CNN  — 

Bentley unveiled a sleeker, more muscular version of its Bentayga SUV Tuesday. The changes to the Bentayga are mainly cosmetic but, along with more major changes to Bentley’s product line-up, they mark the completion of a makeover for the brand as it attempts to navigate a rapidly changing marketplace for luxury cars.

With a top speed of 190 miles an hour, the Bentley Bentayga is billed as the world’s fastest SUV. It also accounts for nearly half of Bentley’s roughly 11,000 global unit sales annually making it the fastest-selling model in the company’s history. This latest version is expected to cost about $170,000.

Last week, Bentley marked another important turning point: The last Bentley Mulsanne left the company’s assembly line in Crewe, England. At over 18 feet long and with prices starting at over $300,000, the Mulsanne was the company’s largest and most expensive automobile. Its demise was a result of shifting market tastes, Bentley CEO Adrian Hallmark said in an interview with CNN Business.

“It’s absolutely symbolic of the degree of change that we and our competitors will be going through over the next one to 10 years,” Hallmark said. “And this is a perfect example of a segment that just disappeared.”

The 2021 Bentley Bentayga has a more muscular appearance than before.

Bentley sold only about 550 Mulsannes last year, he said. The company made nearly triple that number 20 years ago of its predecessor, the Arnage. Given that, the idea of investing nearly $1 billion in the development of a successor seemed a poor investment.

“There’s a lot of cars sold at that price or more, but the number of people wanting a big ‘statement sedan’ has reduced massively,” Hallmark said. “And it’s a generational thing. There’s not so many younger buyers looking for that kind of product.”

Meanwhile, he said, the market for somewhat smaller vehicles, relatively speaking, in the roughly $200,000 price range of the Bentayga and Bentley’s Flying Spur sedan has increased four-fold over the past two decades, he said. That is where the company’s investments have gone.

The race to the SUV

Five years ago, Bentley was the first ultra-luxury automaker to come out with an SUV and nearly all of its competitors have followed. Bentley’s former sister company, and now competitor, Rolls-Royce now offers the Cullinan, which sells for over $300,000. Lamborghini, which like Bentley is part of the Volkswagen Group, has the Urus. Even Ferrari is working on something with the practical attributes of an SUV (although Ferrari won’t call it that).

Bentley occupies a unique spot in the auto industry. Its cars and SUVs are daily drivers for the very wealthy. Unlike a Lamborghini, for instance, a Bentley is not kept in a garage to be brought out only on special occasions or to show off for friends and neighbors. Bentleys, even the two-door Continental models, are comfortable and practical enough to be used as primary transportation for those who can afford them.

They are also, paradoxically, very fast. The company claims both the world’s fastest four-sedan in the Flying Spur, and the world’s fastest SUV in the Bentayga. The Flying Spur, which is longer than a Mercedes-Benz S-class, can go 207 miles an hour and the Bentayga Speed manages 190.

Neither looks fast. There are no wings or air scoops. They are not shaped like wedges or teardrops They have big shiny grills, hood ornaments and headlights that look like Waterford crystal bowls. Seeing one of these vehicles drive triple-digit speeds would be like watching Usain Bolt run the 200 meters in a Savile Row suit.

The new Bentley Flying Spur is now the brand's flagship car.

Flying Spur, the new flagship

The newest version of the Flying Spur is more striking in appearance than its predecessor. That’s fitting as it now takes over from the Mulsanne as the brand’s flagship model. It looks stately with a big grill topped with the company’s winged B logo that, to protect itself from theft, drops down out of sight when the car is locked.

The powerful 12-cylinder engine provides shocking acceleration with fairly minimal fuss and the Flying Spur corners far better than you would expect of something its size and weight. On a recent drive, only the 8-speed automatic transmission seemed to stumble when demands changed abruptly from hard acceleration to comfortable cruising.

The Bentayga SUV unveiled on Tuesday has not been completely redesigned, but it does look very different, sleeker and sharper. It will be introduced initially with a V8 engine, but the 12-cylinder Speed version and a plug-in hybrid will be available soon. Given the healthy appetite for the vehicle, Hallmark foresees other derivatives coming, as well. That could mean SUVs will comprise an even higher portion of Bentley sales.

The new Bentayga is just coming out as Bentley salvages what was supposed to have been a record-setting year for the brand. The Covid-19 pandemic, which caused Bentley’s factory to shut down for seven weeks, is largely to blame. It also sent the world into an economic tailspin that even the likes of Bentley couldn’t entirely escape.

Bentley took in over €2 billion, or $2.25 billion, for its parent company, the Volkswagen Group, last year compared to €1.5 billion, or $1.7 billion, in 2018. This year was supposed to be even better but that is in doubt.

“Anybody that thinks that luxury buyers are unaffected by economic downturns has not read history,” said Hallmark. “They may still be able to afford luxury products during the downturn but they tend to just switch off.”

The company had about 8,000 orders for the new vehicles going into the pandemic and has lost about 250 to 300 of those, he said. But sales are coming back.

“China has come back with a bullet,” Hallmark said. “The US market is being incredibly strong for us.”

Still, Bentley announced last month that it was cutting 1,000 jobs, or about a quarter of the workforce, from its facilities in Crewe. Improved efficiency had made that possible and the cuts had been planned to take place over the next couple of years, Hallmark said. The pandemic accelerated things, though, so the job cuts are being made now.

With a fresh product lineup and markets such as China and Europe coming back, Hallmark is optimistic. Europe is only just starting to reopen but, in China, Bentley took over 600 orders each month in April and in May, where an average month is less than half that, Hallmark said. Some of that is no doubt due to pent up demand, he said, but it shows promise for the future. In the short term, the question remains whether the strong upturn in sales will continue and if there will be more waves of Covid-19 around the world.

Then there’s the question of Britain’s exit from the European Union due to happen, one way or another, by end of this year. A “hard Brexit,” without some sort of a deal to maintain easy trade between Great Britain and the rest of Europe, would hit the company in terms of both production costs and demand, Hallmark said.

“After Covid, this would be a double whammy but operationally, we’ve already planned for it,” he said. The company has already prepared warehouses, for instance, to store parts in the event of trade disruptions, he said.

He credits the company’s product lineup with, in spite of it all, allowing the the company to deliver expected record sales in the next couple of years.

“We are now full portfolio, every market active, and even with this crisis we’re in, we’re in pretty good shape, so we should suffer less than if we had an old product range and we weren’t as fresh in the market as we currently are,” he said.