The troubles facing luxury carmakers might seem relatively insignificant in the collective madness of a global pandemic, but 2020 really should have been Bentley's year. With the revised Bentayga joining the new Flying Spur and still-fresh Conti GT the stars were in alignment for the company to reach its highest sales ever. But then COVID struck, the Crewe factory had to shut down and Bentley was soon in the midst of a substantial restructuring that saw the departure of nearly a quarter of its workforce.
Yet once socially distanced production restarted - the six-foot width of a Bentayga or Continental helping ensuring compliance - Bentley soon realised that demand wasn't just returning, it was increasing.
"The order intake bounced right back to where it was before - and bear in mind we were set up for a record year," company CEO Adrian Hallmark says, "then in some places it actually increased. China was double for a while, now it's about 20 percent above normal. The U.S. had a similar initial effect, now it's settled about 15 percent where it was prior to the crash."
Lockdown gave the company's affluent customers plenty of time to plot their next purchases, but the enhanced risks also seem to have persuaded a substantial number of buyers to upgrade their plans - you only live once and all that. Hallmark says that dealers have reported increased interest from people who have decided to stretch a bit further to buy a Bentley; Lamborghini has noted the same thing with would-be Cayenne buyers switching to the Urus.
Not that Bentley is planning for a future based exclusively on its existing model range and big engines. Hallmark is an evangelist for electrification, reckoning that life with both a Bentayga PHEV and Porsche Taycan has turned him from a skeptic to a believer. The company is set for a big announcement of its future direction next month; be surprised if that doesn't include confirmation of its first full EV.
But before that he is happy to discuss both electrification and what he reckons will be the key role that PHEVs will play, potentially even beyond the bans that various governments are proposing on the sale of new combustion engined vehicles. For a senior industry executive he's refreshingly candid about the problems of a sudden shift to EVs on an arbitrary date:
"The technology we've got at the moment is not currently sustainable. Not when you're talking about a billion cars on the road with lithium-ion batteries that weigh 10 times the weight of an engine, spontaneously combust if punctured and need such careful recycling that they will be an environmental and industrial challenge beyond anything that anyone has yet imagined."
Which is a neat summary of the issues that both politicians and even some other car industry bigwigs seem happy to ignore. Obviously Bentley has a corporate agenda here, larger and more powerful vehicles are less well suited to electrification than smaller and lighter ones. "You need 120kWh to 140kWh batteries to drive a Range Rover or a Bentayga to give you parity with the current engines," he says, "you could say 'use smaller batteries and give it a 150 mile range' but then I think you wouldn't be taken seriously - you'd pay a lot of money for a vehicle that could go less far."
Hallmark says that both he and Bentley are committed to full electrification - "I can't get there fast enough" - and reckons that 120kWh plus batteries with manageable weight will be arriving by the middle of the decade. He already has plenty of experience of pushing ions, having been JLR's Strategy Director during the development of the iPace. But he thinks plans to ban PHEVs at the same time as straight combustion cars are both misguided and likely to create unintended consequences.
"We think that whenever the ban on ICE engines takes place there should be an overlap before PHEVs are banned," he says, "a PHEV is a great bridging solution. By the time you get to the stage where the infrastructure is big enough and you can do more charging you could have a 50-60 mile range PHEV that people can drive five days a week without the engine, maybe six or seven days - but still know they can do longer journeys without worrying about range or chargers."
Hallmark also reckons that the latest emissions standards mean it will be possible to effectively geofence and 'police' electric only operation. While the Euro 6d-IDC-FCM might not sound hugely significant, the fact that suffix stands for 'In Service Conformity Fuel Consumption Monitoring' is a crucial difference - the requirement for cars to record (and ultimately be able to report) on their actual fuel consumption and energy usage. This information is going to be anonymised according to the original standard, but Hallmark says it will make it possible to both work out how electric a PHEV is - potentially rewarding or punishing an owner accordingly - and also to 'geofence' operation - "so you could stop it from driving in congested zones if it's not in electric mode."
The issue, as Hallmark admits, is that many buyers of early PHEVs were only doing so to get incentives and rarely charged them. Don't be surprised if we start seeing cars trying to sneak into cloud-policed emissions zones wearing the equivalent of tin-foil hats in the next few years.
One big problem is that politicians are increasingly saying anything short of an EV is bad. Something Hallmark says risks creating a perverse incentive for those car owners who can't afford to make a straight switch to an EV not to choose lower emitting models.
"I think [politicians] like to make these simple statements because it's easy for people to understand," he says, "but what we're trying to explain to them is that you're demonising Euro 6 and PHEVs, which we've already put billions into. These are your regulations which we've now met and you're confusing customers and leaving them without a clue of what to buy. Intelligent people are saying 'I think diesel is the right solution, but I can't buy a diesel can I?' when it will be cleaner than a petrol car was three years ago."
"Imagine it's five years before the ban - people will be asking what should I do? 'Petrol is evil, diesel is evil, hybrids are evil, but I can't live with a BEV. Tell you what, I'm going to hang onto this one.' So one realistic scenario is that you end up with an older fleet for longer... if by the day before the ban half the fleet were PHEVs, and they were running in electric mode half the time, you'd have reduced CO2 by 25 percent already."
Hallmark acknowledges that the issue of basic get-around transportation is unlikely to effect too many Bentley owners, the vast majority of who have access to multiple vehicles. But it's reassuring that the man running the company is taking a keen interest in the wider automotive world, and is more willing to speak out than some of the strangely docile bosses of larger outfits with more at stake.
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