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Exclusive: up close with the Bentley Speed 6

  1. Give a car designer a pencil and scrap of paper, stand back, and 10 minutes later you’ll have a sketch of an imagined slinky-dreamy two-seater sports car. Usually a coupe. Usually front-engined. It’s just what they’re genetically programmed to do, even if they’re employed by a company that will forever thwart their chance to realise the fantasy. And, sure enough, the designers at Bentley Motors are no different. Their day job has been all about other things: big four-seat coupes, convertibles and four-door saloons - the areas of pre-eminence occupied by the company since the Twenties. Oh, and then over the past couple of years, an SUV, which has wracked their brains more than somewhat. And then, at the Geneva show… this.

    Pictures: Jamie Lipman

    This feature originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine.

  2. This is precisely the sort of car that designers love to do. The kind of thing Bentley’s designers have been waving under their bosses’ noses for years. Sangyup Lee, Bentley’s head of exterior and advanced design, tells me: “It was a skunkworks project at first, and then we showed the idea to management, and they approved,” he says. His face beams at the memory.

    Company boss Wolfgang Dürheimer was the one who recognised that the ballooning global posh-SUV bandwagon was something the Crewe factory just had to climb aboard, so, three years ago, he pushed the Bentayga ahead of the two-seater in Bentley’s to-do list. All the while, he admitted that the moneymaking potential of the SUV was in tension with the heart-string tug of a sports car. Even at the time the concept version of the Bentayga was first shown, Dürheimer told me a two-seat sports car existed as a full-size design model in the studio. Mind you, this EXP 10 Speed 6 isn’t an evolution of that earlier model. They started from scratch. He says the car we see today didn’t take long because “when you give the designers a brief like that, it’s like letting them off the leash”.

  3. The official line is that this could be the template for a fifth model line from Bentley. To discern if it could pay its way in production, Crewe people aren’t just stroking their chins and consulting a crystal ball. The gorgeously finished concept car is a tool for some rigorous research. Dürheimer says: “This car will be taken to product clinics in Europe, the US and China. We’ll do our homework and look at the customer data.”

    He says they have a year to decide if this is the right thing for an extra model line - not a replacement for any existing Bentley. That timing, he explains, is so that “when the Bentayga SUV is executed, the engineers can jump to the next product”. The EXP 10 bit of the name, by the way, means it’s an experimental car, following the concept version of the Bentayga, EXP 9.

  4. Dürheimer is keen to emphasise that if it became real, it wouldn’t be a £90k 911 rival: “It will be smaller than the Continental GT but not cheaper.” Three months ago, he’d told me the sports-car and convertible segment is shrinking. “Yes,” he says now, “it is a declining market at present. If we followed the market, we would do a second SUV.” But it’s pretty obvious he’s looking for an excuse not to follow the market. And the EXP 10 could well be it.

    Enough of the theory and logic. Let’s get up close. See the EXP 10 on the Geneva show floor alongside a Continental GT, and it’s obviously a much lower, smaller car, not just a re-skin. Dürheimer says it would use a new structure. Would it be lightweight? “I’ll sleep on that.” He says a Bentley has to feel strong, solid. Lightness isn’t in its DNA.

  5. But its designer Sangyup Lee says: “Our heritage is weight, but it’s also torque and luxury. Now we want to develop a sports car against the AMG GT and Aston Martin Vantage. It would still be the most luxurious car among them. But we want kids to have a poster of a Bentley on their walls. If you don’t love this at first sight, it hasn’t worked. The Bentley brand design has been very safe. Now we want to push forward, both in form language and in detail execution.”

    Of course, Bentley tried before to push forward and probe its design limits. It didn’t end well. The EXP 9, the concept for the Bentayga, had a front-end design that soured the milk. A lesson has been learned: the Bentayga has been re-nosed for production. (Lee doesn’t mention it, but the EXP 9 was done before he took over the advanced design leadership. He was at a VW studio in California at the time, and before that did the Camaro at Chevy.) Besides, a sports car needs a different face from an SUV. This is it.

