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driving it home

The Bentley EXP 9 F concept car.VALENTIN FLAURAUD/Reuters

Crowds 10-deep and more surrounded Bentley's SUV concept here at the Geneva Motor Show, and they were not gasping with admiration.

On the contrary: they were staring at the Bentley all-wheel-drive EXP 9 F prototype as if witnesses to a massive, horrific car wreck. Which is exactly what the EXP 9 F is.

The murmuring in the press gallery – admittedly, a rather cynical and oftentimes negative lot – boiled down to this: Bentley, one of the Volkswagen Group's most luxurious brands, has managed to produce the most appallingly tasteless vehicle at this year's show. Très, très gauche, as they say here in largely French-speaking Switzerland.

Perhaps this is a vehicle the one-percenters such as U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney will want to own and drive. Although, being Mitt, he might change his mind once he gets a good look at it. And then flip-flop, if his NASCAR-owning friends decide to lay money on the production version of the EXP 9 F.

Of course, if you like NASCAR, you like watching car wrecks, so perhaps this is a fitting ride to the Daytona 500 for Mitt's friends. In any case, being fabulously rich is no guarantee of good taste.

The thing is, right now Bentley builds some of the loveliest cars on the road, other than the monstrous new Mulsanne, which appears to be the sedan version of this latest concept. That said, give me a Continental GT for the weekend and I'm all in. Fantastic to look at and utterly capable on the highway, or even certain race tracks.

What's shocking is that Bentley says this SUV concept may become a third model line and production could start in three years, with a hybrid variant under review.

Automotive News Europe is reporting that Bentley forecasts sales of 25,000 units during the model's lifecycle, according to CEO Wolfgang Duerheimer, formerly the head of development at Volkswagen's sporting brand, Porsche.

"If we decide to build this vehicle, we want to give it our first ever plug-in hybrid powertrain," Mr. Duerheimer told Automotive News.

Demand, we are led to believe, would come from growth markets such as China and the Middle East. If Bentley does proceed with production, we can expect Bentley's SUV to be profitable. That's because it would share its underpinnings with the Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7 SUVs. Apparently, Bentley is tired of losing customers to its sister brands within the VW Group.

"We know that Bentley customers already own SUVs. With the EXP 9 F, Bentley is making a clear statement of intent that we have both the expertise and desire to meet and exceed their expectations," Mr. Duerheimer said in a statement. "The cornerstone of our strategy is the broadening of our product portfolio with an SUV."

I've read various press reports that suggest the 23-inch alloy wheels hark back to the 1920 Bentley Le Mans racing cars. Really? That sounds like something cribbed from a press release, and in no way does justice to the beautiful Bentleys of the 1920s.

What might is the fact that the EXP 9 F's tailgate clamshells open to reveal a picnic bench complete with a pair of hampers sliding out on rails, and an awning above to shield tailgaters from sun and rain.

Forbes just released its latest list of billionaires, and there are more than 1,226 super-rich people on it, with a combined wealth of US$4.6 trillion. I'd love to be on that list, but I'm not smart enough, lucky enough or devious enough to get there – and for the record, much as I'd like to be a billionaire, you could not pay me a billion dollars to be seen in this car.

Although please, if you're one of the 1,226, give me a call. I might consider eating my words.

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