How the SUV Conquered Luxury Cars

Not long ago, it was unthinkable that Maserati would build an SUV, let alone one sold on the strength of its off-road chops. But the Maserati Levante is on track to become the Italian sports car maker’s bestselling vehicle by the end of the year, boosted by a pair of even more expensive, hardier trims that go on sale this fall to bring the once-humble family-hauler into six-figure territory.

Maserati’s plans for the Levante reveal much about the landscape for the spate of over-the-top, ultra-luxury SUVs coming down the pike, including those from Lamborghini, Aston Martin, and Rolls-Royce. Even for cars like the $230,000 Bentley Bentayga, currently the world’s fastest SUV, off-road performance is becoming the new status symbol for the luxury car market even if buyers never plan to leave the pavement. 

“It’s like buying a Ferrari that goes 320 kilometers an hour,” said Davide Kluzer, a spokesman for Maserati. “Who is going to go 320 on a public road? Nobody. But it’s something that everyone wants to have.”

It’s no surprise that the Levante, which went on sale last year, already accounts for 40% of Maserati’s U.S. sales. Starting with the launch of the first high-performance SUV, the Porsche Cayenne, almost 15 years ago, history has shown that SUVs will quickly shoot to the top of a luxury brand’s lineup. The Jaguar F-Pace and the Bentayga set the pattern shortly after launching last year.

A host of other high-end carmakers are hoping to capitalize on this trend too. The Rolls-Royce Project Cullinan and Lam­borghini Urus SUVs arrive next year, while Aston Martin says the launch of its DBX crossover in 2019 will help double its sales.

Lamborghini’s off-roader shares a platform with two other premium SUVs from its parent company: Volkswagen Group’s Bentayga and Cayenne. “It is the shape of a car that will change the dimension of our future,” said Lamborghini chairman and CEO Stefano Domenicali. “We need to be the inspiration for the super-sport segment.”

Making an SUV is becoming a no-brainer for brands that once staked their reputation solely on racetrack performance or chauffeured leisure. Even though ultra-luxury SUVs still make up less than 1% of automotive sales in the U.S., according to data from IHS Markit, they account for a disproportionate share of the profits, which can then be rolled into research and development for brands’ traditional coupes and sedans.

“The profitability of SUVs is incredibly attractive, particularly in an industry that is extremely capital intensive, with the average margin comparatively thin,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Markit.

Meanwhile, the current crop of SUVs has found acceptance with customers clamoring—and willing to pay more—for impressive off-road capabilities that they’ll never use. Though it’s unlikely that an owner would ever drive through sand dunes or play in puddles in a Levante or Bentayga, “those abilities lend credibility and desirability to their purchases,” said Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis at marketing research and consulting firm AutoPacific.

“A Ferrari or Lamborghini supercar may never see the track, but it matters greatly to the owner that said supercar has the ability to excel there,” Kim said. “Similarly, an ultra-luxury SUV may never get more off-road than the polo field, but it matters to the customer that it can excel at the job it was purportedly designed to do.”

Years ago, executives worried that launching an SUV would dilute their brand’s identity. Now they realize they can’t afford to miss out on the growing appetite worldwide for larger, multipurpose vehicles.

“The rise of SUVs has reached a point that without them in the lineup, there is larger risk of losing customers to those who do offer them,” Brinley said. “Luxury marques, like Bentley and Maserati, need to approach the segment carefully to ensure that their brand values translate well, but in the current market environment, adding an SUV does not detract from brand equity.”

In fact, many of the models are attracting new customers, known as conquests, to their brands. Half of Bentayga customers are first-time Bentley owners. Maserati says 90% of its SUV shoppers haven’t owned a Maserati before. Said Enrico Billi, a product planner for the Levante, “This means that nine out of 10 times, Levante is all additional business for us.”