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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.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010

(continued from page 2)

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.

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