EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

CREWE, England — It was over dinner last December that Franz-Josef Paefgen, chairman and CEO of Bentley Motors, shared with me an intriguing slice of history.

“You know the Bentley factory here in Crewe originally was an aircraft engine plant,” said Paefgen, who was born in Germany in 1946. “The British put it up here (in northwest England) to keep the Luftwaffe from bombing it during the war.”

Paefgen knows his history well and no doubt appreciates the irony: The fabled British automotive marque, long a part of the Rolls-Royce group (which designed and built those Merlin aircraft engines), now has a German parent. It has been owned since 1998 by Volkswagen AG, which relinquished the rights to Rolls-Royce on Jan. 1 to another German manufacturer, BMW AG.

VW is pouring more than $800 million into its British subsidiary, including more than $200 million in the Crewe complex, to prepare for the mid-summer launch of its first all-new Bentley, the stunning Continental GT coupe.

In another delicious twist, the new “baby” Bentley, which has been previewed for more than a year at major international auto shows in Europe and North America, will share a number of major components with VW and its upscale brand, Audi.

The swoopy styling of the new two-door, known during its long gestation by the acronym MSB (for Mid-Size Bentley), was created by Belgian-born Design Director Dirk van Braeckel and his team. They drew inspiration from another well-known Bentley, the equally sensuous 1952 Continental R-type.

I made my first pilgrimage to the Crewe factory just over 20 years ago as the new 1982 Bentley Mulsanne Turbo was being launched. Looking back, the Mulsanne Turbo was probably the vehicle that launched the comeback of the Bentley marque, which at the time accounted for less than 20 percent of the factory’s output.

I returned in December to witness an amazing transformation. The Crewe complex is being given a full refurbishing for the first time since 1946, when engine production gave way to assembly of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars.

A new, modern wing has been designed by VW to assemble up to 10,000 cars a year — including the Continental GT and its future derivatives.

The first Continental GT should roll off the new line in Crewe in July. The car goes on sale in England in September, and will reach U.S. showrooms before the year is out. Prices will start at around $150,000. Bentley also will continue selling the older Arnage sedan in several versions for another two to three years, priced from $200,000.

The Continental GT shares its basic architecture with the VW Phaeton and the Audi A8 L sedans. Major suspension components are adapted from the German cousins, including double wishbones in front and a multi-link rear, with air springs and electronic dampers at both ends.

Described by Paefgen and other executives as “the fastest road-going Bentle y ever,” the Continental GT will be powered by a modified version of VW’s unusual W-12 engine. The new Bentley 12-cylinder displaces 6.0 liters and features twin turbochargers. It develops 560 horsepower and 479 pounds-feet of torque, and drives all four wheels through a ZF six-speed sequential automatic transmission. The driver switches gears through fingertip “paddle” controls on the steering wheel.

According to Paefgen, less than 30 percent of the parts on the Continental GT will be carried over intact from the Phaeton and the A8 L.

“No parts that the customer touches, sees or smells are common” with the VW and Audi models, he said.

The four-passenger cabin is exquisitely detailed, and is just as elegant as the exterior. Trimmed in natural wood and leather, it is finished with such touches as a Breitling clock inset in the instrument panel.

Said one executive: “We want every new Bentley to smell of wood, leather and wool carpet — sort of a living room on wheels.”

That heritage is reflected in subsidiary Bentley Mulliner, whose roots date to the 18th century carriage trade and which has built bespoke cars for everyone from Ralph Lauren to the Sultan of Brunei, including most recently a formal state limousine for Queen Elizabeth II.

Mulliner’s top-of-the-line product is a stretched, armored version of the Arnage, which sells for more than $1 million. But it also has built convertibles and even station wagons, with options ranging from plasma-screen TVs to built-in karaoke machines.

While its fate was intertwined with that of Rolls-Royce from 1931 through 2002, the new Bentley Motors, under Paefgen’s direction, aspires to alter its still-staid image as Britain’s ultimate luxury-performance car. Paefgen wants to emphasize the brand’s sporting character, which is one reason why Bentley has returned to LeMans with a new generation of race cars.

“Our competition is not Rolls-Royce and Maybach” says Paefgen. “It’s Aston Martin and Ferrari.”

Bentley’s director of marketing and product strategy, Mark Tennant, acknowledges that the brand’s image outside of the United Kingdom is still “conservative, British, old school.” The arrival of the Continental GT later this year will give Bentley an opportunity to inch away from that stereotype.

Current Bentley owners, he notes, are nearly all older men, predominantly self-made millionaires, with an average net worth of more than $20 million. The Continental GT, Tennant said, should attract a few more female buyers, with the average age dropping 10 to 15 years.

Direct competitors in the over-$100,000 bracket include the Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG, the Porsche 911 Turbo, the Aston Martin DB7 Vantage and the Ferrari 360 Modena.

Bentley built and sold around 1,400 cars last year. With the Continental GT in full production next year, the automaker hopes to double output to 3,000 cars. As of April 1, the company said it had taken 3,200 deposits for the Continental GT.

The new coupe will be followed in late 2004 by a new Continental sedan, which should more than double annual production again to around 7,000 units by mid-decade and will take the brand back into direct competition with Rolls-Royce.

A little farther down the road, Paefgen wants to add a Continental convertible and perhaps even a wagon-like variant.

With the launch of the Continental GT, the renaissance of Bentley that began more than 20 years ago with the Mulsanne Turbo is finally beginning to flower.

“We’re only just emerging from the shadow of Rolls-Royce,” Tennant said. “It takes a long time to build brand awareness when you’ve been linked with another brand for the better part of 70 years.”

’04 Bentley Continental GT

Wheelb ase (in.): 108.1

Length (in.): 189.3

Height (in.): 54.7

Engine: Twin-turbo DOHC 6.0L W-12

Output (hp): 560

Top speed (mph): 190

Acceleration (sec.): 4.7, 0-60

Base price: $150,000 (est.)

Where built: Crewe, England

Source: Bentley

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