Exclusive Interview: Bentley SUV Talk with Bart Gerris, Europe Director

Somewhere around Crewe, UK, a group of people are working on what they claim will be not just a new car, but a new segment. One wouldn’t quite expect something like that in 2013, but when those "Boys" wear Bentley badges on their suits, you’ll want to find out more.
Bart Gerris, Bentley Director for Europe 1 photo
Photo: original image by autoevolution
Bentley’s been busy giving us the Flying Spur and the Continental GT V8 S this year. Nonetheless, behind the scenes, they’ve been working overtime to develop their upcoming SUV. After the poor reception of the EXP 9 F Concept's design at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show, the Brits say they've reinvented the shell. Bentley plan to come up with a super SUV, something that would stand above anything else the market currently has to offer.

We recently sat down with Bart Gerris, Bentley's Regional Director for Europe and Tom Housley, Bentley PR Manager Europe, to get into the depths of Bentley’s upcoming SUV.

autoevolution: What’s the message the Bentley SUV sends out about its owner?

Bart Gerris: I think it’s not typical the SUV, it’s Bentley. Bentley stands for luxury and performance, where luxury is the major part and performance always is connected with that. That is what we want to do, also for an SUV. So we have a coupe, we have two four-door luxury sedans, but this luxury performance, we think, is not there yet. With Bentley presenting an SUV, you will see the first SUV which will show that luxury and performance. That’s what we want.

ae: How about the platform - Will it be underpinned by the current architecture or the future one?

BG: We will use a VW Group platform, yes. It will be the next-generation platform.

: Any specific engineering changes in the works? We know you at Bentley come with the design, the leather and all the elements that make up your fingerprint, but, engineering wise, have you considered any improvements to make it feel your own?

BG: In general when we use Volkswagen platforms, that’s the basis, but all the other parts of engineering on suspension, engine or gearbox, axles, everything is Bentley specific. So yes, also the SUV will be very specifically built, with the Bentley engineers and the Bentley support. So it won’t be anything connected with the other brands of the Group, it will be specifically branded and specifically engineered by our guys.

Tom Housley: 80 percent, at least, of the car will be unique to Bentley.

ae: Will you offer multiple engine options? Let’s stick to the petrol engines now and we’ll leave the hybrid talk for later on.

BG: in general we don’t really talk openly about what we are developing, but you can imagine. At this moment, we are investigating multiple engine types. You know what is available within the Group, what we can develop ourselves. Yes, there is a lot of talk, but for now we don’t really openly communicate about this.

: When you drive a contemporary Bentley, especially something from the Continental series, you feel that the car is pretty capable even when you leave the road behind. We were wondering if you’ll limit such capabilities on the Continentals, like the default ground clearance, or the maximum suspension height, due to the apparition of the SUV. The market abounds in such examples of limitations aimed at preventing cannibalization, so we want to know what Bentley is planning.

BG: It’s not really an issue or a topic when we’re developing an SUV. The SUV is a completely separate entity, which obviously has more 4x4 capabilities than a sedan or a coupe. So we won’t specifically lower the expectations or the possibilities on our 4x4 cars just to improve the position of the SUV. It’s such a different car, it stands on a higher chassis, so it has more ground clearance anyway, so I don’t believe that we’re really making room for the SUV.

TH: I think in the luxury segment there wouldn’t be the opportunity to do that, because our customers expect top-level performance. So, for instance, our engines are not restricted. We quote, for example, 330 km/h (205 mph) for our GT Speed, but you might find your car actually does more than that.

ae: Yes, that’s what we found out while driving Bentleys.

TH: For Bentley it’s very important and in the luxury sector we don’t put limits on things. If we build an SUV we need to do more, it’s not about limiting different products.

ae: Speaking of design, I know that Sang-Yup Lee, the man in charge of penning the project has previously said the styling will be a different venture compared to what we’ve seen on the EXP F9 Concept. Should we expect something like a shooting brake with a higher silhouette, or rather something towards the massive SUV affair?

