NEW YORK – A hefty 40% increase in first-quarter U.S. sales wasn't enough to keep China from becoming the lead market for Bentley.

First-quarter U.S. deliveries totaled 450 units, says Christophe Georges, chief operating officer- Bentley Motors. The luxury auto maker sold 578 cars in China during that period.

The leadership position between the two markets could seesaw in coming years, he says. “The Chinese and U.S. markets are both strong. I don't see (China’s lead) as a permanent situation.”

New products always are the biggest driver of sales increases, Georges notes. At this month’s New York auto show, Bentley introduced a new Mulsanne Mulliner, whose 6.75L V-8 engine generates 505 hp and 752 lb.-ft. (1,015 Nm) of torque.

Mulsanne prices start at $296,000, but 80% of that model are bespoke cars and transaction prices can range from $320,000 to $340,000. Overall, Mulsanne sales are stable, Georges says.

Business is brisk enough to warrant growing the Bentley sales network. There's a new dealer in Nashville, TN, and other stores will open later in the year in Thousand Oaks, CA, and Charlotte, NC. Bentley finished 2011 in the black both in the U.S. and globally, Georges says.

Despite looming government regulations requiring greater vehicle fuel efficiency, Bentley has no plans to offer engines smaller than V-8s. “We still offer W-12s and are the biggest producer of W-12 engines in the world,” he says.

That means Bentley buyers must pay a gas-guzzler tax, but Georges says the auto maker will benefit from being in the Volkswagen Group when calculating corporate average fuel economy averages. He also notes VW has large programs for diesel engines and alternate-fuel powerplants, but there are no current plans to offer a diesel-powered Bentley.

Bentley is contemplating introducing an SUV that Georges says would be the costliest such vehicle in the market. He doesn’t expect a decision about production to be announced before 2015, but some customers already have placed reservations for the model.

 “Our customers have not forgotten about their dreams,” he says.