With conspicuous consumption suddenly out of vogue, 10,000 sales a year is no longer a realistic goal for Bentley - today, anything beyond 6000 units is considered optimistic. The only way out of this dilemma is down - down in size, down in price, and down in ostentatiousness. For a brand like Bentley, down means the $110,000-to-$130,000 bracket, a curb weight of less than 5000 pounds, and no more than eight cylinders under the hood.
The car that fits the bill goes by the internal acronym NCB, for New Compact Bentley. Loosely connected to the aluminum-intensive, next-generation Audi A6/A7, NCB could debut as soon as 2014. To keep supply from outstripping demand, output likely will be restricted to no more than 7500 cars per year in two distinct variants.
Management doesn't want the Continental/Flying Spur body styles repeated on a smaller scale. Instead, the tentative plan is to go with two brand-new offerings: a two-door, four-seat shooting brake (sort of a sporty wagon) and a four-door, five-seat crossover (pictured) described as a Bentley take on the Audi Allroad, which would cover the SUV segment without being overly tall and heavy. (Remember that Bentley chairman Franz-Josef Paefgen fathered the Allroad when he headed Audi but opposed the Q7.)
The Continental will stay with its W-12 engine, but the NCB will use a V-8. The engine of choice is derived from a new 4.0-liter, twin-turbo Audi unit; Bentley would use a torquier, 4.5-liter version rated at about 550 hp and 480 lb-ft. A diesel engine remains a possibility, but only if diesels become more widely accepted in North America. A plug-in hybrid is a potential future option, too. As in the Continentals, all-wheel drive would be standard. Expect an eight-speed automatic rather than a dual-clutch gearbox. Air suspension is likely - in the shooting brake, it would further enhance ride and handling quality; in the crossover, it would offer extra ground clearance.
The two new Bentleys aim at two quite different niches. The shooting brake is low and wide and sporty. It's a very English concept that beckons for a contemporary reinterpretation. A four-seater with extralong doors to facilitate entry and egress, this model combines the stance of a coupe with the practicality of a wagon. To ensure plenty of space and comfort, the body would be based on an Audi A6 platform, perhaps even the extended-wheelbase version that Audi is preparing for the Chinese market.
For the crossover from Crewe, product planners seem to favor a more conventional approach, with a chunky rear end and upright rear doors. "We want to combine certain traditional SUV overtones that sell quite well in the U.S. and Arab markets with a passenger-vehicle concept tuned for optimum dynamics, low weight, and high efficiency," explains a person familiar with the project. "This is not a Porsche Cayenne. What we aim for is a sleek and sporty high-roof lifestyle product, kind of a reinvented Range Rover with the flair and effortlessness of a grand tourer." Interestingly enough, Rolls-Royce is contemplating a similar go-anywhere luxury vehicle derived from the new Ghost. It is known as Shrimp - for "short high rugged international metropolitan project."