British car maker Bentley celebrates 100 years of manufacturing

Passion has never strayed far from Bentley, a brand that has been producing fast, luxurious cars since 1919.

So it's fitting that in its centenary year I've taken the keys to Bentley's boldest new arrival and the brand's first SUV, the Bentayga, in the northern Italian city of Verona.

Tourists flock to its seductive laneways in the old town, a place where the fictional Romeo and Juliet was set – and somewhere lovers of all ages explore.

Wherefore art thou

Our journey is to delve into the territory imagined by William Shakespeare almost half a millennia ago as well as some of the Italian lakes and towns that make up one of the most spectacular parts of Europe.

While there's a 12-cylinder Bentayga, a diesel and a soon-to-arrive hybrid, the one I'm driving is the V8.

It's the most affordable on the Bentayga menu, but at $334,700 it's well above the Range Rover that once topped out the SUV field.

Under the hood

The engine is a 4.0-litre twin turbo V8 used in other cars from Porsche and Audi (all are part of the Volkswagen Group).

In the Bentley it makes 404kW and 770Nm, very healthy numbers. It's brisk, then, and even in the sizeable body of the Bentayga it surges to 100km/h in 4.5 seconds.

It makes it easy to keep pace with the occasionally frenetic Italian traffic, enthusiasm always part of the motoring mix.

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Sizing up

Circling the spectacular Lake Garda in the north is a reminder of the size of the Bentayga.

It's not LandCruiser massive, but it's bigger than most of the Fiats, Peugeots and Volkswagens that dominate the north of Italy. When parked the Bentayga dwarfs everything around it.

For a family of four it's impressively spacious.

Fortunately there are enough cameras and sensors to ensure no unwanted scrapes, a healthy mix of technology blended with the traditional finishes and fixtures of the Bentley.

The 18-speaker Naim sound system is a brilliant way to soak up some tunes; deep and powerful bass is complemented by crisp and clean higher notes to deliver some operatic touches on the run.

Playing the part

Cruising towards the spectacular Sirmione holiday hotspot the Bentayga slots right in; we even spot a couple of Bentley Continentals, the classic two-door that has helped relaunch the brand in recent years.

Spending time with the Bentayga also reinforces the attention to detail, like the stylised B logos that form the side vents just behind the front wheels.

Surfaces are clean and elegant, a prominent thin crease down the bonnet indicative of the sparse but effective use of character lines.

On the open road

Where the Bentayga excels is on Italian motorways, where 130km/h is the limit but 150km/h common. It gets up there quickly and has a solidity few cars get close to.

That's perhaps unsurprising given the enormous 22-inch tyres on our example and the adjustable air suspension that adapts to different conditions. In its most comfortable setting it's relaxed and supple.

Plus it's super quiet, cementing the luxury flavour.

Wood and cream-coloured leathers dominate the interior of our car and somehow fit the ornate Italian detailing of the area nicely.

My two kids strapped into the back were content with the optional Mulliner pillows and plush quilted seats. The tailored high definition screens clipped onto the rear headrests were a bonus.

Limited access

Back in Shakesperean times it was ride-what-you-like, wherever you like.

But things are busy these days on European, something that peaks in summer.

As in so many cities, in Verona there are permits and fines, the latter for those who creep into the city's vehicular exclusion zone without authority. Badge or history counts for nothing in Verona when it comes to driving in the centre of town.

It means the Bentayga is relegated to a nearby suburb, old fashioned feet taking us on the final journey to the mythical balcony that is awash with tourists.

It may be all about love, but the scrum and crush around "Juliet's balcony" is a long way from the tranquillity of the Bentayga.

But, hey, it's at least a juxtaposition of the two and a reminder of how far things have come over the years.

Celebration time

It's been a big year for Bentley with 2019 seeing the celebration of its 100th year.

One of the celebrations included an announcement Bentley would recreate one of its most famous models, the legendary Blower.

It was the Bentley Blower that Ian Fleming had James Bond driving in his first novel, Casino Royale (Aston Martins came later when 007 hit the big screen).

The powerful four-cylinder from the 1920s formed the basis for the Team Blower race cars, of which only four were produced.

It is one of those race cars that will be stripped down and 3D computer scanned to create 12 modern Bentley Blowers. Just 12 will be built, each one "price on application".

A tragic end

Having explored the north of Italy and experienced the high-speed serenity of the Bentayga V8, it was finally time for some R&R.

Which is when nature decided to have its way. An afternoon Italian summer storm brought in the usual bluster of rain and wind.

But it was the familiar pings of hail that caught my attention, not that there was much that could be done. Leaves were being stripped from trees as the hailstones got larger. A snow-like setting looked surreal in the heat of a Veronese summer.

But as the storm subsided it revealed dozens of tiny dints across the Bentayga's previously perfect aluminium surfaces.

Not an ideal way to end a few days in British four-wheeled luxury.

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