Special Coverage

Greater LA Auto Show

LOS ANGELES – Bentley Motors Inc. expects to surpass the 10,000-unit mark in worldwide vehicle sales in 2007, up from 1,500 just five years ago, a top executive says.

New models and emerging markets are driving Bentley’s phenomenal growth, says Julian Jenkins, director-marketing and communications.

“We entered China in 2000, and today we have six dealers,” Jenkins tells Ward’s in an interview at the auto show here. Bentley enjoyed “100% growth in volumes (in China) last year, and expectations are that will continue.”

Other important emerging markets include India and Russia, where Bentley sells in annual volumes in the hundreds.

“China is our fastest growing market, followed by Russia,” Jenkins says. “We’re also represented in Korea, a market we entered last year, and of course we’re represented through other Southeast Asian markets.”

Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand all are exhibiting rapid growth, he adds.

Most of the emerging-markets gains are being driven by Bentley’s Continental lineup, which features the GT, GT Speed, GTC and Flying Spur. The latter is particularly popular because it satisfies the prevailing demand for large, 4-door sedans.

While emerging markets are important for the continuing growth of the Bentley marque, the U.S. remains its top market, accounting for about 40% of worldwide sales.

Although the U.S. economy is undergoing a downturn, it has not had a dramatic effect on Bentley thus far. But the auto maker is keeping a close eye on the declining U.S. dollar just the same, Jenkins says

“At this moment, we’re in a position where sales are increasing year on year, a good position to be in,” he says. “It’s been (driven) a lot by the launch of new models over the last 18 months.”

Despite its position at the upper end of the market, Bentley isn’t immune to the growing trend toward more fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly powertrains.

“Between the ’07 and ’08 model years, we’ve had a 3.5% reduction in (carbon-dioxide emissions) and fuel consumption,” Jenkins says. “So (we’re) taking steps where possible to meet environmental needs.”

More advanced technology, such as hybrid-electric and diesel powertrains, are under study, he says.

Despite the growth, production capacity is not likely to become an issue. The auto maker’s plant in Crewe, U.K., currently is operating on two shifts, employing some 4,000 workers, and a third shift could be added if needed, Jenkins says.

One issue Bentley and other ultra-luxury auto makers face is maintaining the delicate balance between exclusivity and growth. Build too many cars and brand image suffers. Build too few and growth is stifled.

“What we’re not doing is pushing the numbers,” Jenkins says. “We have a responsibility to existing owners in terms of balance for both exclusivity, desirability and residual values. They would not thank us, obviously, for overbuilding cars.”

Meanwhile, the auto maker is in the process of shifting its U.S. headquarters from Auburn Hills, MI, to Boston, a move that will allow executives to take advantage of direct flights to operations in Crewe. The new headquarters will be completed by April, Jenkins says.

“We’re in a transition period between now and April,” he says. “Over a period of time stages, a number of people will move (to Boston), and a handful, perhaps, will remain in Detroit until the end of next year.”

bpope@wardsauto.com