Bentley U.S. Chief Says The Ultra-Luxe Brand Will Set A New Benchmark In Electrification

Bentley Bentayga PHEV
The first PHEV the company introduced this year, the new Bentley Bentayga Hybrid, uses the 335-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 and 126 Kw electric motor from the previous-generation Bentayga PHEV, and offers 25 miles of pure-electric range.  Bentley

Bentley is having a big year. The luxury automaker enjoyed a 50% jump in global sales over 2019 and like much of the auto industry, its sights are set on electrification.

In the first six months of 2021 Bentley recorded $211 million in profits on revenue of $1.57 billion, more than any previous single year total. That’s down to a combination of a buoyant post-lockdown economy and pent up demand for Bentley’s largely new lineup, which featured two redesigned models in 2020.

“As with all manufacturers, we’re still seeing demand outpacing supply,” Christophe Georges, CEO of Bentley Motors Inc., the company’s U.S. arm, told Forbes Wheels. “We’re up 45% over 2020 so far, and we actually sold 2% more cars in 2020 than in 2019. Not many manufacturers can claim that.”

In addition to last year’s product offensives, Bentley launched a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) variant of both its Bentayga SUV and Flying Spur sedan during the first half of 2021. 

Bentley Flying Spur PHEV
Bentley’s newest PHEV is the Flying Spur sedan, which uses the same powertrain as the Bentayga, but is the first PHEV car from the British automaker. The Flying Spur V8 was also introduced this year, and the model has been a hot seller.  Bentley

Though the company cautions that Covid-19 related uncertainties are still a threat, it sees the sales gains and the PHEV debuts as major milestones in its forward-looking plan to electrify its lineup. Dubbed the the “Beyond100” initiative, the famous builder of luxury dreadnoughts, gran turismos and LeMans racers aims to evolve into a fully electric and carbon neutral brand by 2030.

Such a transformation is a daunting challenge, but like other luxury makers, Bentley faces demands from customers and regulators alike. China, its largest market, will require 20% of vehicles sold there to have EV or PHEV powertrains by 2025. Many global cities like Milan and Amsterdam, the chic confines where Bentleys most often reside, are also considering barring non-electric vehicles.

Customers, meanwhile, are increasingly drawn to the effortless power and high-tech image of EV sedans like the Tesla S Plaid, Porsche Taycan and forthcoming Lucid Air. Bentleys are known for being iron fists in velvet gloves, but these new EVs deliver hypercar performance in silent splendor. 

In researching its customers prior to ramping up its EV initiative and announcing its 2030 target, the automaker found that more than half would be interested in a fully-electric model. Such shoppers are also increasingly asking for degrees of sustainability, from how vehicles are built to the materials used within. Lucid, Porsche and Tesla all offer leather-free luxury interiors sometimes tagged as “Vegan” options, another shot across the bow to leather-and-wood traditionalism.

To dig into Bentley’s recent sales success, its challenges and its plan for electrification, Forbes Wheels sat down for a brief Q&A with Georges.

Bentley EXP 100 GT
Bentley’s first EV concept car, the EXP 100 GT, premiered for the make’s 100th anniversary in 2019. Some of its DNA, however, will find its way into the automaker’s first production EV in 2025.  Bentley

Bentley’s Big Boom

Luxury car customers seem very optimistic despite the pandemic. What’s driving all this demand for Bentleys?

Christophe Georges: There are two answers. First, economic growth post-pandemic is very strong. Gross domestic product (GDP) was up 6.5% in the U.S. through the second quarter. That means economically things are going well overall–not just for the luxury segment. Since we had to shut down the factory for a few weeks due to Covid-19, there is also still pent-up demand for new vehicles from last year.

Second, we’ve introduced a lot of new models. The Flying Spur began deliveries in March of 2020, around the time Covid-19 began in America. The new Bentayga followed in June. This year we’ve launched our V8 Flying Spur and PHEV models of both vehicles.

Bentley tested PHEV waters with the first-generation Bentayga plug-in hybrid and in Europe it made up almost half of sales. What do you anticipate the mix will be in the U.S., and when will we see a PHEV Continental GT?

