Luxury is out these days, so luxury carmakers have to find other ways to market their coolness. Bentley (owned by Volkswagen) has always been very good at this. It's latest effort? Sending a $300,000 convertible blasting across the frozen Baltic Sea at over 200 MPH.
It's called the ice speed record, and Bentley already owned it, after a sub-200 MPH attempt a few years back. But that nice, round number beckoned, so Bentley gave it another shot, with the same driver (Finnish rally racing champ Juha Kankkunen), but a different car: the Continental Supersports convertible.
And not just any convertible
The Continental Supersports wasn't even burning gas! It was running on biofuel. This is part of Bentley's overall strategy to preserve itself in the face of a resource-constrained world. It can't really convert its handcrafted ultra-luxe sleds to run on electricity. What the company is selling is the irresistible allure of very big engines (the Supersports convertible was rocking a 600-horsepower V12 and all-wheel-drive). And in order to preserve that, it's committed to a next-generation biofuels agenda.
I admire the sheer over-the-topness of the ice speed record. The old land speed record hasn't been a point of interest for people who are involved with real cars since the jet-engine era arrived in the 1960s. The current land speed record holder actually broke the sound barrier in 1997. But put a lightly modified production car in unusual circumstances and BINGO! That's some serious marketing. And it doesn't get much more unusual than driving 205 MPH over five kilometers of frozen seawater!
Is Bentley long for this world?
The big Bentley differentiator over the past decade was that it provided everything: luxury, refinement, and performance. Its cars simply refused to compromise. The company played up the combination of old-world craftsmanship (the cars are finished at Bentley's factory in Crewe, England) and very new-world supercar-esque capabilities. You couldn't get 0-60 in 4.3 seconds in greater comfort. Not on Planet Earth, anyway.
Overall, this is becoming a harder sell. Even the celebrities and rappers who have traditionally been drawn to Bentley are taking up the sustainability banner and shifting to hybrids and EVs. Luckily, Bentley still has the developing world, where a rising middle class is buying General Motors (GM) cars, but a rising ruling class is eyeballing the luxury/exotic brands. The big question is: Will it be enough?
Maybe 200 MPH on ice isn't really a good thing
In this sense, the ice speed record is a bit ominous. Bentley may finally be running out of ways to distinguish its unique Bentley-ness. As anyone who has driven 5 MPH on ice knows, 200 MPH is just ridonkulous. The Supersports Convertible should have been spinning like a top before it deployed its parachute.
So what's next? Bentley isn't in a position to downsize its offerings in any significant way (although its rival in luxury, BMW-owned Rolls-Royce, has done just that with a "small Rolls," the new Ghost). In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't want to. So apart from its fuel strategy, its best bet is probably to focus on making sure Bentley continues to own its niche. This will cause problems for the brand's growth, but for the time being, Bentley adds plenty of useful prestige to VW.
Almost everyone who pays close attention to the future of personal transportation envisions a day when Bentley will be completely unnecessary. I wouldn't count it out yet. But I'd also enjoy the insane luxury and performance while it lasts.