Bentley poised to electrify EXP-10 Speed 6 sports car

On the eve of letting the media drive its groundbreaking Bentayga SUV, Bentley's CEO talks about slaying another sacred cow: introducing an EV.

MARBELLA, SPAIN -- Bentley has long been thought of as a traditional luxury automaker, prioritizing things like hand-built, large-displacement engines and leather craftsmanship over the latest technologies. But the British automaker has quietly been more ambitious about adopting new tech as of late, including in its forthcoming 2017 Bentayga SUV, which will be the industry's first to adopt a sophisticated 48-volt anti-roll system.

It appears the Flying B's electrification isn't about to stop there.

At a media event here in Marbella on Tuesday, CEO Wolfgang Dürheimer confirmed that Bentley is pursing a production version of its show-stopping EXP 10 Speed 6 sports car concept unveiled at the Geneva auto show in March. Instead of relying purely on internal combustion (or a hybrid setup, as was mooted for the show car), Bentley intends to turn the EXP 10 into its first production electric car.

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Bentley's EXP-10 Speed 6 wowed Geneva crowds in March.

Tim Stevens/CNET

While the move toward a pure EV would seem to signal a paradigm shift for Bentley, its parent company the Volkswagen Group is already heavily invested in electrification through programs like Audi's E-tron initiative. What's more, building a premium EV would mirror the way many luxury car manufacturers seem to be shifting their product strategies. Rival Aston Martin recently publicly committed to developing an electric version of its Rapide sedan, and corporate-cousin Porsche surprised with its Mission E electric sedan at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September.

While the EXP-10 Speed 6 has yet to receive the final green light for production, Dürheimer sounds very bullish on the sports car's prospects. In customer clinics, the reaction to the concept has been overwhelming, with customers saying, "'You know what? Shut up, just do as it looks," he said. Durheimer characterized the concept's feedback as nothing less than "the best feedback we've ever had for a Bentley that's gone to a production clinic."

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The round-eyed nose of the EXP-10 Speed 6 is unmistakably Bentley.

Tim Stevens/CNET

Dürheimer went on to say about going purely electric, "We think this could push luxury and then sports car business to a new direction, and could be again groundbreaking for Bentley Motors." He went on to caution, "[That] doesn't mean that the car will not come additionally with a combustion engine at a later stage, but we are planning to do EXP-10 Speed 6 pure electric at present."

As if heading off the inevitable question about whether traditional Bentley buyers will be interested in driving an EV, Dürheimer noted that the "torque characteristic and the noise level you experience in a Mulsanne is very close to an electric car." (Bentley's flagship Mulsanne sedan is an old-school throwback powered by a low-rev, high-torque 6.75-liter V-8 that runs in near silence.)

Dürheimer didn't have performance specifics to offer, other than to say the company is targeting a range of 500 kilometers -- over 310 miles. A time frame of around 2019-2020 seems likely given that Bentley will first focus on marketing the Bentayga and developing another derivative off its new SUV platform.

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The EXP-10 Speed 6 concept featured a hybrid drivetrain, but its future looks pure-electric.

Tim Stevens/CNET

On some level, the idea of making Bentley's first electric model a sports car seems to make a good deal of sense. Sports cars can often command more money than other body styles, and they usually aren't daily-use propositions. Instead, sports cars are often instead reserved for weekend outings and special occasions. Given that most Bentley owners count upward of five or six vehicles in their stable, the limited utility and range of an electric sports car likely wouldn't prove to be a sales deterrent among the very well-heeled.

For now, company executives are concentrating on a more immediate groundbreaking new product -- the Bentayga, which will almost certainly become Bentley's top-selling model in short order.

The notion of a Bentley-branded SUV was borderline heretical just a few years ago, but the company seems increasingly willing to acknowledge that the definition of luxury is changing, and so is Bentley's role in fulfilling that vision. An electric production EXP-10 Speed 6 would seem to go a long way toward powering Bentley into the future.

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