Georges: It’s a little too early to tell as the cars aren’t in the market yet. Bentayga PHEV is launched now and the Flying Spur hybrid will arrive in March. We expect strong interest, but we need the cars in the market to make a demonstration. Once customers drive the cars and understand what they offer, they can make their choice. Every model will have a PHEV option by 2023.

Bentley EXP 100 GT
Notably, Global Bentley CEO Adrian Hallmark mentioned in 2020 that any Bentley EV would have to have 300 to 350 miles of range and be capable of cruising at 65 mph for five hours.  Bentley

Electrification Challenges

Bentley will launch its first full EV in 2025. Are there unique challenges in preserving your brand identity in the move to full electrification?

Georges: Yes. We need to preserve the Bentley DNA. The emotional connection to the car, the luxury components, the craftsmanship and the effortless performance–everything that makes a Bentley a Bentley. An emotional connection is mandatory in the luxury sector, and our luxury components and craftsmanship will remain the same. But at the same time these new technologies create many challenges.

Electric power provides the torque needed for effortless performance. EVs inherently have lots of torque, which is an experience similar to our existing cars. But if you drive an EV enthusiastically, the range goes down quickly. Our customers don’t really want to deal with range anxiety, and we want to make sure that they can enjoy a Bentley EV in the same way as a traditional one.

Bentley Flying Spur Odyssean
The recently-announced Bentley Flying Spur Odyssean edition features both the PHEV powertrain and an interior made from sustainable materials, including Koa open-pore wood. Bentley

Are you trying to beat range, charging ability or other attributes already set by any other manufacturer or specific model?

Georges: No. We want to set a new benchmark. This is how we traditionally do it. People didn’t believe that the 2003 Continental GT would be a success, and we disrupted the luxury space with that. Then we disrupted it again with the Bentayga SUV. A lot of people said Bentley cannot do an SUV or a truck, but that was not the case. Luxury is not defined by a body shape or engine, but by design. For our first electric car we need to look at it this way again.

Your first EV is rumored to be based on the Volkswagen Group’s SSP platform, some early concepts of which target a range of 600 km (373 miles on the European mileage standard). What’s Bentley’s role in developing platforms like this? How do you tailor them to Bentley’s specific needs?

Georges: We’re not going to recreate or reinvent everything on our own, and we take advantage of our combined investments in the electric car platform. We’ve always used synergies within the group. If you look at the GT and other current products, some of the platforms were developed jointly. But the Bentley identity is clear. With electrification there won’t be any change in the way the Bentley flavor is conveyed to the driver.

The Bentley brand has been associated with the platform currently under development right from the start. That means our criteria and characteristics are being taken into consideration. It’s not a platform of this brand or that brand; it’s a combined investment with Bentley’s needs factored in.

Making Sustainability Luxurious

We’ve encountered many stories of luxury customers asking for sustainable materials and practices. Is Bentley getting similar requests or have you already thought ahead to meet this need?

Georges: It’s more coming from us showing that luxury can be conveyed outside of traditional material. But it’s hard to figure out how to work with sustainable materials when you don’t know them very well yet, even for experienced engineers. For example, the materials have to exude luxury in terms of touch, visual beauty and smell. So it’s not exactly coming from customers, it is us driving luxury in a sustainable way, showing what is possible and seeing what we can do, then we let customers make their choices.

Bentley currently offers ethically and sustainably sourced stone veneer panels in some models, made from sedimentary clay, and open-pore Koa wood trim as seen on the new Flying Spur Odyssean. Several more sustainable materials are in development, including wine fabric, a vegan alternative to leather; recycled nylon and wool textiles; ocean waste yarn fabric; and wood harvested from discarded Venetian gondola poles.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bentley Unifying Spur
The company’s initiatives for sustainability go beyond eco-friendliness. The “Unifying Spur,” meant to symbolize the diverse workforce at its factory in Crewe, about 30 miles from Manchester. The initiatives are backed by a concrete plan to reduce bias and include more voices in decision-making within the company.  Bentley