How does a luxury carmaker steeped in tradition respond to rapidly changing conditions? Torque speaks to Nico Kuhlmann, Regional Director of Asia Pacific for Bentley Motors, to find out.
It would be a massive understatement to call current conditions “difficult”. An invisible enemy has upended the world and everything we thought we knew.
As they say, when this is over, nothing will ever be the same.
Seemingly unscathed, on the other hand, are firms like luxury carmakers. Supercar manufacturer Lamborghini says 2020 was one of its best years. That same year, Bentley had the highest sales in its 101-year history.
Nico Kuhlmann, Regional Director of Asia Pacific for Bentley Motors, provides us with insights. He talks to Torque about how this segment remains buoyant and what attracts customers to Bentley.
Nico also discusses the new Flying Spur flagship, and tells us how the brand is responding to customers’ demands for sustainability.
Why do you think the luxury segment remains resilient – apart from the fact that the customers are largely unaffected by economic conditions?
To some, the luxury segment embodies the life goals that they have worked hard to reward themselves with. It is difficult to put a value on that, no matter the current economic climate.
Customers see added value in owning something that has a high degree of quality, timelessness and sustainability.
For example, over 80% of Bentleys ever built are still on the road, and will continue to be relevant in the years to come. This is what the luxury segment can offer due to the handcrafted and bespoke nature of its offerings.
With the pandemic, customers may have also valued their cars even more, because of the personal freedom they enjoy in driving on the open road, and the mindset of enjoying the present.
Pandemic aside, what are the biggest challenges facing Bentley in the region?
Asia Pacific is a very heterogeneous region, with lots of diverse and market-specific opportunities as well as challenges!
Some markets and customers in our region also leapfrog, particularly in terms of product expectations, which is something we will have to manage.
With our Beyond100 strategy, electrification is a core focus for us and we are intensifying our efforts to build the network and team to accommodate the needs and desires of our customers in the future, such as through a first-rate charging network in the region.
Towards this, we are already collaborating closely with our sister brands, particularly Audi, on both a global and regional level to synergise on electrification topics.
We are also currently experiencing one of the highest levels of interest from customers and record levels of sales at Bentley.
Globally, demand by far exceeds our current production capacities. However, we all are jointly looking into being able to satisfy our customers’ needs as early as possible.
Are your clients looking forward to an electric or electrified Bentley? Why or why not?
Our global customers are making more and more conscious decisions with regards to sustainability and environmental impact. We are always looking for ways to accommodate requests, such as looking at alternative power trains or sustainable interiors like vegan leathers.
We are committed to having a fully electric line-up by 2030, and we are aiming to introduce the first-ever fully electric Bentley in 2025.
The hybrid electric vehicles at Bentley are our first step towards that promise with more exciting developments in the future, starting with the Bentayga Hybrid and with the upcoming Flying Spur Hybrid.
The Flying Spur is currently Bentley’s flagship model. Will it remain so moving forward, or will there be another successor to the Mulsanne?
We see multiple opportunities for the business to grow further, and while a luxury sedan is no longer in our plans in the E-segment, we are working on other exciting ideas for the future.
Why do Bentley clients usually opt for a Flying Spur V8 instead of a W12-powered one?
Engine choice is a very personal and subjective one for our customers.
The V8 is a renowned and highly successful powertrain. Being 100kg lighter than the W12, the Flying Spur V8 is more agile and has a unique exhaust burble that you will only find in a V8.
Customers that have been with the brand for some time tend to go with the much-loved W12, whereas for newer members of the Bentley family, a lighter engine is usually the way forward, which helps with a lower fuel consumption.
Are Flying Spur V8 owners more likely to drive themselves or be chauffeured?
Through Bentley’s global research done in the last ten years (including two customer clinics in America and China), we have observed a significant shift in the usage of the Flying Spur.
While our customers were predominantly chauffeur-driven in the past, they now enjoy getting behind the wheel of their Flying Spur, as well as being driven in their car depending on the occasion of the day.
If there was one option you absolutely had to have in a Flying Spur V8, what would it be?
The Bentley Rotating Display is a very special feature which reflects the very best of design, craftsmanship and technology at Bentley and it is probably my favourite.
It involves 40 different moving parts and took more than three years to develop from the initial concept.
Apart from paint colours, what component is the most customised?
Interior hide and veneer combinations are the most customised element in our cars.
We offer over 14 main and secondary hides and multiple colour split options, as well as 18 veneer options, with choices spanning from high gloss carbon fibre to open-pore koa wood.
For a really special touch, our customers can customise the interior of their car with bespoke marquetry on the fascia panel. This is one of the world’s oldest art forms of setting imagery into our veneers, and is a rare find in the automotive world.
Which Bentley model – past or present – is your all-time favourite?
It is the Continental Supersports from 2009. This was the fastest and the most powerful production Bentley ever at the time of production and remains a very special car even till today.
You spent many years in Porsche prior to Bentley. What made you decide to move?
I’ve had a great run with Porsche, and it was there that I managed to deep dive into the sales and marketing operations around Asia-Pacific and Latin America.
When the opportunity at Bentley opened up, it was a natural progression for my career to lead the growth of another monumental brand under the Volkswagen Group and prepare its course for its second century.
How long have you been in Singapore?
In total I’ve lived in Singapore for more than 14 years now (with a short two-year break in between while I lived in Miami in the US).
I first moved here to take on the role of as a Regional Sales Manager with a German sports car manufacturer in 2004. Over the years, I’ve grown rather attached to Singapore and the Asia Pacific region has become my “home turf”!
Where is your favourite stretch of road here?
My favourite road here would be the ECP flyover leading into Marina Bay.
The views from left to right are spectacular especially during the late afternoon and evening hours, and it’s a great way to see the iconic attractions of Singapore like Gardens by the Bay, the ArtScience Museum with Marina Bay Sands and the Fullerton Hotel all at once.
This stretch of road is definitely my go-to if showing my friends and family from overseas around town.
Where is your favourite stretch of road overseas?
Apart from the German Autobahn (highway) where certain stretches are still without any speed limitations, my favourite road is the B500 route in the Black Forest in Germany, especially the stretch south of Baden-Baden.
There, you can drive on winding roads that take you through the forest, the hills and tranquil villages, and on a clear day you can see French Vosges mountain range and even the Swiss Alps!
It’s one of my favourite stretches to drive to unwind and enjoy, especially in cars with manual transmission.
What type of music do you listen to while driving?
While driving, electronic music (no EDM though!) is my first choice! However, depending on my mood, I also don’t mind switching to any other genre sometimes, be it classical, rock or even urban music – I have all of them in my Spotify playlists.
Apart from cars, music is definitively one of my greatest passions which I guess has been heavily been related to and influenced by the electronic music revolution in the 90s in Germany and Europe.
In my leisure time, I do enjoy DJing (not Zouk-style though), which allows me to mentally fully switch off from the busy times at work.