With a 3.30am alarm call for the red-eye flight to Geneva I should have known better than to check my phone before going to bed. Various pre-show events giving early previews of the Geneva show stars had social media buzzing, and one car was taking the majority of comment: Bentley's EXP 9 F, an SUV from the quintessentially British car maker.
Bentley is long overdue an SUV, with chairman and chief executive Wolfgang Duerheimer admitting that most customers have a 4x4 in their garage alongside their Bentley. No surprise then that the company is considering a new model to join its Continental and Mulsanne family. It's not the idea of a Bentley SUV that's causing a stir, but how the EXP 9 F looks.
Received with a muted reception in Geneva, the EXP 9 F is the talk of the show. If success is measured on impact then the Bentley EXP 9 F is an absolute triumph. Only, most comments about the car aren't exactly favourable. Other than a small picture on my phone, I hadn't yet seen it, but motor show stands and their lighting can be very unforgiving and I'm prepared to give it a chance. It can't be that bad, can it?
Duerheimer describes the EXP 9 F as "unmistakably Bentley, yet like none before it". As I finally see, there are some obvious design signatures from the marque, most notably its large, upright grille and prominent headlamps. Its rear flanks have a feature line over the wheels reminiscent of the Continental GT, too.
Dirk Van Braekel, director of design and concept, highlights the proportions and the "strong stance", while Crispin Marshfield, senior exterior designer, suggests the EXP 9 F "is very much a combination of extremes; on the one hand a Bentley has to be sporting and luxurious yet, being an SUV, it has to have utilitarian capabilities". That's evidently an uncomfortable combination, as, despite my desire to buck the trend of overwhelmingly negative reception to the EXP 9 F, it's a shape that I find difficult to love.
If the front is a bit heavy-handed with its "rifling" detailed driving lights and massive headlamps, the rear is more successful. With echoes of Range Rovers from the 1970s in its lines, the back is unquestionably the EXP 9 F's finest angle - there's even a split boot for dining off when out hunting. Inside, it's all handcrafted leather, finely finished metal and veneers with the sort of deep lustre only Bentley can manage. Really, the cabin is the only place you'd want to be. The promise of a 6.0L, twin turbocharged W12 with 600hp is certain to mean amusing performance, too, but if you're driving something that looks like this you'll perhaps want to depart in a hurry.
Duerheimer admits that Bentley has yet to take the decision to make the project EXP 9 F a production reality, but states: "Work is clearly on the way in research and development." So a Bentley SUV will be along soon, though given the EXP 9 F's reception, it might just be going back to the drawing board first.