This week, Lamborghini unveiled its all-new Urus super-SUV. This outrageously fast, 650-horsepower, $200,000 off-roading four-door is not the first sport utility vehicle from the famed Italian exotic automaker. That was the Hummer-esque, Countach-powered LM002 of the ‘80s and ‘90s. But that was a long time ago, well before a desire for high-riding vehicles — trucks, sport utes, and crossovers — transitioned from a niche market to a common one to one that has surpassed passenger cars to become the most popular automotive category. (It’s now responsible for two-thirds of all American automotive sales.)
It was also well before a brand like Bentley — another boutique automaker that is, like Lamborghini, part of the VW Group conglomerate — decided that there was room in the marketplace for an SUV that was capable of supercar acceleration, supercar top speeds, and supercar pricing. The brand’s Bentayga SUV, released in the second half of last year, accelerates from 0–60 mph faster than a Chevrolet Corvette, reaches a top speed of 187 mph, and hosts a starting price of $230,000.
Bentley produced the Bentayga because research showed that a great majority of Bentley owners also had a high-end SUV in their fleet. If the brand could gain even an incremental portion of this significant business, it was thought that it could not only organically grow its footprint and offerings, but become more stable and profitable.
This same thought also occurred to Bentley’s cohorts atop the vehicular pyramid. Since its release in summer of 2016, Bentley has pretty much had the ultra luxury SUV market nearly to itself. However, in the next year or so, we will see the release of similarly priced vehicles from brands like Lamborghini (Urus), Aston Martin (DBX), Rolls-Royce (Cullinan), Mercedes-Benz (all-new G-Wagen, Maybach GLS), and even Ferrari (unnamed FUV).
“It’s no surprise to see the ultra premium brands jump onto the crossover brandwagon,” says managing analyst Michael Harley of KBB. “As long as the prestigious badge is on the hood and driving dynamics are tuned to align with the brand’s reputation.”
According to marketing presentations, each of these vehicles is projected by their manufacturer to behave in much the same way as the Bentayga in the global marketplace: to drastically increase or even double brand sales.
But is there buyer bandwidth to accept this expansion? The global ultra luxury car market definitely grew last year by more than 15 percent (to around 28,000 units), fueled mainly by the capricious Chinese market, where demand for very high-end vehicles grew by a whopping 54 percent. Projections remain strong for this segment in 2017 as well. But adding all of these vehicles would mean half as many vehicles again — or more.
“The appetite for ultra luxury SUVs, especially in China, means that if you're not in the segment very soon, you may likely be left behind,” says Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis with automotive industry research firm AutoPacific. “When the next downturn hits, or if something sends a hiccup through the Chinese economy, the brands without an SUV could see trouble on the horizon.”
But while Bentley reports that it is selling every Bentayga that it can manufacture, the American market demonstrates the glimmerings of saturation. With 10 months on sale thus far this year, Bentayga sales have not matched the number of vehicles sold in just five months in 2016. Though sales may gain strength in the typically strong months of November and December, the increase in sales is not likely to be significant.
“While Bentley has seen its sales numbers level on the Bentayga, the vehicle is currently making up about half of the automaker’s sales,” says KBB’s Harley.
The larger issue is what is happening for the Bentley brand overall in the States. Despite the introduction of Bentayga in August 2016, and a robust overall market hosting the highest annual vehicle sales numbers in American history, overall Bentley sales fell in 2016. Again, while the year-end segment is often strong, at current rates, sales are on target to be down again in 2017. So sales are not doubling here. They’re declining.
If we look at the other offerings in the brand’s portfolio, it is easy to see why: sales of the formerly best-selling Continental coupe and convertible have fallen by nearly 11 percent. Perhaps more importantly, sales of the Flying Spur and Mulsanne sedans are down by more than 40 percent each. Could it be that the Bentayga SUV is, instead of supplementing sales of Bentley vehicles, cannibalizing sales from traditional Bentleys? Granted, the cars in Bentley’s stable are at the end of their life cycle and will soon see replacement, which may invigorate transactions. But as the entire vehicle market flees from cars for crossovers and SUVs, might the decline in sedan sales be more permanent?
“The four-door sedan segment in particular is under pressure,” says Jeff Kuhlman, chief communications officer for Bentley of the Americas. “I don’t think it’s cannibalization, but the sedan segment is down throughout the industry — with BMW 7-Series, with Audi A8, with Mercedes-Maybach and AMG. Both Bentayga and Flying Spur have a place in our portfolio and in the marketplace, but, yes we will see some rationalization in the market.”
If this is the case, it seems that brands like Rolls-Royce should be nervous about such an addition to their portfolio. With its equivalent luxury, and the enhanced practicality and functionality of a larger cargo area and high seating position, a Rolls customer may choose purchase the forthcoming $500,000 Cullinan instead of, as opposed to in addition to, a $500,000 Phantom sedan. This may be especially salient since the SUV will share its underpinnings, styling, and likely much of its rich and exclusive interior appointments with the new four door.
And will the same hold true for other brands? Ferrari currently makes an all-wheel drive four-seater in its GTC4Lusso hatchback grand tourer. Aston currently makes a four-seater in its Rapide, Could these vehicles suffer a similar fate in seeing their share devoured by a crossover / SUV? Because Lamborghini does not currently produce any large cars or sedans that compete directly with their crossover / SUV, producing only sport and super sport cars, is it possible that the brand may potentially fare better with its Urus?
“I think for Rolls-Royce it will do quite well because it will be in a class by itself. But each of these brands and offerings is fairly unique. It’s hard to stereotype the entire ultra luxury segment,” says Sullivan. “We're seen more diversification in the ultra luxury segment than ever before. There will still be room for coupes and sedans, but seekers of prestige now demand a SUV.”
He goes on to proclaim a kind of automotive brinksmanship-cum-mutually assured destruction. “Of course, there is risk of cannibalization of the rest of the lineups for each automaker. But there's also the risk of complete cannibalization by the competition without adding an SUV to their lineup.”
And some of it could play out via timing as well. “In this segment, anybody who has new product, that’s a great benefit,” says Bentley’s Kuhlman. “This segment is particularly sensitive to it. They want the hottest thing.”