Much ink has been spilled over China’s burgeoning upper class, the sort of easily-excitable millionaires and billionaires that snap up luxury cars as if they were the Pogs from our childhood. China now has 1.11 million, er, millionaires, a world record—does that make it a nation of millions squared?—and 115 billionaires, which is second only to us.
Drive through White Plains or the Hollywood Hills and you’d think Bentleys are passed out like Welcome Wagon baskets. Now, Bentley is making inroads to China, but after the Beijing Auto Show we won’t be surprised if we see it as the darling of the nouveau well-heeled. Bentley already claims that China is the brand’s largest market. With 1,664 cars delivered in just the first few months of this year, sales have already increased 84 percent over the same time last year. And the luxury brand launched three cars on their stand this week, two of which we’re already familiar with, and one surprising car that only certain royals will know.
First off is Bentley’s EXP 9 SUV concept, almost universally reviled by some and seemingly liked only by me. It looks like a Range Rover crashed into a Mulsanne, which come to think of it, is exactly how a Bentley SUV would be expected to look. Bentley is gauging the reaction of global markets; first Europe, then America, and now Asia, where its moneyed citizens would welcome a third model to Bentley’s lineup.
What’s curious about the EXP 9 is that it could come with a wide array of drivetrains. No flying B would be complete without the flagship 12-cylinder engine, but a 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 with 500 horsepower could also be in the works, as well as—bizarrely enough—a V-6 plug-in hybrid. How uncouth! A six-figure behemoth of an SUV, sharing the same electric car parking as a mere Chevy Volt? What would Walter Owen himself think of such frugality? Perhaps the best time to think about saving gasoline and the environment isn’t when you’re about to buy an SUV large enough to feature its own zip code. But, you know, gas is expensive in China too, if not more so.
Next is the Continental GTC 6.0 W12, which gets facelifted along with its coupe sibling. It also features a 6.0-liter W12 engine that’s been thoroughly upgraded; the coupe’s new mutant-headlight styling; and chassis improvements to disguise its roofless driving characteristics. Aside from the multi-layered fabric convertible top, everything else—from the hand-crafted cabin and shiny wood finishes, to 17 leather options, to shag carpeting so deep you could lose a Foghat 8-track in them—remains the same.
Lastly, and curiously, Bentley chose to celebrate The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in China, which makes more sense to Brits than it does to Budweiser-swilling Americans. See, The Queen rolls around in her customized Bentley State Limousine, which was presented to her in 2002 and looks like an elongated London Taxi wearing a derby hat. It’s more British than Michael Caine drinking a room-temperature ale while flying a Spitfire. The State Limousine is less armored and more airy than its American counterpart, the truck-chassised Cadillac Presidential Limousine, which occasionally proves to be a problem when Prince Charles drives through a riot.
Likewise, just 60 examples of the Bentley Mulsanne Diamond Jubilee Edition will celebrate The Queen’s ongoing triumph over mortality and her 60th year of serving the Realm. Like the State Limousine, the Mulsanne shares its same shade of Welch’s Grape Juice purple, but six other paint schemes are also available. Inside, the Diamond Jubilee Edition uses “various combinations and shades of red, white and blue (the colors of the Union Flag) to underscore the British connection,” in case you confuse it for a Gleagle Panda. On the hand-sanded wood center console is a gilded line drawing of the logo for the Mulliner Division, which also appears on the aluminum door sills.
Where can you buy all of these wonderful Bentleys? Prospective owners, you’re in luck: Bentley has opened its largest dealership in Asia, right in Beijing. The brand rightfully expects a wave of sales in the coming 12 months—with the Chinese economy still doing well, it’s the billionaires that will do all of the talking, and the billions that will drive them.