Bentley Joins Maserati With Ultra-Luxury SUV for Wealthy

Bentley and ultra-luxury competitors are tossing out decades of automotive tradition and super-sizing their supercars in pursuit of higher profit.

Volkswagen AG’s Bentley, which announced plans yesterday to build the world’s most-expensive sport-utility vehicle, priced at about 180,000 euros ($237,000), joins Fiat SPA’s Maserati in expanding their offerings with alternatives to sedans. Both are following sports-car maker Porsche, whose best-selling model is already the Cayenne SUV.

SUVs, first developed in the U.S. and once the domain of soccer moms and appliance repairmen, have today evolved into ultra-high-priced luxury affairs, just as coveted in Beijing as they are in Boston. SUVs so far this year are the fastest growing segment of the Chinese market.

“The top end of the SUV market is being redefined by the new Bentley and other luxury SUVs to come,” said Sascha Gommel, a Commerzbank AG automotive analyst in Frankfurt. “This is a niche market segment with very low volume but it’s growing quicker than the overall luxury market.”

Annual sales of ultra-luxury SUVs will nearly triple in 2017 to 22,800, according to Ian Fletcher, an analyst with IHS Automotive in London. Deliveries of high-end supercars which are not SUVs will increase about 20 percent over that same period to 32,400 autos, Fletcher estimates.

Wealthy Buyers

Demand will mostly likely come from the U.S. and markets like China and Russia, where there’s a growing class of wealthy consumers. What the three countries have in common is their sheer size and therefore the need to drive greater distances, making SUVs more popular.

For auto buyers in these markets, “the bigger, the better,” said Willi Diez, head of the Nuertingen, Germany-based Institute for Automobile Industry, a state-funded think tank. “As long as the number of rich and super-rich people is increasing globally, the luxury segment will grow as well.”

Bentley’s new SUV will go on sale in three years, the company announced yesterday. Maserati plans to introduce the Levante crossover as early as 2015, while Bentley’s sister brand Lamborghini showed an SUV concept last year that it also hopes to build.

Supercar makers are embarking down a path that German luxury-auto manufacturers have already successfully pursued. Porsche, also owned by VW, will complement the Cayenne by adding the compact Macan SUV by next year.

SUV Explosion

Bayerische Motoren Werke AG premiered the coupe-like X4 in China in April and plans to introduce the model as early as 2014. The car will bring the Munich-based manufacturer’s crossover lineup to seven models, including the Mini Countryman and Paceman. Demand for the compact X1 surged 23 percent to help propel record first-half sales. A new generation of the full-sized X5 is due to hit showrooms later this year.

Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz debuted a concept version of the compact GLA in China in April, which would bring its SUV lineup to five models. SUV sales surged 21 percent in the first half and accounted for more than one in five Mercedes cars sold worldwide.

Audi’s SUVs helped spur record global sales in the first half. Demand for the Q5 climbed 35 percent in the U.S., where Audi plans to introduce the high-performance SQ5 version in the second half. Audi plans to double its SUV offerings to six by 2020, a person familiar with the matter said in February.

’Tremendous Opportunities’

“The luxury segment offers tremendous opportunities for the Volkswagen group,” Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn said yesterday in announcing the Bentley project.

For Bentley, the model will be critical in reaching a goal to almost double sales to 15,000 vehicles by 2018. At Maserati, the automaker needs the Levante to reach a target of boosting deliveries eightfold to 50,000 by 2015.

While the Bentley vehicle will be based on the EXP 9 F concept presented at the Geneva motor show last year, the design has changed substantially since then, according to two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because details have not yet been released.

Along with the Levante, the new Bentley will compete with vehicles like the 151,700-euro Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, the 131,300-euro Mercedes-Benz GL63 AMG, and the top-of-the-line Range Rover from Tata Motors Ltd.’s Land Rover marque, which starts at 112,400 euros.

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