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Many years ago Ettore Bugatti accused WO Bentley of building the world's fastest lorries. Some things, it would seem, don't change: this is Bentley's vision of the future, the EXP 9 F concept SUV, making its world debut today at the Geneva Motor Show.
Bentley chairman Wolfgang Dürheimer insists that a grand touring vehicle doesn't have to be long, low and lithe - but does it have to look like a cross between a London taxi and an old-fashioned school-bus?
Dürheimer also says the concept could be the forerunner of a third Bentley model line alongside the luxurious Mulsanne and the high-performance Continental.
“We know that many Bentley customers already own SUVs,” he said, “for their style, luxury, performance and versatility. With the EXP 9 F, Bentley is making a clear statement that we have the expertise to meet those expectations.”
CARVED FROM A SOLID BLOCK
Director of design Dirk van Braeckel explained that the concept was intended to look like it was carved from a solid block of metal, re-interpreting classic Bentley styling cues for taller architecture. The matrix grille, round headlights, even the signature power-line over the rear wheel-arch, are still there - albeit stretched a little out of shape…
Some of the details, said van Braeckel, were inspired by the way the famous 'Blower Bentleys' of the late 1920s (which WO hated with a passion) wore their engineering on the outside. For example, the LED daytime running lights are mounted around the rims of the intercooler intakes, each with a mesh-covered turbine fan design and 'rifled' inner surface finish.
The theme continues with dramatic 23” alloy rims, each with multiple narrow spokes like turbine fan-blades and a central wheel-nut as a visual reference both to Bentley's Le Mans racers of the 1920s with centre-lock spinner and to the single nut found on the modern-day Speed 8's race-style alloys.
At the rear, the two-part split tailgate is raked almost to the point where it becomes a fastback - specifically to prevent the concept looking like a van from the back, van Braeckel admitted! - while the tail lights are designed so that their light glows from inside, inspired by fighter-jet tailpipes, and even the elliptical dual exhausts have 'rifled' inner surfaces.
FUSION OF EXTREMES
The interior of a modern Bentley is a fusion of extremes - old-fashioned, handcrafted finishes contrasted with high-tech materials and technology - and the concept takes this contrast a step further with traditional handcrafted elements such as wood and leather, and polished metals such as aluminium, bronze and gunmetal, while traditional analogue bezels and dials are paired with TFT 'virtual' instrumentation.
The trim is also very practical in an English 'country' way, with hard-wearing saddle leather on the seat backs, top roll and load-space. Even the wool floor-mats are reversible - with the back finished in ribbed saddle leather for use when the driver and passengers are dressed for the great outdoors.
The dashboard in one humungous piece of polished burr walnut, with traditional Bentley 'bulls eye' vents, complete with 'rifled' gunmetal inner surface - but the centre console is framed by two aluminium flying buttresses that not only support 'floating' armrests, but also provide integrated, sculpted grab handles.
Important driver information such as 3D navigation is displayed on a central screen directly in the driver's line of sight, between the analogue reverse-read dials.
Three different driving modes - Comfort, Sport and Off-Road - are selectable according to the road environment and type of journey. Thus the driver's centre screen is able to switch between satellite navigation on the highway to a 'sump cam' when negotiating a bumpy track.
Functions that are shared between driver and front-seat passenger, such as cabin temperature, air vents and entertainment are controlled from the central touch-screen and console.
Rear seat passengers can chose between business mode - with fold-down keyboard and full internet connectivity via an iPad or tablet - or a more reclined position with powered footrest, drinks table and an infotainment screen for movies. The centre rear armrest lifts to reveal a cooled compartment for champagne and glasses.
When the rear seats are not in use, they can be powered forward to create a larger load space for sports equipment or luggage.
The lower section of the two-piece tailgate can be used as a viewing bench or picnic table - a uniquely American idea which gave rise to the term 'tailgate party' , but given an English twist with specially-made picnic hampers stowed neatly on either side of the load space that slide out on rails when needed.
Another uniquely English concept is the awning that extends over the tailgate - just in case the weather becomes uniquely English during your alfresco entertainment - together with a pair of umbrella holders on either side of the rear luggage area.
OLD-FASHIONED POWER AND PERFORMANCE
The EXP 9 F concept (Bentley doesn't say whether the show car is a runner) is built around Bentley's ageing six-litre twin-turbocharged W12 engine with an eight-speed AWD transmission, but could be fitted with either Bentley's recently-launched four-litre, twin-turbo V8 or even a hybrid drivetrain.
The six-litre was the prime mover of choice, however, because any Bentley SUV would have to offer the thunderous performance for which the 'Winged B' brand is renowned - and the W12 can be tuned for as much as 450kW and 800Nm, which would make this one very potent SUV.
What was it Bugatti said? The world's fastest lorries, indeed!