Paul Horrell05 March 2012

Geneva 2012: Bentley’s new SUV

And it's bigger than a Range Rover... Meet the catchily-named EXP 9 F

Bentley SUV

Most Bentley owners have five or 10 other cars. And one of those other cars tends to be a posh off-roader. Bentley can see an opportunity here. Why not get them to buy a Bentley off-roader instead? As a taster for the idea, it's pulling an (extremely large) silk cloth off what might well be the biggest and grandest concept car at Geneva.

It's also probably the one with the most forgettable name. TopGear interwebbists, may we introduce EXP 9 F? And EXP 9 F, meet the TopGear interwebbists.

This enormo-SUV has a wheelbase some 200mm longer than a Range Rover. It's got similar rear legroom to the mighty Mulsanne saloon. To give you an idea of scale, those are 23-inch wheels. And it's punched through the mud - or more likely over desert dunes or down the autobahn - by a 600bhp W12 turbo.

Gallery: the Bentley EXP 9 F SUV

Bentley's bosses say that if they build one, it's got to be the fastest and most expensive SUV in the world. They also concede it probably won't be quite as good off-road as a Range Rover, nor quite as sporty on tarmac as a Cayenne. But they want to split the difference in some style. And for anyone inside it while it's doing its thing, comfort and unassailable luxury are an absolute given.

Inside, the lower surfaces are clad in hard-wearing saddle leather. The rest of the leather is soft as a glove. The wood is Bentley's usual immaculately polished stuff, and the carpets are wool. It's going to smell like Ladies' Day at Ascot in there.

But it's also high-tech. The instruments lie behind knurled metal rings, but they're actually TFT screens. In off-road mode, the navigation arrow display is designed to switch to a ‘sump cam' so you can make sure the immaculate Bentley isn't about to run aground. The undershields are specially shaped for surfing down desert dunes. The split tailgate has powered upper and lower halves, turning itself into a mini-grandstand.

Note we said ‘If they build one.' OK, it still has to be signed off, but believe us they're a mighty long way down the road. They have done a lot of research into both the engineering and the likely customer demand. They seem confident they can make money by building 3500 of these a year, which would mean increasing the company's output by about 50 percent. And they are pretty sure they can sell them, using a range of engines: W12 first, then plug-in hybrid and V8 diesel. Even if only a fraction of existing Bentley owners swapped their Range Rover or Cayenne for a Bentley SUV, Bentley's new project would be home and dry.

There's another reason to do it. Bentley's business is cyclical. At the moment the Mulsanne and Continental ranges are new, but it's going to be hard to maintain sales momentum for eight years until the next ones come along. And for the next few years, until they start work on those replacement cars, the Crewe engineers don't have a heck of a lot to do. If the SUV gets the nod, it would be engineered from now on, to be ready in 2016, keeping the factory bubbling away nicely after that.

It's not about whether a mud-plugger is a noble enough occupation for Bentley, then. It's about grabbing an obvious profit opportunity, to protect the jobs and crafts in Crewe. Should Porsche have built the Cayenne? My how we agonised about that back in 2002, but you've got to admit, as the new 911 so magnificently shows, it protected rather than undermined Porsche's ability to make fine sports cars.

And being in the VW Group helps Bentley a lot. The modular components platform for the next Cayenne/Touareg/Q7 is being conceived at the moment. Bentley's engineers say that if they get the nod, they'd be ‘at the table' when the joint engineering is being done, so they could make sure it suited their car. And yes, they know that Lamborghini is lobbying to make an SUV too. But they say this platform could be made to stretch to several very different cars.

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