In 1724, John Perceval, the first Earl of Egmont, wrote his cousin a letter admiring the gardens at Stowe House in Buckinghamshire. “What adds to the beauty of this garden is, that it is not bounded by walls, but by a ha-hah, which leaves you the sight of the beautiful woody country, and makes you ignorant how far the high planted walks extend.”
Such ignorance, for Perceval, was necessary for a blissful experience of nature, and the ha-ha (as it is commonly spelled) made it possible. In lieu of walls that kept livestock where humans wanted them but marred the view of the landscape, 18th-century European landscapers used ditches with a steep slope on one side leading to a wall on the other. From one side (the one with the mansion), the resulting ha-ha was invisible, making the landscape appear unbroken. The popular feature spread to America and later to the Southern Hemisphere, where it worked backward: The ha-ha at Australia’s Kew Lunatic Asylum “presented a tall face to patients, preventing them from escaping,” according to the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre of the University of Melbourne, “while from outside the walls looked low, so as not to suggest imprisonment.”
Now, three centuries on, the concept has made it into the Bentley Bentayga Hybrid, the world’s first ultra-luxury, battery-powered SUV. Rather than try to eliminate any trace of the gaps between the panels that make up the dashboard, the automaker’s designers made the bit closer to the windshield a few millimeters lower than the bit in front of it. It works like a ha-ha in miniature—the whole thing appears as one to the driver. Bentley’s team created another ha-ha to hide the windshield wipers from view when they’re not in use, because, chief of interior design Darren Day says, “they’re ugly.”
Like Perceval, Day considers hiding the unsightly bits as key to creating a luxury experience. That’s especially true in a time when even the cheapest cars sold in Europe and the US come with the interior screens and advanced driver-assistance features that once set premium cars apart. If Volkswagen—Bentley’s parent company—can put lane-keeping assistance in a $25,000 Golf, why pay eight times that for a Bentley? (Bentley hasn’t released a price for the Bentayga Hybrid yet, but the base version of the SUV starts at $190,000.)
Sure, the Bentayga Hybrid is fast (0 to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds) and powerful (more than 500 pound-feet of torque). Its handmade seats adjust in 22 directions and offer massages; with the doors and windows closed, it’s tomb-level silent. But in Day’s view, it’s the little things, which the driver may not even notice, that justify the difference. Like the fact that every metal dial features three rows of knurling. Or that the temperature sensor, a nipple-shaped bit of black glass, is positioned right where the steering wheel should block it from the view of most drivers. Or that Day’s team eliminated the telltale rectangle out of which the passenger side airbag deploys. A German firm created perforations in the leather that allow the gas bag to pop out but that are too tiny to see. (Because various dyes affect the material differently, Bentley had to test the perforation process on every color of leather it will offer.)
This idea of seeming seamlessness is common to luxury goods and services and nothing new. Dumbwaiters let servants move food and laundry without being seen. Concierge services handle reservations for wealthy travelers, so they can enjoy their vacation without calling Michelin-starred restaurants and asking for a table.
Bentley, though, had to hide more than panel gaps. The company’s first plug-in hybrid combines a 17.3-kilowatt-hour battery (about one-fifth of what you get in a top-shelf Tesla) with a 3.0-liter V-6 engine. The battery (which takes the place of the spare tire) helps Bentley meet emissions regulations but presented a new challenge, says Antoni Heilgendorff, who leads the electric aspects of the Bentayga. Because the car can drive in fully electric mode or on gas power, the engineers had to smooth the transition from one to the other.
Bentley’s engineers made the change subtle, though there’s no avoiding the difference between a quiet motor and a pistoning V-6 engine. And they relieved the driver of figuring out how to make the most of the battery. Based on the route, provided the driver uses the navigation system, the car will calculate where it’s most effective to run on electricity—like moving through city traffic—and control itself accordingly. It adjusts the level of regenerative braking based on what its camera and radar see: If the driver comes off the throttle and the road is clear, the Bentayga will coast like a conventional gas car. If there’s traffic up ahead, it will up the regen, slowing the car and sending power back to the battery. These little touches make the most of the hybrid setup, without requiring much thought from the driver. “It lets you appreciate the rest of the vehicle,” Heilgendorff says.
Some things, though, can’t be hidden. For customers who’ll need charging setups installed in their garages, Bentley commissioned a “Power Deck,” created by French designer Philippe Starck, to grace their walls. Then again, how would a Bentley owner end up in the garage, anyway?
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