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Last Updated: Monday, 8 September, 2003, 06:31 GMT 07:31 UK
Bentley's 'bargain' attracts new customers

By Jorn Madslien
BBC News Online automotive reporter in North Wales

Bentley Continental GT
The Bentley Continental GT: More than just a glorified Volkswagen.
On the eve of the international motor show in Frankfurt, BBC News Online takes the Bentley Continental GT for a spin.

The Bentley Continental GT's roaring engine, its sleek design, and its hand built wood-and-leather interior belies the car's core task: To take this sumptuous brand downmarket.

A snip at 110,000, the Continental GT will be much cheaper than traditional Bentleys when it goes on sale in its home market this month.

Consequently, the car will be up against the likes of Aston Martin's four seat DB9, due to be launched in Frankfurt this week, and Ferrari's forthcoming four seat supercar, expected to be named 460 GT, rather than serious luxury cars like the Maybach and Rolls-Royce.

If you go downmarket a little bit, of course the average wealth of the customers you talk to is a little less than the traditional customers
Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen
Bentley Motors chief executive

The car is expected to do well.

Four-wheel drive grip and acceleration to die for makes cruising along Welsh mountain roads feel like a flight in an executive jet: smooth, comfortable, fast, exhilarating.

Bargain

Brad Wernle, who covers the car industry for Automotive News Europe, is impressed.

"I suppose the Bentley [Continental GT] looks like a bargain," says Mr Wernle, BBC News Online's co-pilot during a test drive.

Bentley's chief executive, Franz-Josef Paefgen, is keen to explain why.

"If you go downmarket a little bit, off course the average wealth of the customers you talk to is a little less than the traditional customers.

"This segment would have slightly younger - not young but younger - customers, and we also hope to talk to a lot more female potential customers with this car."

Bigger market

Bentley's traditional customers are not only phenomenally wealthy.

Bentley's director of marketing product strategy, Mark Tennant
Mr Tennant: "Volkswagen is not doing this as a hobby".

They are also scarce.

Globally, there are only about 80,000 people with more than $20m-worth of net investable assets, according to Cap Gemini Ernst & Young's World Wealth Report 2002.

By comparison, there are as many as one-and-a-half million people who have net investable assets in excess of $3m.

It is this group that Bentley sees as its new potential customers.

Racing car

But, acknowledges Mark Tennant, Bentley's director of marketing product strategy: Selling cars to rich, successful 40-somethings is not a joking matter, at least not when your company is viewed as "very British, very conservative, very Establishment".

To get around such prejudices about the marque, Bentley has decided to play the heritage card.

Its marketing strategy is based on Bentley's past as a racing brand during the 1920s.

"We are going forward to our roots," says Dr Paefgen cryptically, noting that Bentley is back in the racing circuit, having won Le Mans earlier this summer.

Strong demand

And, looking ahead, the car is set to win a few hearts too.

During our drive across North Wales, this four-seat Grand Tourer performed like a Ferrari and turned even more heads.

Even the hard-nosed motoring press is drooling over it, with Car magazine screaming: "The Bentley Continental GT, friends, is a lot more than good. It's brilliant."

So there is no surprise that demand for the car is strong.

"We already have a 12-month order book," says Mark Tennant, Bentley's director of marketing product strategy.

Volkswagen parts

One reason for this could be the car's relatively low price.

Bentley, which is owned by the German automotive group Volkswagen, has managed to curb costs from soaring by cherry picking parts from other luxury cars within the group.

"The car shares a number of underlying components with the Volkswagen Phaeton, so some of the cost is shared and not borne entirely by this car alone," explains Mr Wernle.

"That makes it more economically feasible.

"In the current automotive environment, more companies are sharing their components, and the key is to do it in a clever way and preserve the integrity of the brand, which I feel Bentley has done in this case."

Large potential

Indeed, the Continental GT will be Bentley's first ever mass produced car - though the numbers churned out will remain very low when compared with true mass market vehicles.

Bentley's chief executive, Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen
Dr Paefgen: "We are going forward to our roots".

Next year, about 3,500 Continentals will leave the Bentley factory in Crewe, Cheshire.

But over time, this number is set to more than double.

"The total potential of the plant is as much as 9,000 per year," says Dr Paefgen, referring to plans to produce a four-door version of the Continental GT and possibly even a third version of the car in the years ahead.

And soon, these new Bentleys should bring benefits for the parent company too.

"I can assure you that Volkswagen is not doing this as a hobby. It produces a very decent commercial return for them," insists Mr Tennant.


SEE ALSO:
Inside the Bentley factory
24 Dec 02  |  Business
Bentley changes gear
23 Dec 02  |  Business


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