PEBBLE BEACH, California -- Recession or not, British luxury icon Bentley Motors Ltd. pulled the wraps off of a new flagship sedan here Sunday that will retail in the United States for close to $300,000.
The Mulsanne, replaces the soon-to-be discontinued Arnage as Bentleys global halo car in what the Volkswagen AG unit calls the pinnacle of the ultra-luxury segment.
Theres a very difficult business case for this car, admitted Franz-Josef Paefgen, Bentleys CEO. The hope here is not to create volume, but to create a flagship.
For the debut, Bentley chose the elite setting of the Pebble Beach Concours dElegance where it could be displayed among a sea of collectors cars, including 1930s-era Bentleys.
The Mulsanne (pronounced mull-SAHN) will go on sale next spring, and company officials have not yet divulged specifics about price or features. The car will require 40 hours of labor for workers to hand-make its interior woodwork.
Bentley has suffered along with the rest of the auto industry over the past year. The brand swung to operating loss of 114 million euros ($163 million at current exchange rates) in the first half from a 85 million euro operating profit the year before.
The company will likely sell about 5,000 vehicles in 2009, down from its peak of approximately 10,000 two years ago, according to Stuart McCullough, Bentley board member in charge of sales and marketing. U.S. demand through July has plunged 58 percent from a year earlier, to just 762 deliveries,
Bentleys assembly plant in Crewe, England, closed this year for seven weeks. It has cut back from two shifts a day to one.
But until the global financial crisis, Bentley was being stretched thin by consumer demand from new retail markets, such as China and the Middle East. Bentley resisted pressure to add a third production shift to increase output.
McCullough said the U.S. market will probably account for a smaller share of Bentleys global sales in the future.
Were very comfortable at the 8,000-unit level of sales, he said during a private country club reception in Carmel, Calif., where selected Bentley enthusiasts got an early peak at the Mulsanne. At the end of the day, were all about scarcity.
He said Bentley will likely sell only about 700 Mulsannes a year.
It will be the first Bentley to be entirely designed, engineered and manufactured at Bentleys Crewe operations since Rolls-Royce acquired the company in 1932. The brand has relied on Rolls Royce models, or technology from current owner VW.
Though it will occupy the segment as the Arnage, Bentley officials are going out of their way to say the Mulsanne is a completely new creation, with barely a small basket of parts in common. Its V-8 engine has the same dimensions as the Arnages V-8, McCullough said, but every component of the new powerplant has been redesigned.