NEW YORK -- Bentley, a seemingly unstoppable luxury brand just three years ago, thinks it has finally found the bottom of a recession that has wracked the superluxury segment.
Bentley expects global sales to improve to about 5,000 cars this year -- half of what they were in 2007, said Franz-Josef Paefgen, CEO of Bentley Motors Ltd.
Bentley "will come back to a successful phase -- whether it is 8,000 or 9,000 cars," Paefgen said at the New York auto show last month.
He said Bentley sales are improving because luxury buyers are starting to spend -- cautiously -- in the United States and Europe. Emerging markets also are helping.
"China is exploding," Paefgen said. "It is a big market and has the biggest growth. The Middle East is pretty stable. America has been on the difficult side."
Three years ago, Bentleys were hot because of the appeal of the Continental range, which includes a coupe, sedan and convertible. The cars were priced to compete with the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Maserati models.
Bentley sales peaked in 2007 when the brand sold 10,014 cars worldwide, including 3,990 cars in the United States. Last year, Bentley sold 1,367 cars in the United States, down 49 percent from 2008.
The superluxury segment, which also includes Maybach and Rolls-Royce, was battered last year by the economic downturn -- U.S. sales were down 46 percent to 1,759 units compared with 2008.
Bentley lost $262 million last year compared with a profit of $13.5 million in 2008.
Today the brand isn't helped by an aging lineup.
Even if the luxury market recovers faster than forecast, Bentley's growth will be stifled because of the run-out of the aging Continental GT coupe -- the first vehicle produced under ownership by Volkswagen Group. Bentley stopped producing the GT last September; the second-generation Continental GT won't go on sale in the United States until the middle of next year.