see a reasonably-sized infotainment screen surrounded by easily-used buttons, and the system worked well with minimal lag. Whoever was in the rear seat could control everything throughout the car with their own phone-sized removable controller – very cool, if a bit oddly-placed at the bottom of the center console.
Nobody’s perfect, though, and the Bentayga is no exception. The much-hyped, 1,780-watt Naim for Bentley sound system didn’t blow our collective minds, obviously flattening out and turning muddy as we tried cranking the volume for some favorites. One song with deep bass overwhelmed the amplifier entirely, despite the volume being set to about a third of its indicated capacity. It may have been an issue with our particular vehicle, though, and I’ve reached out to Bentley for comment.
Beyond the sound system, there were some elements of the Bentayga that were just a bit too Audi for me. It didn’t help that I had come out of an Audi RS6 Avant and had been interacting with the same signal and wiper stalks, steering wheel buttons, sunroof and lighting panel, and warning chimes the week prior. Everything felt high quality, but I expected a bit more than I got given this car’s sticker price – and $264,600 base price, for that matter.
I’m sure it seems a bit silly to complain about anything in a car of this caliber. Frankly, most buyers likely won’t cross-shop much, if at all, because they want a Bentley SUV and don’t care to consider other brands. And viewed in that light, the Bentayga is a perfectly lovely vehicle. It’s quiet, composed, relatively exquisite inside, and (to me) looks great on top of it all. You can build some remarkable colorways on the build-and-price tool; it’d be a crime to get black with red seats.
Experiencing the W12 before it’s gone for good was such a treat. It – and its VR6 sibling – hails from an era where clever “what if”s lead to some remarkable advancements among internal combustion. Cars with gobs of power are becoming commonplace now, but 552 horsepower in 2003 (Bentley’s first use of the W12, in a Continental GT) was pretty wild.
All good things must eventually come to an end, or at least change with the times. Bentley can do plenty with fewer cylinders, hit modern economy and emissions goals, and still provide the same speedboat-drama sort of experience that we got in this Bentayga Speed. Most buyers today don’t care about how technically cool a W12 is, or how compact it is, or how its roots are in a humble Jetta drivetrain.
Despite my gripes, this big metallic-brown SUV is indeed pretty special.