Bentley Goes on a Diet



Bigger is better, or so goes the old mantra that defines carmakers and Costco shoppers alike. But at least one automaker is thinking twice about its future and betting that big sales growth – and big, heavy, high-powered cars – may not necessarily be the answer.


Bentley certainly has done its share of growing, in recent years. Not all that long ago, as the poor-relation sibling to Rolls-Royce, it was a nearly forgotten brand that came a hair’s breadth away from being abandoned entirely. Now a subsidiary of the German giant, Volkswagen AG, Bentley is one of the world’s most successful luxury marques, with products like the Continental GTC racking up sales of 10,000 a year.


But top Bentley officials are thinking twice about maintaining their rapid growth rate. And at the same time, they’ve embarked on an in-depth study that could sharply shift the brand’s design and engineering direction – a reflection of the fact that even the rich must recognize growing concerns about energy prices and global warming.


“We’ve been focusing on building a solid, profitable, sustainable business,” said Stuart McCullough, Bentley’s number two executive – and the man many expect to eventually run the firm – during an interview with Building that business has led to huge sales growth, McCullough said, but, “It’s not necessarily about volume, but about growing the business in a sensible way.”


One of the most common questions Bentley officials face is “When will you double volume again?” But going forward, it appears, from conversations with various senior executives, the British marque is likely to settle for relatively stable sales numbers, while emphasizing issues like exclusivity. Its Mulliner unit has been increasingly busy delivering customized versions of Bentley products, whether the “base” Continental GT Coupe, or the big Arnage sedan.


A new version of the Arnage will finally – most observers would say belatedly – arrive around the end of the decade. And according to various sources, it will be a markedly more modern sedan than the long-lived four-door now on the road.


It may also feature the use of newer, lighter materials, rather than massive lumps of steel. Even Bentley has to face the reality of the global warming era, whether its buyers can afford rising fuel prices or not, acknowledged CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen.


“We have to examine whether to change the philosophy of Bentley,” which focuses on large, heavy cars with large, torquey engines, explained Paefgen.


An in-depth study is already underway, he revealed, and it’s expected to wrap up by early next year. One possibility would be a recommendation that Bentley shift towards markedly lighter products – a la its British counterpart, Aston Martin – which would also permit a shift away from 600-horsepower, gas-guzzling engines.


But the study is looking at marketing, as well as design and engineering issues, Paefgen cautioned, stressing that “If our customers don’t accept that (lightweight) approach, we’d be in big trouble.”


Even if the study recommends a shift towards lighter weight, added Paefgen, the shift would take time. “We’re talking long-term strategy,” he said, emphasizing that in the world of ultra-luxury automobiles, you can’t change directions too quickly.


“The most dangerous thing for us to do would be to react to whatever we read in the papers.”


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