Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Bentley leads trio of dramatic British car brand expansions

This year is shaping up to be an exciting one for the British car industry, and over the next few posts we'll do a round up of the latest developments.

Bentley, Lotus and MG have all revealed plans to expand their UK-based operations with a range of new models that are set to hit the road in the next few years.

We'll look at Lotus and MG in later posts. But to kick off let's take a look at Bentley - one of Britain's oldest car marques and one that trades on its history and tradition perhaps more than any other.

Yet news from the Crewe-based firm looks set to shock Bentley purists.

Under VW ownership, new models like the Continental GT, Flying Spur and Mulsanne have revived a luxury brand that was long confined to adapting and uprating Rolls Royce models.

But in a bid to drive sales to new highs, bosses are starting to look at taking the firm into new territory through several ground-breaking new projects, inspiration for several of which seems to have come from fellow VW Group stablemate Porsche.

New Continental GT

Bentley's new Continental GT may not look very different, but the company insists that the only part of the car that isn't new are the wing mirrors, being the same as fitted to the Mulsanne.

As the acclaimed car that revived the firm's fortunes after it split from Rolls Royce, the redesign of the Continental was never going to be a radical one. But as so often with Bentley, the difference is in the detail and it's up close that the changes become more evident.

Overall the new GT has been given a much cleaner and less rounded feel. At the front there's a larger, more upright grille flanked by one main and one smaller set of headlights to replace the twin similar-sized layout of the previous model. Underneath, wider and deeper lowe air intakes are finished in similar chrome mesh grille as the radiator.

Along the side, there's the same crease that starts at the lower front bumper, curves up over the wheel-arch and heads towards the back of the car. But now, rather than dropping away subtly downwards, instead heads arrow straight through the door handles until it meet the rear wheel-arches.

At the rear, the most distinctive changes are the smaller rear light clusters which, like the fronts, also feature LEDs and the much squarer, projecting bootlid, which mimics the 1950s Bentley R-Type.

The layout of the bespoke interior remains similar to the previous model, but features an updated instrument panel in front of the driver. A new main 'infotainment' display screen sits on the centre console, with revised seating and air conditioning switch-gear underneath.

The seats have also been redesigned, aimed at freeing up more leg-room for rear seat passengers.

But it's not just the car's looks that have changed. Under the skin, the new Continental is also being offered with an all-new V8 engine option, promising 40 percent lower emissions than the previously standard W12 unit. Performance has been sharpened up too, with a tweaked gearbox and the four-wheel-drive system shifted from a 50:50 to a 40:60 rear bias to improve on-road dynamics.

The car's W12 engine has also been slightly uprated which, combined with weight savings, has improved the car's acceleration and top speed.

A question mark also still hangs over the possibility of an estate, or 'Shooting Brake' version of the Continental, following the acclaim for a Superleggera designed concept that debuted at the Geneva Motor Show earlier this year. The company is reportedly consulting customers on the viability of a limited production run.

Diesel power

Fresh from launching the all-new Mulsanne and Continental GT, Bentley has hinted that its next move will be to develop its first diesel engine in its 92-year history.

The move has been confirmed by boss of the company's parent group, Dr Ferdinand Piech, but so far no details about the engine have been made available. Neither has it been revealed to which Bentley models the new motor may be fitted, but it's most likely that it will be an option in the firm's less sporty models, such as the Mulsanne and Flying Spur.

Despite the current lack of detail it's already safe to say that the result is likely to be the world's most refined and powerful diesel, particularly since it's not as if the firm is starting from scratch. Bentley's parent company, VW, has in recent years been at the forefront of oil-burner innovation, developing potent yet quiet diesels for its range-topping Porsche and Audi models.

It's not hard to see why Bentley wants to get in on the act. Firstly, introducing a diesel engine to the firm's range will help to increase the fuel efficiency of its models and cut emissions to meet stringent new European Union regulations. It's also the case that, with BMW, Land Rover, Mercedes and Jaguar now all offering oil-burners across their premium ranges, diesel models are starting to outsell petrol variants in many of the company's main markets.

Shock 4x4 model

Perhaps the most shocking news to purists will be recent reports of the firm's bosses feeding speculation that an all-new Bentley 4x4 is under serious consideration.

New chairman and CEO, Wolfgang Duerheimer, was recently quoted speaking enthusiastically about the opportunities for Bentley in the "super-luxury" SUV segment. He has noted both that no-one is delivering such a vehicle in the "Bentley style" and that many of Bentley's customers also own a premium 4x4 vehicle.

While traditionalists surely won't like it, from a sales view he may have a point. What's more, having recently joined the Crewe-based firm from Porsche, where he was instrumental in launching the Cayenne SUV, Duerheimer also has close experience of taking an established brand with passionate followers into new and unexpected market territory.

Turbo R revival

The company has also set tongues wagging that the much-loved 'Turbo R' badge may return on an all-new coupe version of the Mulsanne.

The original 'Turbo R' gained a strong following for its impressive combination of power, performance and luxury, turning a heavyweight limo into a car that was both shockingly quick and eminently driveable - the R standing for 'road-holding'.

The new 'grand' two-door is likely to feature an uprated version of the Mulsanne's 6.75 litre V8 engine and replace the firm's current Brooklands model.

All-new Bentley 'Eight'?

Finally, rumours abound that the company is planning to join the burgeoning four-door coupe sector, by considering a model to rival the Aston Martin Rapide, Maserati Quattroporte and Porsche Panamera. Such a car would also offer a more luxurious alternative to the Mercedes CLS or acclaimed new Jaguar XJ.

So far, company bosses talk vaguely of a "third generation model" but to differentiate the new car from the Flying Spur the format is likely to be based around sister company Audi's A7 Sportback.

Taking its cues from the new Continental GT at the front, the rear is likely to feature a dramatically sloping roofline and prominent, squared off boot-lid in the company's latest style harking back to Bentleys of old.

The new car will also be priced as an entry-level model and Bentley hopes as a result it will sell in numbers to ensure the company's stability in the current difficult economic climate, particularly in the increasingly important Chinese market.

Talk of the car being fitted with the firm's all-new 4.0 litre V8 engine, mated to an eight-speed automatic gearbox, means I'm going to stick my neck out and predict now that this new Bentley will revive another traditional model name - the 'Eight'.

Not only was this Bentley's entry model during the mid 80s/early 90s, but it would also bode well for sales in the increasingly important Chinese market, where eight is seen as a lucky number thanks to the Chinese word for 'eight' sounding similar to that for 'prosper' or 'wealth'.

So remember folks; when the new Bentley 'Eight' makes its debut, you heard it here first!

New horizons

While suspicions will always arise when a bespoke firm comes under the ownership of a mass manufacturer, there's no reason to doubt VW's commitment to Bentley's fine history and traditional values.

However, in today's competitive environment, Bentley must also look to the future and the demands of a global marketplace. Preserving the values of a marque as emotive as Bentley is of course important, but perhaps more so is seeking levels of sales that will safeguard the company's future and, with it, the hopes and aspirations of its 3,500 employees. Not to mention the thousands more in the firm's suppliers and dealerships.

Ultimately, as long as the end product is up to the firm's high standards and represents its traditional values, Bentley followers are likely to find that their much-loved marque is capable of being more elastic than they may first imagine.