Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Lamborghini and Maserati have long histories of building high-end, exclusive cars for wealthy clients. All four, though, have introduced SUVs in recent years to help claim their share of the rapidly expanding market.
It's working. The Rolls-Royce Cullinan, Bentley Bentayga, Lamborghini Urus and Maserati Levante have all been triumphant successes for their respective brands. So successful, in fact, that Aston Martin and even Ferrari are working on launching their own high-riders.
Of course, luxury SUVs themselves aren't new. Land Rover, Jeep, and even Porsche have all offered well-equipped, comfortable offroaders for over a decade. But now, ultra-exclusive SUVs are reaching into the highest price tiers and even outselling their sedan and coupe counterparts.
The new Lamborghini Urus, the brand's first crossover, quickly became a hit. Despite only hitting dealerships in July 2018, the Urus still accounted for 30% of Lamborghini sales last year. Most of those buyers, Lamborghini says, are newcomers to the brand. Plus, the Urus attracts more women than the company's sports cars. Overall, the brand posted a 51% year-over-year sales increase.
The Maserati Levante, meanwhile, outsold all three of the brand's cars in 2018. So far in 2019, Maserati's sole SUV has accounted for 40% of sales. At Cleveland Motorsports, an authorized dealer of Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Maserati and other marques, SUVs are all the rage.
Especially among younger buyers, general manager Dan Ricci says demand for high-end SUVs has been unbelievable. When the Rolls-Royce Cullinan — the brand's first SUV — launched, people were willing to pay even more than the car's $325,000 base price for early order slots.
"That was kind of crazy," Ricci told CNBC. "There were people offering like $100,000 over sticker to sell some of these orders."
Some of this proves that the ceiling for SUVs hasn't yet been reached. Highly optioned Cullinans can crest $400,000 — a far cry from where the segment was just a few years ago.
"Until the launch of [the Bentley] Bentayga, the price ceiling for SUVs was kind of capped off at high-level Range Rovers and [Mercedes] G65s, around $200,000," Jon Simons, Bentley's product marketing manager for the Americas, said in an interview.
The Bentayga helped push past that, launching with a $229,100 base price in 2016. The company has since introduced a V-8 model that starts at around $165,000, but the upcoming Bentayga Speed should be the most expensive model yet. Across its life cycle, Bentley expects the Bentayga to account for one-third of the company's sales.
The case for these crossovers is simple. According to Simons, research showed Bentley that most of their owners already had SUVs. If they were going to buy SUVs anyway, they might as well buy Bentley SUVs.
SUVs are an easy sell, especially for luxury automakers. You can provide all of the space and comfort that buyers expect in a new form factor. While SUVs may not handle as well as sedans or coupes, advancements in technology have helped close that gap.
The Bentayga, for instance, uses a high-voltage adjustable suspension that allows it to quickly adapt to road conditions. It can be soft while cruising down a highway and firm when you throw the big crossover into a corner.
And while the SUVs of yesterday were slow, modern engines have more than enough grunt to hustle bigger vehicles. The Rolls-Royce Cullinan has 563 horsepower, the upcoming Bentley Bentayga Speed makes 626 horsepower and the Lamborghini Urus generates 650 horsepower. Both the Urus and the upcoming, faster Bentayga Speed model should be capable of about 190 mph.
For buyers, these ultra-SUVs offer more practicality while maintaining high levels of performance and exclusivity. For manufacturers, SUVs typically carry higher price tags and demand is phenomenal.
According to Ricci, demand for the Cullinan is so high that the company doesn't need to offer any incentives or discounts. Every Cullinan he gets sells so quickly that even trading cars to another dealership is a waste of time.
This is surprising for a brand like Rolls-Royce, which has offered some of the most expensive and exclusive sedans in the world. Its flagship, the Phantom, recently received its first total overhaul in over a decade. One might expect that it would arrive to similar fanfare as its upstart brother.
"Nope," Ricci told CNBC. "Not even close."