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VW Steals A Lead In Luxury


James Bond didn't just drive Aston Martins before switching to BMWs. As originally written, 007 was a Bentley man. But not since the suave secret agent sped down England's country roads in that 1953 Mark VI in Moonraker has the British auto maker been so chic. Bentley's newest model, the revved-up Continental GT, is sold out through 2005. Customers who have snapped one up include Oracle Corp. (ORCL) CEO Lawrence J. Ellison, and actors Denzel Washington, James Caan, and Jennifer Lopez.

In the language of marketing turnabouts, Volkswagen-owned Bentley has done a Gucci. In one short year, the British maker of staid and stately limousines has suddenly become the raciest fashion on wheels. Sales of the $160,000 Continental GT coupe should top 5,000 cars this year -- more than 40% higher than forecasted. "The Continental GT has a sense of exclusivity, like wearing a designer brand," says Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail.

SLIDE SHOW: LUXURY CARS -- FROM STAID TO SEXY

By throwing off its pipe-smoke-and-Pimms image, Bentley has stolen the spotlight from its super-luxe rivals, BMW's Rolls Royce and DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Maybach. The irony is sweet. Volkswagen outbid BMW in 1998 to buy Rolls and Bentley and their ancient British factory from Vickers PLC for $917 million, with Rolls viewed as the crown jewel. But an odd twist in the deal allowed the Rolls-Royce aerospace company to sell rights to the Rolls-Royce brand to BMW out from under VW for a mere $78 million. Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler opted to compete by reviving a 1930s brand. They all came to market in 2003. BMW weighed in with its Rolls-Royce Phantom starting at $320,000. DaimlerChrysler revived a version of a prewar luxury nameplate, Maybach, at $318,000 per copy. Bentley's choice was the most radical, pricing the GT at half the cost of its competitors. Says James N. Hall of auto industry consultancy AutoPacific in Southfield, Mich: "They took a stratospheric nameplate and made it attainable for people who are wealthy and never considered Bentley."

BRAGGING RIGHTS

VW reached back 50 years or more to tap Bentley's pedigree as a consistent winner at Le Mans. The less expensive Continental GT is the fastest four-seater in the world, with a top speed of 198 mph. The coupe's 560 horsepower twin-turbo engine takes the car from zero to 60 mph in a tire-screeching 4.7 seconds. By contrast, the Rolls-Royce, which tops out at 149 mph, looks tame. Attention to such bragging rights, combined with a sleek design, is establishing Bentley as the "driver's car" in the field. "We really positioned the car, and people got the message," says Bentley Global Marketing Director Adrian Hallmark.

To reach car buyers with seven-figure incomes, Bentley ties into caviar events like boat shows and classic car meets. But Bentley also created anticipation for the new GT with one of the longest time lags in recent memory between spy photos of a new car hitting the Internet and cars arriving in showrooms. The company's executives even held intimate dinners with loyal Bentley owners, corporate chieftains, and celebrities to whet appetites and stir interest among the fat-wallet brigade. And Bentley pairs up with other luxe brands such as watchmaker Breitling, leaving GTs at the company's retail store in Las Vegas to woo high rollers. "You'll never see Bentley advertising during Monday Night Football," says David Coggins, Bentley's U.S. marketing chief.

"THE ODOR OF IRRELEVANCE"

The GT's fast start shows there's a market hungry for over-the-top luxury cars. You wouldn't know that, though, from Rolls-Royce and Maybach in the early going. For the first 10 months of 2004, Bentley sold 4,200 Continental GTs, way beyond the 3,500 it expected for the full year. By contrast, Rolls and Maybach, which at twice the price insist they don't compete against the Bentley, will miss their 2004 targets of 1,000 cars by miles. Rolls may pick up when a convertible is launched, but suffers now from the debatable appeal of a nearly three-ton sedan seemingly designed around the tastes of oil sheikhs and aging dukes. It has also had to rebuild a global sales and supplier network from scratch since VW won those assets in the deal that split Rolls from Bentley. And despite Maybach's unique features, such as glass roof panels that tint at the push of a button, the posh sedan is struggling for attention. "Maybach has the odor of irrelevance, and it's not being talked about the right way," says independent marketing consultant Dennis Keene.

Volkswagen Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder, who ironically was head of BMW in 1998 when it snatched the Rolls-Royce name from VW, has to make VW's investment -- nearly $2 billion -- pay off by raising Bentley sales to 10,000 cars a year, up from 2,000 before the purchase. Given its new cachet, analysts say, Bentley may well hit that number in coming years as new models come to market. Next year it will launch a four-door sedan designed off the GT, and a convertible the year after. The company's older Arnage four-door, which competes head-to-head with Rolls and Maybach in the prestige "big car" segment, is already benefiting from the glow of the GT.

A superluxury brand may need more exclusivity than the Continental GT provides; for that there is said to be a a brand-new $300,000-plus convertible in development. For now, though, Bentley is rebuilding the brand, very nicely, from the bottom up.

By Gail Edmondson with David Welch in Paris


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