DETROIT – Coming off a record sales year in nearly all markets, Bentley Motors Inc. plans to sustain its momentum through further refinement of its exclusive image.

Sales for the auto maker jumped 7% overall last year to 10,014 units, with significant growth in the U.K., North America, Europe and Asia, Chairman and CEO Franz-Joeseph Paefgen says in an interview at the North American International Auto Show here last week.

The U.S. had the smallest increase, up 4% to 4,196 units, while the Asia/Pacific region’s 18% hike was the greatest, he says, noting deliveries in China climbed 93% year-over-year.

The addition of the Azure convertible pushed sales of the top-end Arnage lineup up 44% vs. 2006, while the GTC convertible boosted sales of the 2-door Continental range 57%.

“Compared with five years ago (when U.S. sales were in the hundreds), we are a proper car company now,” Paefgen says.

The auto maker is intent on maintaining its success in the $180,000 to $200,000 price bracket, where the Continental GT and GT Speed coupes, GTC convertible and Flying Spur sedan have prompted the greatest increase in volume.

However, a continued focus on the elegance, style and performance of the vehicles, rather than on technology, itself, will be key to the brand’s future.

“Customers want access to technology, but it’s not essential to experience the car,” Paefgen says, noting the resources of parent Volkswagen AG provides buyers with a sense of confidence in Bentley.

And those ties likely will become stronger in the near future, as Bentley readies a “good citizens” program to improve fuel economy and reduce harmful emissions.

To be detailed in March, the new mid- to long-term strategy will include several advancements for bettering vehicle efficiency but will not include “small cars with small engines,” Paefgen says.

“We have full access (to VW technology) but are not forced (to adopt anything),” he adds. “We know the customer and what he wants.”

A return to endurance racing with the goal of an overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, such as the 2003 effort with the Speed 8 prototype, may be in the auto maker’s future. But a more near-term goal will be a greater emphasis on customization and vehicle personalization.

“We want to leave as many things open to the customer as possible,” Paefgen says. “It’s a matter of controlled complexity, not reduced complexity.”

Most of the personal touches customers specify center around the interior, and Bentley hammers the point home at the Detroit show with demonstrations of interior manufacturing by wood and leather craftsmen from its primary factory in Crewe, U.K.

In addition, the clean slate of possibilities makes a visit to the assembly plant a key selling point for many customers. They can see how the cars are built, as well as go over ideas with designers and choose the materials and color palate for their personal vehicle.

“We can do anything you want to the inside of the car,” Paefgen says, adding not even Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. equals the level of hand-craftsmanship that goes into every Bentley.

Looking ahead, Paefgen expects sales to be relatively flat in 2008, with no plans to boost production levels. Limited editions of existing models, such as the 600-hp, 200-mph (322-km/h) GT Speed, may account for sporadic increases, but no new vehicle introductions are expected this year.

Also on the table is addressing the consistency of Bentley’s image in various markets around the globe.

In Europe, for example, where the brand’s history is firmly entrenched, customers know Bentley well and what it stands for in terms of exclusivity. Americans, he says, are aware of Bentley’s storied heritage, but understand less of the marque, in general.

In contrast, much of Asia just is being introduced to the brand.

“The Chinese only know Bentleys are cool because they see rich people buying them,” Paefgen says.

msutton@wardsauto.com