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Riding high

Despite a shaky economy, super-luxury cars - Aston Martin, Lamborghini and the like - are in demand. And carmakers are optimistic about the future.

By LOUIS HAU
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002


photo
[Times photos: Jim Damaske]
Among super-luxury cars at Dimmitt Cadillac of Clearwater is the Rolls-Royce Corniche III, adorned with a hood ornament known as "The Spirit of Ecstasy."
When Dimmitt Cadillac of Clearwater became a Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealer five years ago, it expected to sell just five or 10 cars a year.

But even recessions and shaky consumer confidence can't stall sales of cars that fetch more than $200,000. Dimmitt now sells about 150 new and used models of the luxury cars a year. Indeed, the company is adding new Rolls and Bentley showrooms near U.S. 19.

The demand for such cars "makes no sense at all," says Jeff Sterns, Dimmitt's director of operations for luxury car sales.

"Sense has nothing to do with these cars," he says. "It's obviously an emotional desire . . . Like fine art, fine jewelry or fine furniture, the only logic is how it makes you feel."

In Tampa, Robert Elder, president of a new Aston Martin Jaguar dealership, also sees growing demand.

The Tampa Bay market "has a lot of very wealthy people," he says. "The community is growing so fast . . . They can definitely afford the vehicles."

It's part of a worldwide boom in super-luxury cars, a boom that is transforming this niche industry to a degree not seen since the Depression-era 1930s. Consider Aston Martin, the chichi nameplate driven by James Bond in 007 movies. The company sold 1,500 cars worldwide last year and predicts growth to 5,000 annually within the next three to four years.

Italian carmaker Ferrari, which stuck to a production ceiling of 4,000 worldwide last year, expects growth through the 2002 U.S. relaunch of Maserati, which it acquired in 1997.

And Bentley, whose worldwide sales have hovered around 2,000 cars for years, is aiming to quadruple sales by 2006. One factor in its favor: its incongruous hipster image as the status car in hip-hop circles. Price tag: $370,000 for an Azure Mulliner model.

A major factor behind the growth is the maturation of affluent baby boomers, who have more idle time and cash as their careers peak and their kids leave home. Furthermore, the enormous wealth generated during the economic expansion of the go-go 1990s didn't all just evaporate with the burst of the dot-com bubble. And carmakers are plowing millions of dollars into research and marketing to tap more mainstream buyers, not just the super rich.

"Aston Martin was very much about being an elitist company," says Christina Bruzzi, communications and marketing manager for Aston Martin North America. "Now it's exclusive, but more welcoming . . . We used to be Prince Charles. Now we're moving toward the Prince William feel."

Steady growth

Sales data show steady growth in the super-luxury segment during the past four years. According to R.L. Polk & Co., a Southfield, Mich., auto market data company, nationwide new vehicle registrations for five leading super-luxury nameplates (Aston, Bentley, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce) totaled 1,914 units last year, up 54.6 percent from 1,238 units in 1997, versus a 16.6 percent increase during the same period in new registrations for all cars and light trucks.

Sales in the Tampa Bay area of such cars during the same period were very small but still in line with nationwide sales trends. In Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, there were 20 retail new super-luxury vehicle registrations in 2001, up 53.8 percent from 13 four years earlier.

Such sales volumes remain, of course, microscopic compared with those of large automakers selling to the mainstream market. For instance, General Motors sells an average of 23,500 vehicles a day.

But small-volume super-luxury carmakers are in a stronger position to expand than before, thanks to a wave of consolidation in the global auto industry. Once-sickly nameplates now have funds from new corporate parents keenly interested in the segment's fat profit margins and the aura of prestige that luxury nameplates can lend their more down-market car lines.

While quintessentially British names such as Rolls, Bentley and Aston may evoke images of motoring through the rolling countryside of Olde England, their current owners are German and American.

Since 1998, Rolls and Bentley have been owned by Volkswagen, which, as part of a complex licensing agreement, will transfer control of Rolls to BMW in 2003. (VW also owns Lamborghini and Bugatti.) Aston is part of Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group, which also includes Jaguar, Volvo and Land Rover. Maserati was bought out five years ago by Ferrari, which, in turn, has long been owned by Fiat, Italy's largest carmaker. Also in 1998, Mercedes became a stable mate of Jeep and the Dodge minivan after Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corp. merged to form DaimlerChrysler.

Fresh injections of research and development funds from their new parent companies have helped improve the often-spotty reliability of super-luxury vehicles, says Jeremy Anwyl, president of Edmunds.com, an online automotive information service.

"The issue with these cars is that you build so few of them that R&D becomes a huge expense relative to the cars you're making," he says.

In addition, now that they are part of large, publicly traded companies, super-luxury carmakers are more focused than ever on making money, in contrast to the old days when the cars were built by "complete car nuts" with little regard for controlling costs, Anwyl says.

Bruzzi of Aston Martin North America credits Ford for providing needed money to finance the company's launch last year of the Vanquish and its plans for a third car line.

A Bentley Azure Mulliner is on display at Dimmitt Cadillac of Clearwater.

Price points

Whether such trends will continue is an open question.

The top end of the super-luxury market, while less vulnerable to ups and downs in the economy, simply isn't where the growth opportunities are, argues Susan Jacobs, president of Jacobs & Co., a Rutherford, N.J., automotive consultancy.

Jacobs says growth will be driven by cars in the sub-$200,000 price level, closer to the price range of top-of-the-line models of mainstream luxury car lines such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Bentley, for instance, is planning to launch a new GT coupe next year priced at about $150,000. Aston, which already has a DB7 Vantage priced at about $150,000, is developing a platform for a new car that will market at about $100,000.

"The appeal of a price point at $150,000," Jacobs says, "is that you can conceivably persuade consumers to move up from the mainstream luxury brands, while also pulling in buyers from the traditional ultra-luxury market."

However, she cautions that delving into this pricing level puts super-luxury carmakers in the unaccustomed position of selling to consumers who are sensitive to the prevailing economic winds in a way that their traditional customers were not.

"You need prosperity to induce thousands of people to buy $150,000 vehicles," Jacobs says. "I'm not sure that environment exists now. . . . The fact that there's a lot of activity in that end of the market is a reflection of what was happening before (the recent economic downturn). It's not necessarily a reflection of what's happening now."

In addition, by ramping up production, however modestly, super-luxury carmakers potentially run the risk of endangering the air of exclusivity and privilege that attracts many buyers in the first place, some observers say.

"When your exclusivity is ubiquitous, you're in trouble," quips Jim Hall, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific Inc.

-- Louis Hau can be reached at hau@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3404.

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