GENEVA—Volkswagen AG is showcasing what could be the world’s most expensive sport-utility vehicle when its Bentley brand lifts the veil on a new concept car at the Geneva International Motor Show this week as part of the auto maker’s drive to expand the appeal of its super-luxury marque.
“We’re absolutely convinced of the [market] potential for a luxurious high-performance SUV,” Bentley Chief Executive Wolfgang Dürheimer said Monday.
Final approval for the SUV, currently called the EXP 9F, from Bentley’s German parent is still pending. But initial feedback from Volkswagen Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn has been encouraging, Mr. Dürheimer said. Annual sales volume is expected to be roughly between 3,500 and 5,000 vehicles.
The concept car features a large 12-cylinder engine, which delivers 610 horsepower, and a high-seating position similar to Tata Motors Co.’s TTM -2.49%luxury Range Rover brand, which would be one of the Bentley vehicle’s main potential rivals. The Bentley SUV would sell for a higher price than any other SUV currently available, Mr. Dürheimer said.
Demand for luxury SUVs is booming world-wide, defying concerns that rising fuel prices and environmental concerns would crimp demand in a lucrative segment for top manufacturers.
Mr. Dürheimer said that adding the SUV to the brand’s lineup would also help to balance Bentley’s financial performance as the product life cycles of its Continental and Mulsanne models largely overlap.
The car would be based on technology Volkswagen uses for other luxury SUVs such as the Audi Q7 and the Cayenne of VW affiliate Porsche Automobil Holding SE.
Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest auto manufacturer and the world’s No. 2 after General Motors Co., GM -2.74% bought Bentley in 1998 from Vickers PLC after a complex bidding war with BMWBMW.XE +0.33% AG. Bentley was spun off from Rolls-Royce Motors, with the Rolls-Royce automotive brand ending up part of BMW.
Mr. Dürheimer said earlier this year that Bentley swung back to a profit in 2011 after two years of losses, helped by a 37% year-over-year rise in sales to 7,003 vehicles. Bentley hasn’t disclosed detailed profit figures so far for 2011. In the January-to-September period last year, the brand narrowed its operating loss to €6 million ($8 million) from a loss of €145 million in the same period in 2010. Volkswagen is scheduled to release earnings for its individual brands on March 12.
Mr. Dürheimer reiterated that unit sales are expected to rise in the “solid, double-digit” percentage range this year over last and could come close to a new annual sales record for the brand.
His plan at Bentley mirrors Porsche’s strategy in recent years, where Mr. Dürheimer was in charge of research and development before joining Bentley. Porsche’s dynamic sales and earnings growth in recent years was driven by the launch of new derivatives of existing models and by adding the Cayenne SUV to its lineup. The Cayenne has been Porsche’s best-selling vehicle in recent years, despite initial criticism from sports-car aficionados that an SUV would dent the brand’s coveted image as a sports-car maker.