DETROIT – British luxury car maker Bentley, which saw a worldwide sales increase of 11% last year as well-heeled buyers returned to showrooms, expects to book another double-digit increase in 2011.

“Things are going better for us but the market is still fragile, so we have to be cautious,” says Christophe Georges, president of Bentley Motors in the Americas, citing a stubbornly high unemployment rate. “But we see more excitement from customers.”

At the height of the economic crisis in 2009, Bentley delivered 4,000 vehicles and suffered an operating loss of €194 million ($135.3 million), based on exchange rates at the close of that fiscal year. Just two years earlier, the auto maker sold more than 10,000 cars and delivered German parent Volkswagen a tidy profit of €155 million ($106.2 million).

But the high-luxury market is bouncing back alongside a stabilized real-estate industry and rejuvenated stock market in the U.S., Georges says. And Bentley stands ready to catch the rising tide with its all-new Mulsanne and redesigned Continental GT.

In the fourth quarter of last year, Bentley sales in the U.S. grew 20%.

“The trend is moving the right way,” Georges tells Ward’s after introducing the second-generation Continental GT at the recent North American International Auto Show here. “We expect it to continue now that we have our new products coming.”

Customers in the U.S. have begun taking delivery of the all-new Mulsanne, a $285,000 top-of-the-range sedan from Bentley that muscles into Rolls-Royce territory. The entire run of Mulsanne is sold out for 2011.

The new Continental GT unveiled here to U.S. media for the first time also is sold out for its initial production run. Deliveries to U.S. customers begin in the second quarter, and Georges says 70% of the first iterations will go to existing Bentley customers. The car is 150 lbs. (65 kg) lighter than its predecessor.

The Continental GT, which catapulted Bentley to popularity with its 2004 introduction, looks more nuanced than redesigned in its new skin. Georges admits as much but says the auto maker was careful not to mess with a winning formula dating back to the R-Type Continentals of the 1950s.

“We did not want to change the identity of the car, because the design has become a classic,” he says of the updates. “But it is crisper, more muscular, much more contemporary and modern.

“We’ve made a sculpture out of it with the crisper lines. But of course, we have also updated it with all-new technologies, all the toys you need to play with.”

The technology includes a more powerful W-12 gasoline engine now pushing 567 hp and 516 lb.-ft. (700 Nm) of torque. It’s a more efficient engine, too, Bentley says, rated at 14 mpg (16.7 L/100 km) in the combined cycle and mated to a new quick-shift 6-speed transmission (from ZF) for sharper acceleration.

Georges says to expect V-8 offerings next year. He declines to offer too many details, but the engine reportedly will displace 4.0L, offer flex-fuel capability and deliver carbon-dioxide emissions reduction of 40% compared with the W-12. Expect the choice of either single- or twin-turbocharger technologies.

The auto maker also added more rear legroom to the 4-seat coupe, as well as a 30G infotainment system.

The price of entry also rises about 4% to $189,000, although bespoke itemizing would push the final sticker of most individual Continental GTs quite higher.

Georges defends the launch of the Continental GT in the U.S. out of the worst recession in the post-war era, when most Americans reined in loose spending habits in favor of a new conservatism.

“Bentley is more understated than some of the cars in the market segment,” he says of the brand, which in 2004 carved an entirely new sector above German luxury cars and just beneath Rolls-Royce. “It is not a vulgar expression of your wealth. It generates more admiration than envy.

“The package is unique to the marketplace,” Georges adds. “You cannot find any other car offering what a Continental GT is offering – sportiness, attention to detail, craftsmanship, high luxury. This combination simply does not exist at such a level of practicality.”

While more Americans are going green and stricter federal fuel-economy rules are forcing auto makers to offer more hybrid powertrains, Georges says Bentley will not pursue the same route. Instead, he says customers seek greater efficiencies from Bentley’s big engines.

For example, the Mulsanne’s new 6.75L V-8 gained power with its redesign but also improves fuel efficiency and trims CO2 emissions 15%. Continental buyers could opt for the V-8, Georges says.

“If their motivation is to have a green car but a luxury car, Bentley is a good offer because we have made different (efficiency) improvements,” he adds. “But in terms of the package itself, we don’t see customers going for something different.”

jamend@wardsauto.com