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The British are Coming

English automakers created the standard for high-line vehicles. Now after wrestling turbulent economies, they introduce some of their best and most competitive cars.

California’s Highway One is a meandering ribbon of tarmac that follows the state’s serpentine coastline from Mexico to the Oregon border. It’s a scenic route, but can also be a treacherous one, especially along the Central Coast, as it weaves through the high palisades of Big Sur. It’s a perfect place for a low-slung sports car, but this particular afternoon, we’re heading north to the Monterey Peninsula behind the wheel of a new Rolls-Royce Ghost.
Perhaps the most well-recognized marque in the automotive world, the very name Rolls is likely to bring to mind a lumbering mass of metal, a liveried chauffeur up front and a distracted matron in the rear. But the nimble new Ghost challenges such assumptions. Decidedly smaller and more subtle than the brand’s classic saloon cars—such as the ostentatious Phantom—it is surprisingly lithe and sure-footed as we charge through the tightest corners at well above the posted speed limit.
If the new Ghost lends a sporty air to the brand’s staid persona, that’s precisely what the planners at Rolls-Royce had in mind. The new sedan is expected to double, perhaps even triple, the British marque’s sales in the coming years by appealing to a younger, hipper, but still quite affluent buyer.
And though Rolls executives tend to downplay the comparison, the Ghost takes aim at another exclusive U.K. nameplate: Bentley, whose Continental models—a sleek mix of sedans, coupes and convertibles—have, over the past decade, become the best-selling entries ever in the ultra-premium luxury car market.
For nearly three-quarters of a century, the two carmakers operated as one. The struggling Bentley was acquired by its more successful rival in 1931 and, in the decades that followed, little difference, beyond their hood ornaments, separated the brands. But as the second millennium drew to a close, the Rolls-Royce Motor Co., aware that it didn’t have the resources to retain its position at the pinnacle of automotive excellence, put itself on the auction block. An unexpected turn of events—documented in Cigar Aficionado [April 1999 issue]—split the two divisions, and Rolls wound up in the hands of German luxury maker BMW, while Bentley became one of a growing corral of luxury franchises acquired by the aspiring Volkswagen AG.
In the dozen years since, they have been cordial but nevertheless aggressive rivals. And if Rolls is taking aim at the low end of its former partner’s lineup, Bentley is striking out at the prestigious pinnacle of the Rolls brand with its all-new Mulsanne.
The massive machine is decidedly more modern than the outgoing Arnage, and is being positioned as a sporty alternative to Rolls’s big Phantom. But it is nonetheless aimed at the exospheric elite, with a forest full of wood trim and a pasture’s worth of leather. Simply sewing all that cowhide together, the maker boasts, takes Bentley craftsmen nearly three weeks.
The challenge that both manufacturers face is that the global luxury market is in the doldrums. While there are still plenty of potential customers with ready cash in hand, “they’re not necessarily willing to flaunt that wealth when they may be closing plants and cutting jobs,” concedes Ian Robertson, the BMW marketing executive who oversees Rolls-Royce.
The good news is that both of the high-line marques now have the luxury of waiting out the recession without fear of economic disaster, as might have been the case when they lacked substantial backing.
Financial problems have taken a heavy toll on the once-mighty British auto industry, as a whole, over the last few decades. Some of the best-known brands—Triumph and MG—have vanished from the market. With rare exception, the survivors have sought shelter in the arms—and treasuries—of erstwhile foreign rivals. In a surprising twist, two British brands, Jaguar and Land Rover, are now the prized possessions of Indian automaker, Tata.
Yet, as with Rolls-Royce and Bentley, the British makers who’ve survived are now turning out some of the best and most competitive products in their history. Here’s a look at what they’re up to.
Rolls-Royce: Taking Aim at the Affluent Mainstream
Though the big Phantom and its spin-offs, such as the Drophead Coupe, are the flagships of the Rolls-Royce fleet, the new Ghost is expected to become the best-selling model in the brand’s history.
Named for the legendary 1906 Silver Ghost, it’s a decidedly different animal than the in-your-face Phantom, with which it shares an assembly plant in Goodwood, a couple hours’ drive from London. Yes, there’s still the classic “Spirit of Ecstasy” hood ornament above the waterfall grille, but Ghost is a more subtle sedan—if one can use that term to describe a $250,000 automobile.
As always, some owners will likely prefer to have a chauffeur handle driving duties, but with Ghost, Rolls hopes to appeal to a more involved, if still top-tier, buyer. Words like driving dynamics and performance come into play, concepts that the saloon car can readily deliver with its 563 horsepower 6.2-liter V8.
As well as the requisite wood and leather, Ghost offers modern luxury touches. There’s a big navigation screen in the center console, and twin video monitors for rear-seat passengers. You can even plug in an iPhone or use the Bluetooth system for hands-free calling. And borrowing from parent BMW, the new car features the latest in safety systems, including active cruise control and radar technology that can warn a driver of an impending collision.
Unveiled in 2009, in concept form, as the 200EX, the new sedan will be just one of several body styles to boast the Ghost badge, Rolls officials confirm. Although specific plans are still under wraps, expect to see a convertible—or drophead, in British parlance—among other variants.
While Rolls CEO Torsten Mueller insists the brand is now making money, the Ghost will be a critical part of its business case, going forward. After a slow and agonizing start, the maker is selling about 1,000 Phantom variants annually. Even if the Ghost triples that output, as the maker predicts, that’s barely a single day’s production for a mainstream assembly plant. But for this BMW subsidiary, it could provide a very handsome profit, indeed, says Mueller.
