Bentley, Once An Exclusive Car, Trying To Become 'Mainstream'

Bentley is selling 20 times as many cars as when it was acquired by Volkswagen in 1998. Having the the marketing power of a global brand behind it has helped Bentley. So has a shift in the car's reputation. The Bentley has gone from the stodgy afterthought to Rolls Royce to a desired ride for young athletes and celebrities.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

There's a beautiful contradiction about the Los Angeles Auto Show, which wraps up today. Because it's California, it's a showcase for green technology. But because it's L.A., it's also a showcase for gas-guzzling luxury cars. This year's show marks a decade of turnaround for Bentley, the ultra high-end luxury car maker. Bentley has gone from a stodgy afterthought in the shadow of Rolls Royce to the car of choice for young athletes and celebrities, with a double-digit sales growth year after year. NPR's Sonari Glinton got behind the wheel of one to find out why.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: At the Los Angeles auto show, I met up with Kevin Rose of Bentley. He's a board member for Bentley. The company has been a subsidiary of Volkswagen for about 15 years. And they kind of have funny titles in Germany, so I asked Rose to explain his job.

KEVIN ROSE: It means I'm responsible for sales and marketing worldwide for Bentley.

GLINTON: Worldwide, the entire world.

ROSE: The world. We're not very successful on other planets but would include them if we were.

GLINTON: OK. So we're going to go to find a car.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're going to get in a car, so we're going to go out and...

ROSE: Right. Oh, that's a nice idea, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...and Sonari wants to drive.

GLINTON: Yes, I do want to drive.

ROSE: OK. That's cool.

GLINTON: As we walk to the car, let's take a detour to talk to Karl Brauer with Kelley Blue Book. He says for decades, Bentley was so exclusive that they became obscure. He says they'd been building the same car for years.

KARL BRAUER: It took a fairly rare individual to recognize and appreciate a Bentley, and it took an even rarer person to want to and take the money to go buy a Bentley. Now, it's become this mainstream brand that a lot of people are aware of and a lot of people aspire to own.

GLINTON: Bentley is doing more than 20 times the sales that they were doing in 1998 when Volkswagen took it over. Essentially, they've got three models priced from 200 grand to about 450 grand. Brauer says having a luxury brand adds luster to big car companies, and Bentley's growth is testament to the power of a giant car company like Volkswagen.

BRAUER: And this is a big monster car company that could put big monster resources into making big monster luxury vehicles with big monster wheels and big monster grills.

GLINTON: OK, back to the tour with Kevin Rose. He shows me the new Flying Spur.

ROSE: It's about 200,000 dollars, I think, in...

GLINTON: Whoa.

ROSE: Yeah. Should be a bit more expensive, right?

GLINTON: OK. I want to get inside to see what $250,000 feels like.

ROSE: It's going to feel nice. So let me show you one thing. Open the door again. And just close it very gently till - just till it's starting to close, and then it will do the rest for you. Yup, there you go.

GLINTON: Now, that's a detail. Why do I need that detail? What does that do?

ROSE: You don't need any of it, but you love it. There's a lot of things in there that, you know, functionally, yeah, your life wouldn't change if you didn't have them, but you enjoy having them.

GLINTON: We drove very slowly around downtown Los Angeles. This is one of the company's most important markets. Twenty-seven percent of their sales are done here.

ROSE: And we're competing for customers who actually could buy pretty much anything they wanted. It might be a boat, it might be a house, it might be a piece of jewelry, a watch, whatever. So we've got a much broader competitive base than simply another car.

GLINTON: Can't say the car is zippy. It weighs almost 6,000 pounds.

ROSE: And what you should do, if it doesn't risk your license or anything, is when we get onto a nice bit, just put your foot right down and see what happens.

GLINTON: And after flooring it for about a block, our drive came to an end.

ROSE: So if you press the...

GLINTON: Oh, I've got to press the button down.

ROSE: That's the - that's it.

GLINTON: Thank you so much. That was great.

ROSE: No, thank you. That was good fun.

GLINTON: I don't know what more to say.

(LAUGHTER)

GLINTON: It was - oh, my goodness. Sonari Glinton, NPR News. That's what I'll say.

ROSE: Very slow. And we just press this too.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CHIME)

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