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Coming: a Bentley that feels like a Rolls - until you hit the gas

It is a rolling oxymoron. A high-performance Rolls-Royce, or more precisely, a Bentley muscle car. It is what one Rolls executive describes with a straight face as ``our entry-level line.''

The new Turbo R delivers the luxurious appointments one would expect of a $145,000 car - the handcrafted detailing, the kid glove leather seats, and smoothness of ride.

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Yet as a few hours of driving on a makeshift race course along an abandoned Air Force runway near Bruntingthorpe proved, should you choose to stomp on the gas pedal when the light turns green, the Turbo R will roar to life with the acceleration more commonly found in American muscle cars, such as the Mustang GT.

The Turbo R has actually been on sale in Europe for several years, but the folks at Rolls-Royce used that as an opportunity to hone and refine the vehicle before shipping it to the United States, their msot important market. (Last year, American buyers snapped up 1,208 of the 2,784 vehicles built by the luxury carmaker.)

The Turbo R's fall debut in the United States will mark the third and final stage in a three-step reintroduction of the Bentley marque.

Three decades ago, Bentley actually outsold Rolls-Royce, owing to the reputation it built through a string of victories in early European racing. But in recent years, the nameplate had lost much of its luster. The fact that Bentleys were little more than Rolls-Royce bodies with a different grille and a few less frills didn't help.

By 1986, US sales had plunged to barely 50 a year. Then, in September of that year, Rolls reintroduced the nameplate with the Bentley 8 - at $80,000, considered the company's ``low priced,'' entry-level vehicle. Last September, the Molsanne was added to the line.

But the Turbo R is the key to Bentley's US revitalization. It has also proved a hit in Europe, where drivers can more fully appreciate the 135-mile-an-hour top speed of this 2.3-ton automobile.

``I tend to look at Bentley as the car for the guy whose granny won't fit in the back seat of the Porsche and Ferrari anymore, but who still wants to enjoy that driving experience,'' says Rolls chairman Peter Ward.

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Though both nameplates are priced in the upper stratosphere of the new car market, there are clear differences between Bentley and Rolls-Royce owners. Rolls buyers typically come from ``old money,'' and either run their own company or serve as chairman or president of a huge corporation. The typical Bentley buyer is 48 years old, or six years younger than a Rolls owner and a wee bit less wealthy (though likely still a millionaire); and he or she is more likely to be an entrepreneur or an executive on the rise.

Robert Wharen, head of marketing in the company's North American operations, concedes that ``the awareness level of the marque is very low in the United States.'' But he is hoping that the Turbo R, which has already received strongly positive reviews in the European press, will change that.

In fact, he says the company expects to see a combined annual 6 to 7 percent growth of sales over the next few years. ``Most of that growth will come through Bentley.''

Should the Turbo R do well, Rolls planners say, they may take a major step toward making Bentley a more independent marque. Mr. Ward says that would come with the development of a unique Bentley body, rather than a modified Rolls-Royce.

And while Rolls will maintain the traditional, squared-off design, the hinted-at body would be more aerodynamic, in line with other top-end vehicles on the market.

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