The concept, powered by a re-engineered version of the current 6.0-litre petrol W12 engine, is as long and slightly lower than a Range Rover, but much more powerful. A W12 petrol version will be the production flagship, but Bentley will also offer buyers the choice of a V8 diesel engine or a V6-based plug-in hybrid powertrain.
“We are aiming for the very top of the pinnacle with this model,” says Bentley CEO Wolfgang Dürheimer. “We want it to be the most prestigious, fastest and the most expensive SUV money can buy. We will position it well above the Range Rover, Porsche Cayenne Turbo S and Audi Q7, the most expensive European SUVs at present. There are no precedents for this car, but we are absolutely convinced it will work.”
Dürheimer sees great potential for the Bentley EXP 9 F in emerging markets like China and Russia, but points out that Bentley’s biggest market continues to be the USA, home of the full-size SUV.
The EXP 9 F, which will have a proper name Bentley insiders “already know and are investigating”, will probably become the marque’s best-selling model, with initial production around 3500 units rising to 5000 as markets develop. Last year, the Bentley Mulsanne and Continental, sold a total of 7000 units. Any foreseeable production rise can be handled comfortably without any major expansion of Crewe’s relatively modern plant, says Dürheimer. Current production is achieved on a single shift; on two shifts it could hit 15,000 units annually, far more cars than Bentley has ever produced.
The EXP 9 F project is very much the brainchild of Dürheimer, who pushed the Porsche Cayenne SUV through against entrenched opposition from colleagues, dealers and 911 enthusiasts while he was product chief in Zuffenhausen a decade ago. It has since become easily Porsche’s best-selling model.
However, Dürheimer is careful to point out that the Bentley SUV project has yet to win full board approval, though he makes no effort to disguise his enthusiasm for it. He sees it as a vital step in helping Bentley earn sustainable profits, a status it needs to fund future models. The company has just announced a 40 per cent sales jump, and is believed to have operated profitably in 2011, Dürheimer’s first year.
Work on the concept began last July in the Crewe design department. A three-week sketching phase led to the creation of four one-third scale models. From these, two were chosen and used to create a pair of full-size models. “It was a rush programme,” says design boss Dirk van Braeckel, “especially since we were investigating a car the brand had never built before. Eventually we chose the sportier option.”
The EXP 9 F, which van Braeckel admits is close in size and proportions to the way a production model, is almost identical in length to the Range Rover at five metres, but its wheelbase is 200mm longer (and 150mm longer than the Cayenne) reflecting the emphasis Bentley puts on creating a roomy rear compartment for a model will often be chauffeur-driven. The Bentley also sits between Range Rover and Cayenne for roof height and body width. Its driver sits 100mm higher than in a Porsche, but 30mm lower than in a Range Rover’s.
Bentley’s designers are especially proud of the EXP 9 F interior, which they believe is more luxurious and stylish, with better quality wood and leather and more equipment than any existing SUV. “We want people to appreciate the luxury as they never have in an SUV,” says van Braeckel. “The interior will be familiar to Bentley owners, because of things like the bullseye vents and organ-stops, but it will also feel very special.”
According to Dürheimer, Crewe will become the development home for all VW Group 12-cylinder engines, and will probably manufacture them for the group, too. The W12 remains the chosen layout (engineers cite its compactness as a major advantage for an SUV) but a re-engineered version, due before the SUV’s launch date, will get many upgrades including direct fuel injection, cylinder deactivation and friction reduction, designed to improve fuel consumption and cut CO2.
Indications are that the Bentley’s group-derived permanent 4x4 system will include a ZF eight-speed automatic, with first gear as a crawler, but engineers insist no final decision has been made. Neither will they admit to a “special relationship” between the Bentley and the VW Group’s other big SUVs, Touareg and Q7. Yet the three are certain to share major dimensions, suspension and steering parts and much more out-of-sight running gear. As group chief Martin Winterkorn has often observed, such moves provide the key to long-term profitability.