By midafternoon, the last rain clouds pass over the imposing semi-circular building complex that once was West Berlin’s Tempelhof airport. Half an hour later, the vast stretch of tarmac has dried up and the Bentley boys are ready to roll out the EXP 10 Speed 6, the star of the 2015 Geneva Motor Show. We’re about to go for a drive.
The Bentley EXP 10 was designed by Sang Yup Lee -- best known for the exterior of the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro -- under the direction of Luc Donckerwolke. They’ve managed to link the car visually to its Bentley brethren, even if there are some Aston Martin and Jaguar elements, too. We hear the next Continental GT will grow bigger, roomier, and more comfortable. The EXP 10 caters to a more adventurous crowd. First of all, it’s smaller -- closer in proportion to a Jaguar F-Type than the current Continental. It sits closer to the ground and is lower slung overall. It also dares a more aggressive front end and has lascivious rear fenders. Kudos to Lee for using sculpture rather than bling to convey a sporting message.
The Bentley concept was completed just in time for last year’s Paris Show, but at the 11th hour the bosses pulled the pin, claiming the car still needed styling tweaks and more attention to detail. We are not familiar with the scope of changes made, but we can assure you that the EXP 10 is now a fantastic-looking car that conveys the proper sense of occasion.
The swan-wing door swings up on a massive single hinge, inviting exploration of its lavish interior. There is not a single synthetic item in sight. The dominant material is leather, dyed saddle brown and contrasting dark green. Also laid out in abundance is polished metal, mostly chrome with copper accents. There’s plenty of wood, too, but instead of the traditional high-gloss timber, designers chose an open-pore cherry veneer for the double-decker dashboard. The door panels are milled from solid wood, with a diamond pattern mimicking the stitching of the seats. A tall but slim center console rises in Porsche Carrera GT fashion and houses a round mode selector, a gear lever, and a large touchscreen. Perhaps the most exotic detail is the main display, which consists of four analog gauges on the left and a digital screen on the right. The entire cluster rises from a horizontal sleeping position to an upright angle when the car is turned on. The interior is, in short, exquisite.
Kevin Baker, head of design modeling for Bentley and one of the babysitters on hand today, looks down at the tall man who has just folded himself into a surprisingly relaxed Z-position behind the wheel. “Now let me show you how to operate this valuable one-off.”
The ignition button, it turns out, is but a glistening dummy, as is the beautifully finished gear lever. The controls that kick the Bentley EXP 10 Speed 6 into action are housed in a small, leather-wrapped box hidden under the dashboard. First, flip the toggle switch to turn on the ignition. Next, stab a small black rubber button to fire up the engine. Wait a couple of seconds before selecting drive or reverse by pushing the appropriate lit symbol.
Although this concept is clearly not a production car, it’s also no fake. Rather than electric motors or hamsters, the Bentley EXP 10 Speed 6 gets power from a naturally aspirated 4.2-liter V-8, the same one we know and love from the Audi R8 and RS5. It breathes through a custom exhaust that no legal authority in the world would approve. Just above idle speed, the V-8 tattoos the concrete slabs of the old airfield with a wild and angry noise very much unlike that of a typical Bentley. With a subtle confirmation jolt, the seven-speed automatic, also sourced from an RS5, duly engages first gear. We’re off.
The steering, lifted from an R8, responds promptly and accurately, but the maximum permitted steering angle, half a turn, is only just enough to describe a grand arc from the departure to the arrivals terminal. The most irritating trait by far is a grinding noise emitted from the wheelhouses; there is virtually zero clearance between the 21-inch, tailor-made Pirelli slicks and the flared arches. We brought along provisional license plates, but clearly this hand-built green goddess shouldn’t be out and about in city traffic.
In the splendid isolation of a defunct airfield, however, it seems reasonably safe to speed up the action by a fraction. With Baker in the passenger seat, the EXP 10 takes off with enough momentum to eventually slip into second gear. I am, under supervision, allowed to dial in a bit more steering angle. And at the end of the hangar straight, the shiny copper calipers grab the discs (carbon-ceramic rotors courtesy of the R8) with a mix of pursed lips and sharp teeth. A production version, of course, wouldn’t be cobbled together from late-model Audi components. Instead, Bentley might look to another corporate cousin, Porsche, which is engineering a new turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8. Or perhaps Bentley could adopt a twin-turbo V-6 from the corporate parts bin, which would make for a closer tie to the Speed 6 of yore. We asked Bentley R&D chief Rolf Frech, formerly with Porsche, to discuss the possible engines. He did not answer the question, but his smile was so broad that anything other than a V-8 engine would be a big surprise.
Either engine could and likely would be combined with a powerful hybrid module, like the one Porsche is developing for the next Panamera. (The concept boasts two filler caps.) Combined gas-electric output is bound to be around 600 hp. According to a source from the Midlands, the unofficial goal for 0-60 mph acceleration is just under 4 seconds, and top speed aims to exceed 200 mph.
Many more Porsche bits will likely be under the skin. Bentley aspires to tap the new components set that Porsche is developing for the second-generation Panamera. The main advantages of this architecture are proportion -- it supports a mid-front engine layout -- and weight. The next Continental GT will also be based on this platform and will likely tip the scales at less than 4,000 pounds, so it’s reasonable to think the target for the smaller Speed 6 must be in the area of 3,850 to 4,000 pounds. That’s in the ballpark of an Aston Martin DB9 .
In its journey to production, we hear the Bentley EXP 10 Speed 6 will get a longer wheelbase to create more head- and legroom. It will also ditch its top-hinged opening rear window for a conventional trunklid. The wild front lights must be brought in line with global legal requirements, and the grille theme is not yet final either. If early criticism voiced by Volkswagen Group bigwigs is anything to go by, the crayon masters may also be urged to modify the rear side windows and the C-pillars.
All sounds like a good starting point. But to make an impact as a purebred driver’s car and to feel sufficiently different from a Continental, the EXP 10 also needs rear-wheel drive and a strong emphasis on vehicle dynamics. Bentley might look to its GT3 racing effort for guidance .
Frech seems to understand. “EXP 10 is our vision of a powerful yet luxurious two-seater sports car. This model would not only be about traditional brand values like design and quality. It would also have to be among the very best in terms of performance, handling, and road holding.”
In the course of the last year, we asked VW Group chief Martin Winterkorn, design director Walter de Silva, and Bentley chairman Wolfgang Durheimer to name their most-hoped-for addition to the Bentley portfolio. The unanimous answer was a V-8-engined Aston fighter.
Off the record, the bosses were happy to share more far-reaching thoughts. Their list of ideas linked to the EXP 10 included a roadster, a racing version, and a lightweight special. It could also spawn a larger Porsche GT.
But that’s all in the distant future. Figure production by 2019. In the here and now, we’re having a blast in the Bentley EXP 10 Speed 6 concept, putting colonies of corbies to flight with one step of the loud pedal and signing the tarmac with hand-carved Italian rubber at the words “go, go, go!” This exercise also makes it clear that some essential qualities are already in place. The visibility, for instance, is excellent, and the packaging suffices for two passengers. The low, supportive seat feels perfectly in line with Bentley’s dynamic ambitions.
The security people chase us off before sunset, but the smile on my face remains as bright as the Bentley’s LEDs until bedtime.
This project is an absolute no-brainer. The Bentley EXP 10 Speed 6 concept fuses brio and technology, looks and craftsmanship. In view of these assets, the projected production of 3,000 units per year may be a crass example of false modesty.
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