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Bentley challenges Tesla’s idea of electric luxury with a gorgeous new concept car

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The future of Bentley design and the future of motoring are embodied in the EXP 12 Speed 6e

Bentley wanted to bring a surprise to this year’s Geneva Motor Show, and it certainly achieved its goal by unsheathing a snow-white, all-electric concept car this week: the EXP 12 Speed 6e. I was here in Geneva two years ago to photograph the EXP 10 Speed 6, the previous two-seater concept that helped Bentley gobble up attention and headlines at the show. There’s a lot that the two concept cars share, mostly owing to Bentley’s adherence to signature design touches, but the big difference is that the new one is a battery-powered electric beast of luxurious burden.

Tesla’s sporty electrics have come to define the nascent category up to this point, and they did start at the luxury tier, but Bentley believes there’s an extra luxury stratum that is above anything its Californian rival can produce. Hence its introduction of this luxury electric vehicle. The EXP 12 is a car intended to challenge our preconceptions about what we can expect from an electric car, and it endeavors to bring Bentley’s limousine-like qualities of luxury and opulence to a distinctly more compact form than its established Continental and Flying Spur models.

Before the crowds arrived at the Geneva Palexpo this morning, I got a tour around the brilliantly white electric concept from Bentley’s European communications manager Sebastian Michel. He noted how most of the signature features of a Bentley were carried over with this car: from the "powerline" that begins with the front wheel arches and extends along the full length of the car, to the "haunches" that echo it at the rear wheels, to the doors that open at an angle, and right down to the knurling on the dashboard switches.

Also knurled are the rear-facing cameras, replacing the traditional wing mirrors. The Mercedes-AMG GT Concept, introduced earlier this week, opted for a similar replacement of mirrors with cameras, and it seems like that’s the way the entire car industry is headed. Michel confirmed that Bentley is thinking along the same lines, and he did say that even if the EXP 12 never has a direct counterpart in the company’s future lineup, much of what it shows will make an appearance in upcoming models.

I linger on these rear-view cameras because they seem to best embody what Bentley’s trying to do: they’re distinctly more high-tech than the stuff luxury companies are most adept at doing, such as leather upholstery, sumptuous wood interiors, and expertly crafted accessories like luggage and hand-stitched driving gloves. But those cameras keep up the familiar Bentley design while applying it a more modern way of driving. I think it can work.

The interior of the EXP 12 is classic Bentley, in that it feels palatial and opulent — in all the right ways, and some of the wrong ones too. The vintage leather of the seats spills over onto the back of the car, ostensibly just to show off how much ultra-expensive cowhide you can afford to drape over your car. But still, there’s no mistaking the feeling of luxury that comes with all of that high-grade material.

No performance details are being disclosed as yet, and Bentley says the EXP 12 is "about much more than a car, [representing] a first step on a journey that will change the way today’s drivers think about mobility and what it can be." The only indication of the car’s capabilities is a promise that it will have sufficient range to drive from Paris to London, Milan to Monaco, or Geneva to Côte d'Azur. The names of those places should also give us a fairly strong hint about the expected price range for an electric luxury vehicle like this.

I wouldn’t class myself as the typical Bentley customer, owing to both my bank balance and my preference for more efficient modes of transportation, but this EXP 12 concept is bringing the brand much closer to my preferences. It’s sharply designed, electrically driven, and it accommodates two people in a glamorous manner that very few other brands could hope to match.

I’m a fan of the copper color theme that Bentley has going throughout the EXP 12’s accents. The company tells me that color is going to be a hallmark of its electric vehicles going forward, whether they be concepts or cars that the wealthy among us will be able to buy. The thing I love, though, are the rocket buttons at the top of the steering wheel, used to give the car an extra boost. How can you not adore a feature like that?

Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge