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Bentley joins ultra-luxury fast lane

[PARIS] Bentley, the venerable British carmaker known for comfort and style, is moving into the fast lane of ultra-luxury cars with a new version of its flagship saloon, aiming to grab a bigger slice of a market tipped to double in size by 2018.

The 95-year-old brand, whose customers include Queen Elizabeth II and the Sultan of Brunei, is using this month's Paris auto show to launch the Mulsanne Speed under the strapline"the world's fastest ultra-luxury driving experience." At US$411,000, the model is not only Bentley's most expensive ever, but the eight-cylinder engine with a new combustion system will allow it to reach 100 kilometres per hour in 4.9 seconds and deliver a top speed of 305 kph.

The launch is part of a diversification that will also see the Volkswagen-owned business branch into luxury sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) in 2016.

Such expansion is nothing new. Indeed, Bentley chief executive Wolfgang Duerheimer may be trying to replicate the success he had as R&D chief at Volkswagen (VW) luxury stablemate Porsche, where he extended a range of two-seater sports cars to embrace SUVs and coupés.

But analysts say it is vital if Bentley is to secure a larger share of a rapidly-growing market.

Deliveries of cars priced at 120,000 euros (S$193,236) or more may almost double to about 133,000 vehicles by 2018 from 70,000 last year as the ranks of the super wealthy in the United States and China keep growing, according to forecaster IHS Automotive. "The super-rich don't care about brand loyalty,"Frankfurt-based IHS analyst Henner Lehne said. "They buy whichever model is hot." With a dark tint finish applied to exterior grilles and wing vents, Bentley believes the new 5.57-metre version of the Mulsanne - named after the fastest stretch of the Le Mans race track in France - will comfortably fit into that category. "Bentley is on the move," Mr Duerheimer told Reuters in an interview late on Thursday. "The emphasis on performance has something to do with the lifestyle of our customers, it's part of their superlative aspirations." Though Bentley accounted for just 0.1 per cent of VW's record 9.73 million vehicle sales last year, it gives the German parent an aura of technical prowess while carrying out key research tasks, especially on engine technology.

Bentley has set a target to boost sales by about half to 15,000 vehicles by 2018, as part of VW's goal to overtake Toyota as the world's biggest carmaker.- Reuters