CAPETOWN, South Africa — The moment of truth draws near for Bentley Motor Cars Ltd.

The race-bred British ultra-luxury-car builder is approaching the starting line of an aggressive make-it-or-break-it growth strategy designed to swell annual sales from less than 2,000 vehicles today to 8,000 by 2006. Failure to execute could land Bentley forever at the back of the growing pack of super-sedan producers.

The game plan has been in the works since Germany's Volkswagen AG acquired Crewe, U.K.-based Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motor Cars Ltd. in 1998 but failed to secure rights to the Rolls-Royce brand. That jewel was won by rival BMW AG, which assumes ownership of the marque Jan. 1.

And while handing over Rolls is bound to be an emotional event for long-time company executives, Bentley insiders appear resigned to the task, their focus locked more clearly on the road ahead than the one already traveled.

VW's goal is to turn Bentley into a more mainstream player in the luxury car market, drawing traditional BMW and Mercedes buyers into its fold even as those car makers enter Bentley territory with their upcoming Rolls and Maybach models due to be unveiled later this year.

The first volley from the made-over Bentley is the new Arnage T, shown to the media here and set to hit the U.S. market in July. The T, which combines the beauty of Bentley's elegant, classic — detractors might say dated — styling with a beast of a V-8 engine, represents the first extensive re-do of the Arnage platform since its 1998 inception and is the closest Bentley has come to returning to its performance car roots.

The T platform, which also will spawn new Arnage R (Red Label) and Arnage RL (long wheelbase) models later this year, features a stiffer body and beefed up, electronically adjustable suspension, with the addition of Robert Bosch GmbH's Electronic Stability Program for extra sure-footedness.

Inside, Bentley offers aluminum trim for the first time, and optional drilled-aluminum brake and accelerator pedals add to the car's sporty feel. Passive restraints abound — seat-mounted side air bags protect all four outboard passengers and side air curtains extend the full length of the cabin. Borrowed from Bentleys of old is the ignition push-button located on the center console.

Exterior styling tweaks are minimal — a subtle, integrated rear spoiler and reworked front and rear bumpers the most notable of distinguishing marks.

The heart of the new Arnage T — the most powerful Bentley ever built — is yet another iteration of the venerable 6.75L V-8 engine, whose architecture dates back to 1970.

This version of the massive all-aluminum engine — half of its parts are new, Bentley says — pumps out 450 hp and takes the 5,700-lb. (2,585-kg) 4-door sedan from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in a sports car-fast 5.5 seconds. With the fully electronic throttle mashed to the floor, the Arnage T can reach a top speed of 168 mph (270 km/h), making it the fastest production sedan in the world, says Bentley.

But the real trump card will be played this fall, when the wraps are taken off a new “entry-level” model dubbed the GT.

This new “Baby Bentley” will be aimed squarely against the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7-Series, but also will look to capture the hearts of Porsche and Ferrari owners who desire a little more room to go with their performance. It will hit the market in coupe form within 18 months on an all-new platform currently in the final stages of development. The new GT is a big part of a £500 million ($714 million) investment plan slated for the next several years — £130 million ($186 million) of which is earmarked for 2002.

Specifics on how far or how fast Bentley will grow still are being hammered out, in part because of the changing of the guard at the British ultra-luxury car maker. Out is former CEO Tony Gott, who left Bentley in November, taking a job in January as head of BMW's new Rolls-Royce operation in Goodwood, U.K. Taking over for Gott is former Audi AG head Franz-Josef Paefgen, who officially landed at Crewe March 1.

The assignment widely was seen as a demotion, but insiders contend Paefgen, 55 and edging closer to retirement, relishes his new role. A Bentley enthusiast, Paefgen may view the CEO job as the ideal career-capping post, they say.

“One of the first things he did when he met with us is say he wanted to dispel any notion this was a demotion,” says one insider. “He loves Bentley. And he (is at the point in his career where he) doesn't need to run a volume division in order to soothe his ego.”

