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Maserati enters crowded luxury SUV market

Maserati, which has represented the finest in Italian sports and performance cars for decades, is finally joining the SUV race.

The brand has unveiled the first official images of the Levante, a luxury SUV it plans to start selling this summer. While Maserati has not set a price, analysts are speculating the base model will start at more than $80,000.

"I believe the Levante will be a success," said Eric Lyman, analyst for TrueCar. "From a styling standpoint it is different enough to stand out and will get attention."

Standing out in the luxury SUV market is becoming tougher with more automakers rolling out extremely high-end models. Last year, there were 12 different luxury SUV models with an average transaction price of at least $75,000 according to TrueCar. That's double the number of SUVs selling at that price just five years ago.

From Cadillac to Mercedes-Benz to Lexus, the major luxury brands are pushing the upper end of the SUV market. Late last year, Tesla jumped in with the Model X, where the first signature editions started at $132,000.

Whether the SUV has a price well over $100,000 or closer to $75,000, there is no shortage of demand for these upscale vehicles. In 2015, Americans bought almost 100,000 SUVs with an average transaction price of at least $75,000 according to TrueCar analysis. That's an increase of 279 percent from 2011.

"The luxury SUV market is red hot and it's not slowing down," said Lyman. "There's no compromise for buyers. They want luxury and they want SUVs."

But is $75,000, which is more than double the average price paid for a vehicle in the U.S., a sum so great it could eventually limit sales.

"Remember, the lease penetration rate (percentage of models leased) for luxury SUVs is 50 percent, so the monthly payment is attainable for those who can afford it," said Lyman.

The Levante is the first in a series of ultra luxury SUVs coming from the most elite auto brands. Over the course of the next few years Bentley, Lamborghini and even Rolls-Royce will start selling SUV's. When those models roll into showrooms, the price of each is expected to be well over $100,000 and in some cases they could easily top $200,000.

But as wealthy buyers wait for those SUVs, the Levante will be in Maserati showrooms giving them another option when it comes to spending at least $75,000. Lyman thinks Maserati will have an advantage.

"The Levante is first to market compared to other exotic luxury brands so buyers looking at Ferrari, Lamborghini or Bentley who decide they want a luxury SUV will see what Maserati is offering," he said. "There is a lot of opportunity."