Luxe SUVs for the Wealthy

Maserati and Bentley roll out four-wheelers for the wealthy
Courtesy Range Rover

Rich drivers with a need for speed have long fueled demand for high-end auto brands such as Maserati, Ferrari, and Lamborghini. Sometimes, though, the panache and speed of a supercar just isn’t enough. “An SUV comes in handy when you need to ferry more passengers and things about, like when you go shopping,” says 26-year-old Bill Liu, who runs a real estate company in Shanghai and owns a Range Rover Evoque along with five sports cars, including a $1 million gray Lamborghini Aventador.

To grab space in the garages of wealthy owners like Liu, exotic Italian sports-car maker Lamborghini will unveil an SUV prototype at the 2012 Beijing Auto Show in April, says a person familiar with the Sant’Agata Bolognese-based company’s plans. The Volkswagen-owned luxury brand may have a version to sell by 2016, says the person, who could not speak on the record prior to the public announcement. “Chinese customers love their big cars,” says Christian Mastro, Lamborghini’s general manager for the Asia-Pacific region. “All the brands are making cars more specific for the Chinese market.”

Bentley Motors, which counts Queen Elizabeth II and Paris Hilton as customers, will display its SUV concept car at the Geneva Motor Show, which begins on March 6. The model may roll into showrooms by 2015 if parent Volkswagen approves the project this year. The two VW units are playing catch-up. Next year, Fiat’s Maserati will start production of an SUV, the Kubang, designed by Fiat’s style chief and based on a platform from Chrysler Group’s Jeep. Ferrari last year added the €260,000 ($344,000) FF family car, its largest model. Although the vehicles will be available globally, the goal of these European luxury brands is to appeal to newly wealthy consumers in countries like China and Russia who want to super-size their supercars.

“Luxury cars are at the top of the consumption desires of rich Chinese,” says Giuliano Noci, vice rector for the China campus of Milan Polytechnic. Since wealthy Chinese consumers have a limited history with the European brands, “the luxury-car makers can dare something new,” he says. Sales of ultra-luxury cars may almost double in China, to 8,100 vehicles, and jump more than five times in Russia by 2015, to 500, according to IHS Automotive. That growth rate compares with a 21 percent increase in Europe, to 11,700 cars over the same period.

The shift by Maserati, Bentley, and Lamborghini to SUVs replicates Porsche’s strategy. The maker of the 911 sports car departed from its roots when it rolled out the $48,200 Cayenne in 2002. It now relies on the SUV for half its deliveries, and there’s a waiting list of about a year in China. After expanding with the $75,200 Panamera four-door coupe in 2009, Porsche will add the Macan, a compact SUV in 2013.

Deliveries of luxury SUVs, including the Cayenne and Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, will climb 49 percent in China, to 265,200, in 2015, almost three times the 18 percent growth in global demand for those vehicles, says IHS. “SUVs are just a great interest for a lot of people, because of the driving position—above everyone else—and also the road conditions in some fast-growing economies,” says IHS analyst Ian Fletcher.

The cars are also profitable because the additional space and comfort command higher prices, while development costs are kept in check by borrowing technology from other models, says Fletcher. Bentley and Lamborghini can use parts developed by Volkswagen, copying Porsche’s strategy with the Cayenne, while Maserati can rely on the resources of Fiat, its parent.

“The basis is to make Bentley a sustainable business, which is the same as we did at Porsche,” which had focused on sports cars before the Cayenne, says Rolf Frech, Bentley’s head of engineering. Bentley will position its SUV above the top-of-line Cayenne Turbo, priced at more than $140,000, Bentley chief Wolfgang Dürheimer said in January.

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