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Less-pricey luxury cars lead high-end sales

In the rarefied realm of luxury cars, the fastest sellers are turning out to be models that appeal to the merely rich rather than the fabulously wealthy.
Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT sedan is displayed at Detroit Auto Show
The Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT sedan is displayed at a press preview of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week. Sales of the Quattroporte jumped by more than 1,000 units to over 5,600 cars in 2005.J.p. Moczulski / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

In the rarefied realm of luxury cars, the fastest sellers are turning out to be models that appeal to the merely rich rather than the fabulously wealthy.

While sales of posh limousines like the Rolls-Royce Silver Phantom or Maybach stagnate or fall, automobiles pitched to people with $100,000 to $200,000 to burn are booming, executives at the North American International Auto Show said this week.

"For the foreseeable future there will be demand from people who want to show their style, their social achievements, through their clothing, through jewelry and also through their cars," said Karl Heinz Kalbfell, chief executive of Fiat SpA sports car unit Maserati.

"This will not change," Kalbfell added.

With its Quattroporte model acting as the Italian brand's springboard to the U.S. market, Maserati had a bumper 2005, boosting sales by more than 1,000 units to over 5,600 cars. Sales in North America, its biggest market, rose 53 percent.

"We sold 3,600 of this (Quattroporte) car last year and I think it is still on the move," Kalbfell told Reuters, pointing to a muscular Quattroporte Executive GT model that starts at $115,000 and was designed to lure customers from German rivals.

That compares to 796 Rolls-Royce limousines sold last year, a gain of less than 1 percent for the brand owned by German car company BMW.

"Trying to sell a car like our neighbor's for $360,000 or so, you can imagine there are not a lot of people" who qualify as customers, Kalbfell said, gesturing to the Rolls-Royce brand that he used to head. "To achieve around 800 cars is not bad."

"Here we are in a more healthy segment," he said. "If you compare the price league where we are, we are very successful. The question for these kinds of [ultra luxury] brands is how far they can go down to increase their sales base."

With even Maserati planning a less expensive model to grab more customers, speculation has mounted that Rolls-Royce could move slightly down market and take on rivals like Bentley's Continental GT or Flying Spur models, both made by Volkswagen's pricey Bentley division.

But BMW Chief Executive Helmut Panke dismissed that idea for the near future.

"The strategy right now is to reposition Rolls-Royce as a brand and not move down from that pinnacle, icon position too early," he told reporters. "We confirm that we will also expand the Rolls-Royce brand product portfolio, but not now. It is important to remain patient."

Rolls-Royce will launch a stretch limo version in the U.S. market this year and produce a convertible model beginning in early 2007.

Sales of Maybach limousines made by DaimlerChrysler which cost up to $380,000 dropped to "more than 300" last year from around 500 in 2004, but DaimlerChrysler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche put on a brave face at the auto show.

"The main goal clearly is to establish the most prestigious brand and to clearly prove that DaimlerChrysler with the Mercedes brand and Maybach is able to find the top of this industry," he told Reuters Television.

"Product-wise and brand-wise we have clearly accomplished that," Zetsche said. "If we sell more or less units is not that significant."

But he added: "This segment has not developed as positively as all competitors were expecting."

Deliveries of Bentley cars grew more than 30 percent to a record 8,627 vehicles last year. The British brand's growth was strongest in the United States, where deliveries rose more than half. Its Continental Flying Spur on display in Detroit costs $165,000.

Fiat's other luxury sports car brand, Ferrari, broke above the 5,000-unit sales barrier last year as it tapped developing markets such as China, Asia and eastern Europe. North American sales have doubled since 1998 to more than 1,500 last year despite the cars' stiff sticker prices.

The most affordable model, the F430 coupe, costs $172,000 before tax while the 612 Scagletti starts at $270,000. Options and taxes can easily push that price over $300,000.

As the number of wealthy households increases, though, the waiting list for eight-cylinder Ferraris runs up to two years while customers have to wait up to a year for a 12-cylinder model. Demand remains so strong that Ferrari doesn't even advertise.