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No Sticker Shock With These Luxury Cars

Autos: An influx of vehicles in the $300,000 to $900,000 range demonstrates confidence in the growing sector as well as in the economy.

June 29, 2002|TERRIL YUE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — The stakes in the global car market are about to go way upscale.

The battlefield is moving to a new level, the "ultra-luxury" market that is estimated in a couple of years to reach more than $2.5 billion annually.

For the well-heeled who want a luxury car that far surpasses the best that Mercedes-Benz or BMW offers, there soon will be several from which to choose, most in the rarefied $300,000 to $900,000 range.

The new entries are from Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Bugatti--all now German-owned--and DaimlerChrysler, which is reintroducing a marque that's been off the market for 60 years: the Maybach.

With the Maybach going on sale in Europe this fall and in the U.S. next spring, and the first new Rolls-Royce developed under BMW ownership due in January, sales of the ultra-luxury vehicles are expected to hit 8,500 to 10,000 units worldwide, with a good number of them in Southern California.

"The economic circumstances of the moment are probably less than optimal for these types of vehicles but very suitable for the market prospect over the next five to 10 years," said Susan Jacobs, president of Jacobs Associates, an automotive consultancy that tracks the luxury car market.

"The baby boomers are aging beyond 50 years old, and people are still sitting on a huge wealth cushion, even though it's smaller," she said.

The Maybach will come in two versions: the 57 (for 5.7 meters, or 133 inches), and the extended-wheelbase 62 (6.2 meters, or 151 inches), which will have rear seats that recline like first-class airline seats.

It features a standard built-in refrigerator, DVD screens behind the front headrests and a choice of wood paneling: burled walnut, cherry or amboyna, a variety from the Philippines.

Also planned is polished granite, probably from Italy or Spain.

The 62, designed to be a chauffeured limousine, has as an option roof with "electro-transparent glass" in which an electric current can turn the roof from transparent to opaque and stages in between, depending on how much light the occupant wants.

Consumer demand exists for the Maybach, which will start at just less than $300,000, said Maybach brand manager Wayne Killen. "Half of the world's billionaires live in the U.S.," he said.

"There are 2.5 million people in this country with investable assets of $1 million, or 35% of the world's share," Killen said. "We also have 35% of the world's ultra-high-wealth people, who have investable assets of more than $30 million. That's why the majority of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys are sold in the U.S."

Volkswagen promises similar luxury in its upcoming Rolls-Royce at a similarly stratospheric price, though the company is tight-lipped about details because of an agreement that transfers ownership of the brand name to BMW on Jan 1.

Bentley's new $150,000 two-door, code-named the GT Coupe, is coming to market next fall, and Bugatti is developing an even more expensive chariot for next year, the Veyron, whose price estimate ranges from $700,000 to $900,000.

So many expensive vehicles coming to market is a testament to the confidence auto manufacturers have in the growing luxury sector.

"It shows that the manufacturers read the market the same way: that the population of people who can afford this type of vehicle is growing," said John Crawford, a U.S. spokesman for Bentley.

The GT Coupe has the powerful curves of Bentleys past and a mesh grille like the Bentleys that raced in Le Mans 70 years ago. The engine will push the GT Coupe from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds and have a maximum speed that tops 180 mph.

The Bentley vehicle and its engine will be built at the Rolls-Bentley factory in Crewe, England.

Few details are available about the upcoming Rolls-Royce, but BMW executives promise it will be true to its British heritage, complete with imposing grille, and not be a super-luxury BMW. The Rolls will be built at a new factory in England.

The Rolls is expected to have a "halo effect" on BMW's mainstay brand, as the Maybach should for Mercedes and the Bentley and Bugatti for VW and its Audi division. They are expected to generate showroom traffic and media buzz that will rub off on the less costly brands.

The Bugatti EB 16-4 Veyron, as it's formally known, will have plenty of halo to spread.

The sleek, race-car-like Veyron will have a 16-cylinder engine with 1,001 horsepower and a top speed of 254 mph.

But whether or not they make money is another question.

"It will give them a point of differentiation, because the mainstream luxury market is getting pretty crowded," Jacobs said. "But as for making a profit, it depends how much of a boom economy materializes as we go forward."

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