: As a hint, of course, I can tell you I’ve seen the car in all the details. Have you (TH) seen it? No? So I can’t tell you. Really I can’t reveal anything about what it would look like. You’ve seen the presentation at the Geneva Motor Show and the design of the actual SUV has been signed off in October by the board. But it is different than what you’ve seen in Geneva. I won’t talk about the car, but I know of one thing... It’s damn beautiful! Everybody was very impressed by the car, absolutely, it’s lovely. You will love it, for sure. I am convinced on that.

TH: In the coming months, of course, we’ll communicate more about the details of this car. For now we’re focusing on the Flying Spur ant the new V8S and we have some other things to announced between now and then.

ae: Perhaps it will be in Detroit.

TH: I can tell you it won’t be in Detroit.

ae: Let’s move to the performance area a bit, because you’ve mentioned this from the very beginning. SUVs traditionally pose a challenge when it comes to driving involvement, because of their weight and high driving position. How are you going to cope with this considering that you want the SUV to send out the Bentley spirit.

: I think one big advantage is Bentley has an enormous amount of experience with developing a very agile car still with a high weight. We will never produce a car with the agility of a Ferrari. That is not our part. Our part is luxury and performance. This combination, this effortless performance you have and you will see this exactly also on the SUV. It will be really an SUV, but still this effortless performance will be there. And it will have this effortless performance that’s characteristic to the brand. Again, we’re not going to build a sports car, that’s not our game. But, again, we have a lot of experience with building a car that is this heavy and still having a very agile experience. Did you drive a Mulsanne? Mulsanne is my favorite car.

ae: so what’s your favorite car (TH)?

TH: Me? Personally it would be the GT Speed.

BG: Power...

ae: Part of the upper class society avoids driving SUVs these days, perhaps due to the image factor. - These cars bring up the owner’s status too much. For example, Prince Charles of Wales prefers Audi A6 Allroads to SUVs. So there’s this type of customer that doesn’t want the car to brag about his position. How will you deal with this?

BG: We still think there is enough potential. Obviously customers make their decisions, some of them are comfortable with this and some are not, but we are comfortable with the fact that there’s a lot of clientele who’s interested in driving such an SUV, so it’s not really concerning us actually, no.

ae: So it will show the Bentley status all the way?

BG: Yes, it will be a genuine Bentley, that’s for sure.

ae: We may handle cars in our office, but we can also give you different details about our motorcycle editor, Florin Tibu. For example, he weighs about 120-130 KG (265-287 lbs). In the same manner, despite this being an SUV interview, we are curious about the next Continental GT, a different department. We want to know if you have a weight target: below 2 tons, 2 tons (4,000 lbs), 2 tons plus perhaps?

: No, there’s no really a clear weight target, but, obviously, during engineering periods, we try to reduce weight as much as possible, because weight is fuel consumption, weight is agility, so we clearly are focused on that. So there will be a target for that, but there’s not a clear set target like 2,100 or 2,200 KG - it’s a whole set up, it has to be acceptable for us that agility, luxury, performance, power are all mixed. I know the engineers are constantly tweaking, but that’s been going on for years, where they can find one kilo here, one kilo there, absolutely, it’s one of the key goals.

ae: Have you also involved Naim in this? The audio system obviously weighs a lot and they could improve this, if they wanted to.

BG: This was actually a discussion, I know that. The magnet is massive - even that is being discussed, how you can find lower weight.

TH: In our cars you’ve got real materials and luxury materials. For instance you’ve got a seat massager, these functions all enhance the luxury experience and it’s what our customers want and that’s what defines a Bentley - it's a luxury experience, the cabin, but these are the things that add the weight. It’s a balance between meeting the customer demands and what you can do with the weight.

ae: The final question - what do you see as the closest rival?

BG: We really don’t want to be arrogant, but we are launching a car in a segment that’s not there. Actually, there is no segment for us, we are developing our own segment with the Bentley SUV.
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About the author: Andrei Tutu
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In his quest to bring you the most impressive automotive creations, Andrei relies on learning as a superpower. There's quite a bit of room in the garage that is this aficionado's heart, so factory-condition classics and widebody contraptions with turbos poking through the hood can peacefully coexist.
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