Luxury auto world bows to the SUV – The Seattle Times

Posted: Friday, March 25, 2016

The storied automotive names of Bentley, Maserati, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar and Lamborghini conjure images of upper-crust style, luxury and, yes, tradition.

That tradition is being exploded as if a truck stop were opening at Buckingham Palace: All five brands are preparing to introduce sport-utility vehicles.

Wealthy purists may wring their manicured hands, but the market has spoken, and not only in America. Even at the highest end of the market, buyers are preferring roomier SUVs to sedans, coupes and sports cars.

And with even ultraexclusive automakers under pressure to sustain profits and keep fickle customers in the fold, the lure of SUVs is proving impossible to resist.

Harald Wester, head of the Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands at Fiat Chrysler, makes an analogy with high fashion, which changes with the seasons but maintains signature brand cues.

“So where do I have the arrogance or ignorance to determine what luxury suit our customers want to wear?” Wester said. “Why can’t a vehicle be bigger and more functional, but with the same feel and smell and characteristics as the other one?”

Maserati hopes Americans will try on the Levante this fall. The $72,000 crossover SUV blends Italian flair with powerful turbocharged engines, all-wheel drive and an air suspension that adjusts over multiple ride heights. After its recent unveiling in Geneva, the Levante made its U.S. debut this week at the New York International Auto Show.

The Bentley Bentayga will reach well-heeled customers in May. Billed as the world’s fastest, most exclusive SUV, the 600-horsepower Bentayga, with a top speed of 187 mph, starts at $230,000 but can top $300,000 with options. Adding a self-winding, diamond-studded Breitling Mulliner Tourbillon clock to the dashboard will add a couple of hundred thousand dollars more to the price. Yes, for the clock alone.

Rolls-Royce is preparing an SUV for 2017 under the Project Cullinan code name. Rolls-Royce says the model, which the company calls a high-bodied all-terrain vehicle and is named after a famed diamond, is built on a new aluminum architecture and will deliver its signature lush ride on- or off-road.

Jaguar’s new F-Pace is far more attainable, about $43,000 to start. That aggressive pricing is no coincidence. The company has struggled to attract U.S. buyers, despite a revamped lineup of critically acclaimed sedans and sports cars. It has watched BMW, Mercedes and every other rival mint money with crossovers, the most glaring hole in the Jaguar lineup.

Maserati is in a similar position, in need of a showroom hit to give new energy to a Fiat Chrysler brand that has struggled to escape the shadow of Ferrari, its corporate stablemate until a spinoff in January.

Between the F-Pace and a small sedan, the XE, Jaguar is expected to nearly triple its U.S. sales to 47,500 by 2020, from barely 16,000 in 2015, according to Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst for IHS Automotive.

“If a Jaguar buyer wants an SUV and Jaguar doesn’t offer it, that buyer will leave the brand,” Brinley said.

For any luxury brand, she added, SUVs are the biggest opportunity for sales growth. Sales of compact luxury crossovers like the Jaguar surged more than 50 percent last year.

Sales of all luxury crossovers should increase another 40 percent over four years, to 1.2 million.

While Land Rover helped pioneer the luxury off-road SUV, Porsche helped create today’s template for SUVs that focus more on performance on pavement. In 2003, its Cayenne initially struck many fans of the famed sports-car brand as the ultimate heresy.

But instead of being a disaster, the Cayenne proved a sales triumph. Its worldwide popularity and profits helped sustain Porsche and backstopped investment in its traditional sports cars. The Cayenne and the smaller Macan SUV, introduced last year, now deliver just over half of all Porsche sales in America.

It’s the same story for Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Cadillac: The luxury SUV has become their 2-ton golden goose. BMW is virtually running out of numbers for its proliferating SUV lineup, which now includes the X1, X3, X4, X5 and X6, with a three-row X7 likely in the works.

The Bentayga actually shares its basic structure with the Cayenne and Audi Q7, with all three brands — and four counting Lamborghini — shouldering luxury duties within the VW Group empire.

One holdout is Aston Martin, known for the knee-weakening beauty of its British cars. Its chief executive, Andy Palmer, has declared that SUVs are by definition boxy and therefore cannot be beautiful. That, he says, disqualifies an SUV from wearing an Aston Martin badge.

Brinley isn’t buying it.

“Porsche and other premium brands have proven it’s possible to offer a successful SUV and fantastic sports car in the same showroom,” she said. “Whether or not they’re beautiful is in the eye of the beholder.”

Even Lamborghini will test that theory with the Urus, from a brand known for fanciful supercars that cost from roughly $250,000 to more than $1 million. Lamborghini is doubling the size of its manufacturing footprint in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region to satisfy expected demand for the Urus, set to arrive in 2017.


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