By Christoph Rauwald at The Wall Street Journal
FRANKFURT—Volkswagen AG’s Bentley brand is likely to introduce a high-end sport-utility vehicle that would cost more than $140,000, after strong demand for ultraluxury cars helped Bentley return to a profit last year.
“If we bring this [SUV] to the market it will be positioned significantly above the vehicles that are currently available in this segment,” Bentley brand chief Wolfgang Duerheimer said Tuesday. Bentley also is considering new versions of its Continental model, he said.
U.K.-based Bentley said it swung to a profit in 2011 after two years of losses, helped by a 37% rise in sales to 7,003 vehicles, though it declined to disclose detailed full-year profit figures. In the January-to-September period last year, Bentley narrowed its operating loss to €6 million ($7.8 million) from €145 million in the same period in 2010.
Volkswagen, due to post full-year earnings for all its brands in early March, is set to make a final decision on Bentley’s SUV project “in the first quarter” of 2012, Mr. Duerheimer said. He added that he expects “a positive decision.”
In the meantime, Mr. Duerheimer said, strong global demand for Bentley’s Continental and Mulsanne models are likely to sustain sales this year. Bentley has “ambitious but realistic plans which reflect global economic conditions as much as our new product lineup,” he said.
Sales growth is likely to be “in the double-digit range” this year and could approach a record if the economic environment doesn’t deteriorate, Mr. Duerheimer said. He added that earnings also are expected to improve this year as Bentley keeps costs under control.
Mr. Duerheimer’s comments underscore how international demand for Europe’s luxury-car output continues to offset regional economic problems for manufacturers, with record sales for Volkswagen’s premium Audi brand as well as rivals such as BMW AG and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz.
Volkswagen’s growth plans for Bentley could mirror the expansion of models at Volkswagen affiliate Porsche Automobil Holding SE, said Mr. Duerheimer, a former head of research and development at Porsche’s sports-car unit. Bentley might launch derivatives of its Continental model, similar to what Porsche did with its 911 model, he added. Porsche’s SUV, known as the Cayenne, has been a hit since its launch in 2002.
“I can well imagine a new two-seater coupe, a racing version and a car with a new roof system,” Mr. Duerheimer said, referring to possible new versions of the Continental.
The U.S. continued to be Bentley’s largest market last year, with 2,021 cars sold—up 32% from 2010. China came in second. Sales volume there doubled to 1,839 cars last year.
Bentley sales in Continental Europe increased 53% to 1,187 cars, driven by strong demand in Germany. Bentley said it faced difficulties in the U.K. during recent months, but sales there still rose 5% to 1,031 cars in 2011.
Mr. Duerheimer said he sees further growth potential in the U.S., China and Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Austria, the Balkans and Russia.
Volkswagen, the biggest European auto manufacturer, bought Bentley in 1998 from Vickers PLC after a bidding war with BMW. Bentley was spun off from Rolls-Royce Motors, with the Rolls-Royce automotive brand ending up part of BMW. Rolls-Royce sales rose 41% to 2,441 vehicles in the first nine months of 2011, according to the latest BMW data.