Bentley: Reaching Up
After its acquisition by Rolls in 1931, Bentley became an automotive afterthought. By the early 1980s, the brand accounted for barely 5 percent of total Rolls-Royce Motor Co. volume. Then came the introduction of performance-oriented Bentley models, such as the lightning-quick Turbo R, and suddenly the equation turned upside down.
Following its 1998 acquisition by Volkswagen, Bentley put even more of an emphasis on performance with the launch of the sleek Continental line. Models like the GT coupe and new Supersport that can deliver an unexpected blend of muscle and elegance had Bentley sales surging to more than 10,000 cars a year before the global economic meltdown.
With sales now running barely a third of their peak, Bentley is struggling, and an updated version of the Continental line is under development. Meanwhile, like its luxury rivals, the marque is facing some stiff challenges, in the years ahead, as new emissions and mileage standards go into effect in key markets like Europe and the U.S., so it is preparing to unveil new, more efficient powertrain technologies for the new Continental line.
Even the big Mulsanne will be able to run on the renewable E85 bio-fuel. With the saloon car replacing the decades-old Arnage, Bentley is betting it will let it compete with the best in the world—a less-than subtle reference to former partner Rolls-Royce.
As you’d expect, this is a very large car, and it’s lavished with leather and wood—in an interesting touch, the veneer wraps around the entire passenger compartment. But then there’s the powertrain. Mulsanne’s 6.75-liter V8 delivers the sort of muscle the brand has been known for since the days when W.O. and the Bentley Boys dominated the Le Mans endurance racing circuit. The car produces 505 horsepower and 752 pound-feet of tire-spinning torque. The Mulsanne can be driven as deliberately as any luxury limousine, but switching to sport mode and flogging the throttle will sink you deep into its plush upholstered seats.
Intriguingly, Bentley has priced Mulsanne at $280,000, well below the Rolls-Royce Phantom and only a wee bit more than the smaller Rolls Ghost. The two makers insist they appeal to very different sorts of buyers, but spend some time around the ultra-affluent and the argument sounds less persuasive. Will they be poaching off one another with their new offerings?
Jaguar and Land Rover: The Empire Strikes Back
Perhaps no automotive manufacturer has had so lengthy a roller-coaster ride as Jaguar. The British marque was repeatedly left for dead during its first three-quarters of a century. But, as we reported in the August 2008 issue, this cat clearly has nine lives. Jaguar’s seeming salvation came in 1989 with its $2.5 billion sale to Ford Motor Co. But despite the billions Ford invested over the years, success continued to elude it.
As for Land Rover, the SUV maker had come perilously close to running off the road when the British Rover Group, collapsed despite the largesse of parent BMW. But Ford snapped up the Land Rover operations, as well, merging them into its newly-created Premier Automotive Group, along with Jaguar, Aston Martin and Volvo.
A decade later, when it was clear that the PAG would never come close to yielding its promised profits, the new Ford CEO Alan Mulaly announced his One Ford strategy, beginning the piece-by-piece sell-off of the European-based luxury subsidiary. The surprise came when Jag and Land Rover, which had effectively consolidated into a single business unit, were sold to the increasingly ambitious Indian automaker, Tata Motors—a company better known for its $2,500 Nana microcar.
Though still early, insiders seem pleased with the new parent, and Tata is betting its future on nurturing its new high-line subsidiaries. Ironically, Jaguar’s and Land Rover’s near-term success will almost certainly depend on the launch of the final products each developed while still a part of Ford.
For Jaguar, that’s the all-new XJ sedan. The brand’s long-time flagship has undergone the most dramatic remake in decades. “It’s the face of the brand,” proclaims Gary Temple, CEO Jaguar Land Rover North America. The sweeping coupe-like design calls attention to what is a very sophisticated bit of engineering. Under the paint, Jaguar has crafted a lightweight, all-aluminum package that has somehow achieved seemingly polar opposite goals. It is refined and comfortable, yet swift and sporty. It’s offered in a variety of versions, all the way up to the newest addition for 2011, the 510-horsepower XJ Supersport.
While Jaguar’s goal was to regain its reputation for striking, if timeless beauty, Land Rover is trying a different strategy with the upcoming Evoque. “This is the smallest, lightest, most fuel-efficient addition to the Land Rover lineup ever,” contends managing director Phil Popham. Originally shown in concept form as the LRX, the new model is the Brit marque’s first car-based crossover-utility vehicle, or CUV. The move is critical considering tightening fuel consumption and emissions standards—yet Land Rover insists Evoque will still offer some enviable off-road capabilities. Initially, it will be produced in four-wheel-drive configuration, with a front-drive model to follow. But in keeping with the times, look for a battery-based hybrid to follow around 2013.
Mini: Going to the Max
The Mini launched in 1959, as the British Motor Co.’s response to the fuel shortage created by the Suez Canal crisis of a few years earlier. The design penned by Sir Alec Issigonis proved to the Brits that small could be beautiful. Americans took another four decades to catch on.
Like Triumph and Humber, Mini might have landed on the junk heap had it not been for the former BMW Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder—coincidentally a nephew of Issigonis. The avowed Anglophile acquired an array of foundering U.K. marques, though BMW was eventually forced to sell off all but Rolls-Royce and Mini.
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