When 20th century screen siren Mae West said “too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” she could have been talking about the white-hot market for luxury sport utility vehicles and crossovers.
That’s because prosperous Americans are shedding their sport sedans and flocking to the
beefy, versatile rides known as SUVs and CUVs. And 16 luxury brands – from Acura to Volvo -- are responding in kind with close to 200 different models, including first-time contenders from Bentley, Jaguar, Maserati and Tesla.
Record SUV/CUV Volumes
“We continue to see the SUV/CUV segment reaching record registration volumes in the U.S. market,” says Tom Libby of industry analysts IHS Automotive. Owners of full-sized luxury SUVs are the most loyal repeat buyers. And IHS believes the trend won’t cool down, even with gas prices up.
Today’s buyer usually expects an SUV/crossover to seat 5 to 8 people with cargo, deliver off-road capability via power to all wheels, and ride higher than a car, even though it should drive like one. The last two attributes are top priorities for well-off Long Islanders, says David Perricone, general sales manager of King O’Rourke Cadillac Buick GMC in Smithtown, New York. “If you’re in a sedan or a coupe and you’re driving behind a sport utility, your visibility is limited,” he says. “So a lot of women, in particular, want the height of an SUV.” Adds Oliver Brodlieb, owner of East Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram in Greenvale, New York: “People want the capabilities of an SUV and they don’t want to compromise on the way it sits, handles or drives.”
Added Prestige, Power, Handling
To meet those priorities, luxury models add more prestige, power and handling, as well as the latest safe-driver-assist and “infotainment” technology. Oh, and let’s not forget the bling, of which there’s plenty. Think supple leathers, exotic woods, metal trim that could pass for jewelry, and even an Orrefors crystal shift lever on Volvo’s XC90. Entry to this elite group starts around $35,000 and maxes out with Bentley’s Bentayga nearing $300,000.
Britain’s Range Rover has been a benchmark for its cachet, elegance and strong off-road performance. But a host of serious European and Asian challengers, such as Mercedes-Benz and Lexus, are clawing their way up the summit from all directions. And let’s not discount iconic American brands Cadillac, Jeep and Lincoln. Perricone says Cadillac’s new XT5 is luring traditional import buyers, as are Jeep’s Grand Cherokee Limited and Summit models, according to Brodlieb. Both anticipate an expanded luxury SUV lineup.
Lovers of hot cars with a family to transport can take cool comfort in Porsche’s lower-slung Cayenne and Macan or the newer Jaguar F-Pace and Maserati Levante. Jaguar calls the F-Pace “the ultimate practical Jaguar sports car,” a theme echoed by Tony Anton, general manager of Jaguar Great Neck in New York. “It’s the only SUV that I’ve ever experienced that drives like a Jaguar,” he says. The new Levante also trades on its sporting heritage and features an aromatic leather interior, plus a silk upholstery option by Ermenegildo Zegna.
Bentley Bentayga is Fastest
Volkwagen Group’s Bentley claims its 187-mile-per-hour Bentayga is “the fastest, most powerful, most luxurious and most exclusive SUV in the world.” But if you need to get to your club a little quicker – and greener – you’ll opt for Tesla’s electric Model X, which hits 60 in as little as 3.2 seconds and cruises up to 257 miles on a single charge. Your golfing buddies will get a kick out of the upward-opening “Falcon Wing” doors.
In this engorged market, luxury brands differentiate themselves with bells and whistles that ultimately find their way to mass-market SUVs. Audi’s Q7 “virtual cockpit” is an all-digital dashboard putting every key function directly in front of the driver. The XT5 mounts a roof camera with a video feed through the rear-view mirror. The Bentayga offers portable touch-screen tablets to control entertainment and other systems.
BMW touts Sports Activity Vehicles
BMW distinguishes itself by labeling its 23 “X” models as sports activity vehicles, or SAVs, because, it says, “the world is full of possibilities.” And perhaps that’s what luxury SUVs and crossovers are all about. You can use yours to haul the kids off to college, climb a mountain, or tailgate at Giants Stadium. At the end of the day, you’ll slip into a gown or tux for a hushed cruise to the charity ball. Whatever the function, these upscale rides can do it all and do it well. They’ll take you anywhere you want to go in high style.
This column first appeared in Luxury Living magazine's Fall 2016 issue.