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After taking over from Franz-Josef Paefgen (r), Bentley's new CEO Woflgang Durheimer has pressed for the development of the marque's first SUV.

Big SUVs are so outré, or so the environmentalists would have you believe, and they may be right considering the continued migration of traditional truck-based SUVs to more efficient crossovers.  So what is a Bentley to do as it prepares to bring its first sport-utility vehicle to market?  How about putting a green spin on the new offering by driving it into Geneva’s PALExpo using a plug-in hybrid drivetrain.

Whether we’ll actually see Bentley deliver this battery-based powertrain to market anytime soon will be one of the big questions likely to dominate the maker’s news conference at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show, next week.

The unusual approach, first reported by Automotive News, would clearly put an environmentally friendly halo around a brand not typically associated with green machines.  That could be useful considering the as yet-unnamed Bentley SUV will be going up against a wave of new luxury utes coming from makers as diverse as Maserati and Lamborghini, never mind Porsche, which will add the downsized Macan to its current Cayenne line.

Bentley CEO Wolfgang Durheimer has been boasting about Bentley’s plans to get into the luxury ute segment since first published exclusive details about the program last August.  When Durheimer took over the maker last year, the project took priority over previous plans to develop a slightly down-market version of the popular Bentley Continental line.  But the crossover-based ute will use many of the basic Continental underpinnings, anyway.

The ute will give Bentley a third model range and could mean a significant expansion in demand for a brand that peaked at about 10,000 units annually just before the global economic crash.  According to reports, Bentley is looking for the SUV to generate from 3,500 to 5,000 additional sales annually.

Bentley has tried to salve the concerns of environmentalists by boosting the overall fuel economy of its line-up by at least 20% over the next several years.  It recently added a new V-8 to the Continental range that is downright fuel efficient – at least when compared to the classic Bentley V-12.  And its latest powertrains are dual-fuel capable, albeit few Bentley buyers – or drivers of any brand, for that matter – have been filling up on E-85 ethanol.

The maker has suggested it would consider a hybrid option – clearly tapping into the expertise of its parent, Volkswagen AG.  But the idea of going plug-in hybrid is particularly intriguing.

Specifics likely won’t be released until Geneva, so it’s not clear what the battery portion of the drivetrain will be mated to but it’s unlikely the maker would migrate to something smaller than a V-8, at least not if there’s serious production intent.

While skeptics might dismiss the idea of a Bentley plug-in as a pure PR stunt, Durheimer previously indicated battery power does offer some advantages to the brand.  Like the rest of the industry, Bentley has to deal with not only increasing mileage standards but limits being placed on the use of conventional, gas-powered automobiles.  London, for example, taxes vehicles entering the central city, while other cities are considering outright bans.

The British capital waves the fee for vehicles running on battery power, however, and places like Paris have suggested battery-powered vehicles would get a pass, as well.  So, for luxury buyers, being able to switch to electric propulsion would have a practical purpose – even if they weren’t worrying about the price of petrol.

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