DETROIT – Bentley’s SUV concept, dubbed the EXP 9 F, was panned widely by critics when it was unveiled at the 2012 Geneva auto show, but the ultra-luxury brand’s customers appear to think differently.

The U.K.-based auto maker says worldwide it already has 2,000 preorders for the new model, which won’t hit the market until 2016.

“I wouldn’t say it didn’t go over well,” Bentley North America President and Chief Operating Officer Christophe Georges says of the concept’s unveiling. “It went well.

“The design was a bit polarizing, for some,” he admits. “But for us it was a concept car and we wanted to test the concept as a Bentley. So we needed to produce something that really looked like an SUV.”

The production model will be vastly different from the show car called “garish” by some, and said to “lack grace and proportion.”

“The (production-model) design is much more aligned and consistent with the identity of Bentley,” Georges says on the sidelines of the North American International Auto Show. “Of course it will have strong character, but it will be very contemporary, very elegant.”

Bentley fans have been open to the idea of an SUV, the executive says, unlike some Porsche purists who argued against the addition of the Cayenne to that brand’s lineup. The Cayenne now is one of the automaker’s top sellers.

“Others have gone before us,” Georges notes. “And now, (an SUV) is quite well accepted. What makes the brand is not the body style. What makes a brand’s DNA is the substance behind it: performance, technology, craftsmanship.

“We produce a convertible, a sedan, a coupe. So why not an SUV? It doesn’t really change what Bentley is about.”

Georges says the SUV, which will be built at the automaker’s Crewe, U.K., operation but share an architecture with other Volkswagen Group models such as the Cayenne and VW Touareg, likely will appeal to existing Bentley buyers, who tend to own a number of vehicles.

 

“Our customers have six or seven cars in their portfolio,” often including Range Rovers, he says. “A lot of them have an SUV and have been asking us for one for a long time, a genuine luxury SUV.”

The new model, part of an £800 million ($1.3 billion) product-investment plan, also is expected to mark Bentley’s foray into hybrid-electric technology, with a plug-in powertrain considered likely.

Porsche, which already offers a plug-in hybrid powertrain on its Panamera sedan, reportedly plans to carry that technology into the Cayenne later this year. Audi, another Volkswagen Group brand, is testing market reaction to a plug-in hybrid concept it unveiled here Monday.

“We are working on plug-in solutions,” Georges acknowledges. “It definitely will be part of our range in the future. There’s the aspect of being socially responsible, but it also extends the (driving) range. That’s part of the convenience. And that’s a criteria our customers like.”

The hybrid system also would help boost torque, which Georges says is one of the most important brand characteristics for Bentley customers.

“It’s not going to be an economy-type car,” he says. “It will be a very efficient car, but performing. We’re not going to compromise what Bentley stands for.”

Diesels also remain absent from the lineup, but Georges says Bentley doesn’t expect to see customer demand for that type of powertrain near term.

“They deliver a lot of torque, which is interesting,” he says of diesels. “But our two largest markets are the U.S. and China, and (neither is) showing any kind of great enthusiasm.”

Bentley has been on a roll worldwide, posting record sales of 10,120 vehicles in 2013, up 19% from 2012 and topping the previous high of 10,040 set in 2007. U.S. deliveries last year, while not a record, rose 28% to 3,140 units, making it clear the market has rebounded from the 2009 recession and ultra-luxury-car buyers no longer are afraid to display their wealth.

During the downturn, Bentley customers ordered the exact same car as they already had, including the identical color.

“They didn’t want to show that they bought a new car,” Georges says. “The economy’s (still) not perfect, but everyone is more comfortable, which has translated into overall rising sales.”

At the auto show here, Bentley’s fourth model in the Continental line, the GT V8 S, makes its North American debut, following its world bow in Frankfurt in September. It slides in ahead of the base GT V8 and below the highest-volume W12-powered model and top-end 205-mph (330 km/h) GT Speed.

The GT V8 S sits about 0.4 ins. (10 mm) lower than the base car, has a stiffer chassis and sharper steering response, says CEO Wolfgang Schreiber. Its 4.0L twin-turbo V-8 develops 521 hp and 501 lb.-ft. (680 Nm) of torque to take the car 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 4.3 seconds and reach a top speed of 192 mph (309 km/h). The transmission is an 8-speed ZF automatic.

The GT V8 S, offered in both coupe and convertible models, will reach the U.S. at the end of the first quarter, Georges says, but he declines to predict what percentage the new model will take of the Continental sales mix.

“It is up to (the buyer) to decide,” he says. “We are quite flexible among the Continental family to produce what we need in order to meet demand. It’s the right way to do it, because then we are not pushing sales the customer decides.”

Bentley customers have to wait for that privilege. The order backlog typically runs about four months, Georges says, but can hit as high as six months on some models.

Customization, or what Bentley calls bespoke orders, help create the backlog. George says 85% of Mulsannes purchased have customized features.

“Individualization is part of our character,” he notes, adding it can create headaches, but Bentley has the processes in place to handle it.

dzoia@wardsauto.com