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Bentley Board Member Rolf Frech scaled Dubairsquos Red Dune in forthcoming Bentayga
<p><strong>Bentley Board Member Rolf Frech scaled Dubai&rsquo;s Red Dune in forthcoming Bentayga.</strong></p>

Bentley Climbs Red Dune in SUV Quest

Bentley&rsquo;s new Bentayga arrives later this year and will offer the brand&rsquo;s first diesel engine (but not in the U.S.) and, eventually, a plug-in hybrid option. Some 4,000 hand-raisers are interested in the SUV.&nbsp;

DETROIT – Rolf Frech has seen the future of the Bentley brand, and it’s not limited to country clubs, black-tie galas or estates with multi-car garages.

Last fall, the engineer who serves on Bentley’s board drove a prototype of the automaker’s new SUV straight up both sides of Dubai’s Red Dune – a hot, windy mountain of sand steep enough to host an Olympic downhill ski event, if only there were snow. Teams train there for the Dakar off-road rally.

A video of Frech’s test-drive, showing the heavily camouflaged SUV scaling the wall and spewing sand from four spinning wheels, was a highlight of Bentley’s press conference here at the recent North American International Auto Show, where the vehicle’s name also was released for the first time: the Bentayga.

“When I came to Bentley and we decided to go for an SUV, my first target was to make sure we come up the Red Dune, the back side, too,” Frech tells WardsAuto. “We did it.”

Conquering the dune was a similar priority in his previous job while developing the Cayenne, an SUV for another Volkswagen Group company, Porsche.

“If you want to participate in this class of SUV, you have to come up the Red Dune,” he says. “If you don’t achieve that, you don’t gain entry. We achieved it with the Cayenne, too.”

It was during Cayenne testing that Frech and his team learned the importance of driving up the back side in addition to the front. “It’s steeper. You get all the sand on the other side,” he says. “It’s not only the steepness but also the condition of the surface because the wind is always moving the dunes around. It’s really loose at the end.”

The Dubai dessert is a long way from Bentley’s traditional motoring haunts and duty cycle, which is kind of the point. For its long-term success, Bentley needs to extend its product portfolio beyond luxury cars while retaining an air of exclusivity and extreme capability.

Bentley wants to achieve with the Bentayga what Porsche accomplished with the Cayenne. Once questioned as a foolhardy gimmick sure to tarnish Porsche’s high-performance credibility, the Cayenne now is the brand’s No.1 seller globally. In the U.S., Porsche sold 16,205 Cayennes in 2014, accounting for 34% of volume.

Asked how the all-wheel-drive Bentayga felt and sounded while driving up the Red Dune, Frech describes it as “unbelievable,” saying the 6.0L W-12 engine never struggled. It helped having a bit less air in the tires.

“With this much torque, it’s effortless acceleration,” he says. “You just press the throttle, and you get what you need.”

Crewe Getting Ready for Bentayga

Prototype builds of the Bentayga are complete, and pre-series assembly begins in the spring, Frech says.

“What we are now going for is refinement, refinement, refinement – the shifting behavior, the sound, the (muted) wind noise, all these things you expect from a Bentley.”

Series production is set to begin in November in the main plant along Pyms Lane in Crewe, U.K., where the Continental and Flying Spur will continue to be built on a separate line. Assembly of the flagship Mulsanne sedan is being moved to a different building to free up space for the Bentayga, which has a dedicated body-on-frame SUV platform.

The Mulsanne is moving because takt times (spent at assembly-line stations) are much higher for the largely hand-built sedan, while the production pace for the Bentayga will fall in line with that of the higher-volume Continental and Flying Spur, Frech says.

It takes 400 hours to build a Mulsanne. One person spends five hours applying 620 stitches to its steering wheel.

The Bentayga’s body-in-white will be produced in Crewe, and one paint shop onsite will continue to serve all models built there. Improvements to the paint shop incorporated for the SUV also will benefit the other models as well, Frech says.

Beyond updated production facilities, the automaker is expanding research and development.

Last month, Bentley announced plans for a £40 million ($60 million) investment in Crewe for a new R&D center to house 1,300 engineers and create 300 new jobs. Those are among 950 new positions announced at the Crewe headquarters over the past 18 months.

With a focus on SUV development, the new facility will measure 484,380 sq.-ft. (45,000 sq.-m) and include a dedicated styling studio, research offices and a technical workshop.

The R&D center is expected to be completed in two phases by the end of 2016, Frech says.

Bentayga: The Bentley of SUVs

The Bentayga “will add remarkably to the success story of Bentley,” Wolfgang Dürheimer, Bentley chairman and CEO, tells WardsAuto. The automaker had a good 2014, delivering 11,020 cars worldwide, up 9%. The U.S. remains Bentley’s No.1 market.

“We projected we can go up to around 15,000 units, including the SUV,” he says. “An SUV opens up a new path of growth that we are going to walk down.”

Dürheimer concedes the first Bentley SUV concept, displayed at the 2012 Geneva auto show, left critics unimpressed with its awkward styling. But he’s certain the finished model will be well-received and deliver a stunningly crafted interior and excellent ride and handling.

“It will be the fastest, the most luxurious, and it will be the most exclusive SUV in the world,” Dürheimer says. “In other words, it will be the Bentley of SUVs.”

Pricing is anticipated to fall below the top-of-the-range Mulsanne, which starts at $300,000. Expect to see the production version at the Frankfurt auto show in September. Until then, Dürheimer declines to say if the vehicle will accommodate five or seven passengers, or both.

Initially offered with the W-12 and 8-speed automatic transmission, the Bentayga also eventually will offer a diesel engine, likely a V-8, particularly in Europe.

It will be the first Bentley ever offered with a diesel. Executives say no decision has been made on whether to bring the diesel to the U.S. However, the SUV at some point will offer Americans a plug-in hybrid powertrain option.

Some 4,000 potential customers with “solid purchase intents” have contacted Bentley dealers and put down deposits for a Bentayga, Dürheimer says.

“The challenge will be to bring enough product at the beginning because production is limited, he says. “We see strong demand around the world.”

An SUV should help Bentley reach into markets where it currently is underrepresented – namely South America, Asia and parts of Russia, Dürheimer says.

In general, an expanded product portfolio represents a significant opportunity for Bentley and its dealers, who need to be ready to accommodate trade-ins, he says. 

Maybe up to now we haven’t been on the shopping list for some people with our Mulsanne and Continental, but with an SUV we will be,” Dürheimer says. “For this reason, we are preparing our dealer organization, also on the used-car side… to approach more customers and new faces that haven’t been in a Bentley dealership before.”

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