  6. The EXP 10’s grille is shallower than on any production Bentley so far. But more striking still are the headlamps. Having four round eyes is a Bentley fixture, Lee says, but it’s obvious they pushed the boundaries here, and poured a lot of love into the detail. He makes me crouch down in front of the car as if in supplication, and sure enough they appear perfectly round from that angle. But as you stand back up and see them from higher, or from the quarter view, they stretch into ovals, adding intrigue. “It gives you something to discover,” says Lee. He also points to the spiralling diamond detail inside the lamps. “We call them whisky glasses.” It’s an echo of the new 3d-metal-printed version of the traditional Bentley diamond grille, and of the similar textures inside the cabin.

    Around the sides of the car, between the two sharply drawn lines that emerge from the skin at doorhandle and sill height, there’s a third much softer positive volume, and again that helps make it look light. The line that runs upward ahead of the rear wheel and back above the arch samples one of the most classic riffs of the Continental GT. At the tail, the lights are pure ovals to match the tailpipes. “Before, we always had the lit ovals in rectangular lights,” Lee points out, with a ‘why did we do that?’ expression.

  7. Inside, as you’d expect from the concept, there are some pretty exquisite materials - most notably the door panels, each of which is a solid piece of cherry wood with a diamond pattern chiselled out. At the intersection of each diamond sits a little lozenge of copper. The architecture through the cabin is again all about lightness. The dash-top wings float above the main structure to admit
    light and shade, and the console also floats and is slimmer than on any Bentley for years. It houses a portrait-format touchscreen. The main dials use a physical chronograph-type rev-counter cluster plus a virtual speedo embodying the driver’s multifunction display.

    Lee insists the general shape and proportions of the EXP 10 are realistic. “It’s not some la-la land concept.” The doors are the right size to get in and out, there’s enough room inside, the mechanical bits would fit. Mind you, a couple of rival-company designers at Geneva reckoned it’d be hard getting the headlamp position through the current impact rules. Whatever - the front has a shorter overhang than a Continental, which implies better weight distribution from moving the engine backward relative to the wheels. Ah yes, an engine. A topic on which Bentley is keeping mum. Lee says: “It could be a hybrid drive, for torque. And the benefit of being in the VW Group is we can get platform parts.”

  8. So what platform could it use? On the other side of the VW Group, Porsche is working on a matrix called MSB. This has a longitudinal front engine and RWD/AWD. It’s for the late-2016 Panamera, among other things, and it’s lighter than the current Panamera skeleton. Dürheimer says a production version of the EXP 10 could be the MSB. “But it’s not all fixed. You can carry over our corner units [suspensions, driveshafts, brakes, hubs, etc.] and put them in a new structure.”

    A few minutes after the EXP 10 Speed 6 was unwrapped, Dürheimer gave me its elevator pitch: “Bentley has always been in love with the idea of a punchy, powerful two-seater.”

  9. In love with, but never actually building. Even back in the Twenties, when WO Bentley wanted to make a faster car, he didn’t make a smaller or lighter one, but instead added size and power. So the four-cylinder three-litre car grew into the long, weighty, six-cylinder 6.5-litre. The hotted-up version of that, the 1928-30 Speed Six, won Le Mans twice and so you can see why Bentley has reprised its name for this new concept. But that granddaddy Speed Six certainly wasn’t the lithe two-seater the marque is trying to invoke now.

    Here then is a two-seat supercar that shrinks Bentley’s sporting but high-luxury vibe into a more agile package - a car to go against the Aston Martin Vantage and its successor, and the AMG GT, and, three years from now, the Maserati Alfieri. If you accept a paring back of the cabin luxury, you could include the rear or mid-engined stuff like the 911 Turbo and Audi R8 plus the ever-growing range of McLarens. The competition thinks there are customers out there. After all these years, Bentley is close to allowing itself to join in.

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