DETROIT – As with other global auto makers, upscale Bentley Motors Ltd. suffered from sputtering sales last year, including a 32% drop in the U.S.

Although Bentley executives know the company faces a difficult year ahead, they are cautiously optimistic new products, such as the Continental GTC Speed uncloaked at the North American International Auto Show here, could help spur sales in the U.S.

“The high-luxury sector as a whole is down about 25% worldwide, and Bentley is no exception,” says Stuart McCullough, board member-sales and marketing, who refers to Detroit as the birthplace of the modern motor industry.

“Our total full-year sales figure for 2008 is 7,604 (units),” he says. “This puts us down around 24% from our record 2007 figures. The U.S., which was first to experience the downturn, has invariably been harder hit, with Bentley sales down to 2,863.”

McCullough says Bentley’s response to dwindling sale figures has been clear and quick. Despite the drop, the auto maker has seen its strongest performance ever in growing markets, such as China and the Middle East, where sales have increased 53% and 18%, respectively.

“As the downturn spread, we took immediate action to reduce production volume,” he says. “We continue to adjust our production volumes to ensure the interests of our customers and our dealers are protected.”

Although some industry analysts decline to predict the market for 2009, or suggest it could even be worse than last year, McCullough believes Bentley sales will “continue at the level we have seen during the last few months of 2008 to at least the middle of 2009.

“Fundamentally, we are confident about the future. Our confidence is rooted in the strength of our products and our long-term business strategy.”

McCullough says 2009 more than likely will be a tough year for all auto makers, but the introduction of its 2-seat sports cars can help “buck the trend.” In 2007, Bentley introduced the GT Speed Coupe, followed by the 4-door Continental Flying Spur and Spur Speed.

Sales of the GT Coupe rose 11% globally and 19% in the U.S. last year, while more than two-thirds of those sales were the new Speed derivative, says McCullough, noting the new car lives up to the Speed models of the 1920s.

“Like all Speed models, the GTC Speed is underpinned by a 600-hp version of Bentley’s W12 engine, developing 9% more power and 15% more torque than the standard GTC,” says Ulrich Eichhorn, board member-engineering.

“Engine efficiency improvements result from the use of lower friction, lighter-weight components and a new engine management system. It’s the most powerful convertible ever made by Bentley.”

dstark@wardsauto.com