Paefgen will be asked to put his stamp on a program to roll out at least two new models based on the GT platform over the next three years. The initial offering will be the coupe that will be shown for the first time this fall and go on sale in 2003. It will be followed a little over a year later by a longer wheelbase 4-door sedan. Both are targeted to sell for less than $150,000, well below the roughly $212,000 starting point of Bentley's current lineup.

Details are scarce, but execs say there will be no mistaking the new cars for anything but Bentleys.

Speculation is they will be powered by an engine from VW's new “W” family that has spawned the Passat's W-8 and will father 12- and 16-cyl. offspring, as well. “We'll have an engine with at least eight cylinders,” is all Adrian Hallmark, board member in charge of worldwide sales and marketing, will say. But he adds that the cars will “offer the performance of a Porsche 911 turbo but seat four adults.”

And, he says, the coupe, which reportedly will draw on the heritage of the '52 R-Type Continental, “will have a design that is considered ‘classic’ from day one. It still looks like a Bentley, but it won't be like anything you've seen from Bentley for the last 50 years.” Design cues are expected to include twin headlamps and a laser-cut grille reminiscent of Bentleys that raced at Le Mans 70 years ago.

Much work already has been done at the Crewe plant to make room for the GT, which will be built on a second assembly line at the facility. Hallmark says kaizen activities undertaken in the last year or so have freed up nearly 60% of Crewe floor space for the new car line, which will begin pre-production in May.

Bentley ultimately is pegging GT-based output at 3,000 coupes and 3,000 sedans per year. The goal is to approach that target in coupe sales about the time the sedan is being launched, allowing Bentley to digest its expanded volume in two bites.

“This is a whole new direction that we don't have experience in,” says Hallmark. “We want to take it slow. We want to grow the business, but not go crazy.”

Add to GT output the 1,800-plus Arnage and 2-door Continental coupes and Azure convertibles currently built annually and Bentley volume would near 8,000 units per year. (Rolls-Royce output will end in September with about 300 Silver Seraphs due to be made this year.)

With the GT, Bentley hopes to draw upper echelon buyers who want a more made-to-order vehicle but can't afford an Arnage. “Our cheapest car is still going to be more expensive than the most expensive Mercedes,” says Hallmark. “But we will offer more choices — colors, interiors — than any other brand in that sector.”

To prepare for the higher volumes, dealers are adding staff, and Bentley is about to embark on a massive retail training program around the globe. The auto maker currently has 120 dealers worldwide, and Hallmark sees that rising to about 150. Dealerships selling an average 15 cars per year now will be asked to deliver more than 50 annually.

“We have to gear up our processes and procedures that will enable us to double our volume and then double it again within another three years,” Hallmark says.

GT Coupe consumer clinics conducted with Ferrari, Porsche and Mercedes S-Class owners are giving Bentley execs confidence they're on the right track and that their volume plans are not overly ambitious. The clinics “have reaffirmed our production goals — and we'll still be ‘exclusive’ at only 3,000 of each vehicle,” says Hallmark.

It will be up to Paefgen, however, to decide whether the program stays at that volume or is accelerated or scaled back.

The GT will be aimed at existing Bentley customers — largely male, mid-50s with net assets of about $12 million, as well as a new younger subset that will include more women.

Bentley says there are 1.5 million potential buyers out there with a disposable asset base of $5 million-plus, a pool 27 times larger than the auto maker's current customer group — the 55,000 with net worth in excess of $30 million.

“These 1.5 million people shop for cars in a marketplace we describe as the Upper Luxury Sector — a market we expect to grow from 160,000 (cars annually) to 190,000 over the next five years, sustained by their growing prosperity and the level of activity from ourselves and our competitors in the sector,” Hallmark says.

And the British builder seems certain it knows better than its newly emerging competition how to appeal to these exclusive customers.

“We've been at this for years,” says a confident Hallmark.