NEW YORK – Germany's Big Three are pushing to expand volume of their ultra-luxury brands this year, which could take this segment to never-before-seen heights.

About 5,800 Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Maybach vehicles will be produced this year, according to individual company forecasts.

In addition, Volkswagen AG's Bentley and BMW AG's Rolls-Royce are set to unveil new models at the Geneva Auto Show that may boost demand even more in coming years. Rolls-Royce will show off a new concept vehicle, while Bentley will pull the wraps off its revamped Arnage. Bentley also is set to reveal to journalists the sedan version of its new GT model. The GT sedan is due in ’06, and a convertible version of the car is expected to follow.

Bentley Motors Ltd.'s plant in Crewe, U.K., recently began production of the GT Coupe for the U.S., where it is due to go on sale this spring. The coupe is expected to almost quadruple Bentley's sales in a full year.

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd.'s Goodwood, U.K., plant now is running at full capacity of five cars per day and still is not able to deliver a car in the U.S. in less than 60-90 days after order.

Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler AG is sticking to its target of selling 1,000 Maybachs in 2004, after a slower-than-anticipated launch last year.

Adrian Hallmark, chief of Bentley's marketing division, forecasts Bentley will build 3,800 cars this year, almost four times any of its competitors. About 3,000 will be the GT Coupe.

Sales of the flagship Arnage model, the only Bentley that competes head-on with Maybach and Roll-Royce, actually will decline to about 800 units from the 1,000-unit level achieved worldwide last year, Hallmark says. But that’s not due to the new competition from Maybach and Rolls, he adds.

Revamped Arnage set for Geneva debut.

"The Arnage is in its sixth year, and we would normally expect a drop-off because of that," Hallmark says.

However, Arnage revenues are not expected to decline 20% as a result of reduced volume, because the auto maker anticipates selling more higher-priced, customized models.

"We're focusing on our bespoke cars," Hallmark says.

The average Bentley customer currently adds about 10% on options to the Arnage. On the long-wheelbase model, added options climb to 20%.

The Bentley marketing chief says that as a result, revenue fell only 9% last year, even though the company ended production and sales of Rolls-Royce models due to the transfer of ownership to BMW.

"Despite that, our revenues were about the same as the previous year's," he says. "Emotionally we miss Rolls-Royce, but not financially."

BMW got off to a slow start with the Rolls-Royce brand last year but expects to pick up the pace in 2004.

"Because of a late ramp-up, we only produced 481 cars in 2003," says Rolls-Royce Chairman Tony Gott.

Only 300 were delivered to customers and about half of those were exported to the U.S. even though the first Rolls didn't reach here until May.

"We only had six months’ market exposure last year," Gott says. "We're now ramping up production and building five cars per day."

That will bring Rolls to the 1,000-unit mark by the end of this year, he says.

It takes 260 hours to produce each Phantom, Gott reveals.

"We are accelerating the rate of production and registrations," he says. "The Rolls-Royce brand is becoming firmly reestablished. We're beginning to see people becoming more aware of the new Rolls-Royce.”

The Rolls chief says the lifecycle of the Phantom will be about 10 years. But the concept vehicle shown in Geneva probably will expand the company's offerings in the near future.

"We have to do this thing right and maintain exclusivity," Gott says. "Volume is secondary right now."

He says brand sensitivity by BMW is helping to achieve a degree of excellence in this new generation of Rolls.

"I used to dream of making a no-compromise vehicle like this," says Gott, who used to head Rolls-Royce under its former owners.

Even though the company did not start taking bespoke orders until late last year, 30% of the Rolls-Royces now produced have custom elements.

Goodwood has its full complement of 450 employees who now are working full bore, but there remains an order backlog of up to three months.

Juergen Hubbert, member of the Mercedes-Benz board of management, says that 600 Maybachs were produced last year, 166 of which were sold in the U.S. Like Rolls, Maybach got off to a slow production start and only was on sale for a little over six months last year.

Hubbert expresses confidence Mercedes will be able to build 1,000 Maybachs this year. He says U.S. sales will be somewhat below 400 units in 2004.

Bentley's Hallmark is unimpressed with the competition's forecasts. He predicts Maybach and Roll-Royce actually will bring Bentley more customers. Hallmark also expresses doubts either of his main competitors will hit their 1,000-unit forecasts.