It’s Official: Maserati and Bentley Bitten by SUV Bug
Bentley EXP 9F Concept. From autos.yahoo.com
Taking a cue from the success of Porsche and its Cayenne softroader, Bentley and Maserati have both announced plans to build large SUVs based on existing vehicles from their respective sister brands. The proposed Bentley (unnamed but internally referred to as “Falcon”) will likely be based on the Volkswagen Touareg, while the Maserati Levante will be built on Jeep Grand Cherokee architecture.
Porsche’s Cayenne was the first to start the trend; when the company first announced plans to slap Porsche’s coat of arms on a Touareg, die-hard purists and enthusiasts everywhere cried foul. A large, heavy SUV was the antithesis to Porsche’s “pure driver’s car” ethos. Sure, the company had dabbled in grand tourers, such as the 928, before, but Porsche’s reputation and legacy was built on producing unrivaled sports cars with the experience and knowledge gained from its involvement in motorsport. The Cayenne represented a tremendous shift in Porsche’s goals for the future, and the announcement of the car and its subsequent release was met with an intense headwind from the automotive press.
This was not the case, however, with the Cayenne’s new buyers, who quickly grabbed the SUV from dealer lots in numbers large enough to quickly eclipse sales of the 911 and Boxster (the only other cars offered at the time). However much the Cayenne diluted the Porsche brand, it allowed the company to boost profits significantly and remain a well-funded independent automaker. Extra income from Cayenne sales were likely the reason Porsche had enough cash on hand to buy an 18.65% stake in Volkswagen Group, a company that has shared ties with Porsche ever since Ferdinand Porsche designed the first Beetle. The development of the Cayenne also allowed Porsche to build the Panamera, which shares engines with the SUV.
Why analyze the Cayenne, when the focus of this story should be the new Maserati and Bentley SUVs? After the success of the Cayenne became fully realized, many luxury automakers began exploring the option of introducing similar automobiles to chase the “wealthy suburbanite who wants to haul groceries in a giant rolling status symbol” demographic. For Maserati and Bentley, however, this makes less business sense than the justification for the Cayenne. Here’s why:
The Cayenne filled a niche that Porsche hadn’t yet addressed: the buyer that wanted a Porsche but also wanted something that seated more than two people and maybe a baby. With the Cayenne, Porsche met those needs. Over the last few decades, Bentley and Maserati have made 4-5 passenger cars with little exception. Although both cars will be based on existing platforms, the advantages of buying either SUV over their respective sedan counterparts is not immediately clear.
The Bentley will be more easily accepted by its customers than the Maserati, providing the luxury marque can nail down the styling. The “Falcon” will be based on the EXP 9F concept that bowed at the Geneva auto show last year; it was met with widespread mockery, mostly because of the exterior design. The Bentley fascia does not translate well to an auto of more considerable proportions, and the rear haunches look especially garish. The oversize wheels and bizarre taillight treatment rounded out the awkward ensemble. The final production model will feature a different body treatment, so that will hopefully alleviate most concerns. A Bentley is a heavy piece of machinery whose purpose is to waft passengers from point A to point B with as little disturbance as possible. Because most Bentleys have little sporting pretense, an SUV doesn’t necessarily mean the focus of the brand shifts, and that’s why it will be easily accepted by the Bentley faithful.
Maserati Kubang Concept previews the Levante.
Maserati is a different story. With Ferrari-derived V8s, the Quattroporte is seen as a much sportier take on the luxury sedan. Neither the Quattroporte nor the two door GT are hardcore track stars, but the production of an SUV could seriously dilute the brand. A sedan fitting under the QP in scope of size and price is already being developed, so where does the Levante fit in? Will the SUV become Maserati’s halo car, and how many people will pay to drive a tarted-up Grand Cherokee?
One other point that separates the Bentley and Maserati SUVs from the Cayenne is the price point. While a bare bones Cayenne starts out at under $50,000, these two vehicles come from companies who sell cars at a much higher price to justify exclusivity. A report from the German newspaper Handelsblatt claims the Bentley will cost around $270,000. With a full loaded Cayenne (with which the “Falcon” shares a platform) topping out at $146,000, it begs the question: how much money will a person have to spend to claim the biggest stick on the playground, and how many people can Bentley convince to do so?
The announcement of both SUVs is troublesome, and it will be at least two years before either sees a showroom floor. Whether or not anyone would buy a 3-ton car with a Ferrari V8 or a W12 for the price of a supercar remains to be seen, but with $5/gallon gasoline in the not-so-distant past, the future looks cloudy.