Ultra-luxury carmakers continued to one-up each other with extravagant details at the Geneva International Motor Show, even as the prospect of slower growth in China left some saying last year's sales jump won't be repeated.
Rolls-Royce displayed a Phantom sedan built for a single customer, with interior flourishes including mother-of-pearl inlays and hand-woven embroidered silk. The most exclusive touch of all in the Serenity special edition, designed to showcase the brand's ability to customize a car, is a Japanese style of painting that could traditionally only be done by a person in a serene frame of mind.
The car is just one of many efforts by the world's most exclusive auto brands to woo wealthy customers in Geneva this year after high-end sales gains outpaced mass-market delivery growth. Registrations by the seven biggest ultra-premium nameplates surged 154 percent in the past five years, according to IHS Automotive, far more than the 36 percent increase at volume manufacturers.
"If the economy is holding, our sales should exceed those of last year," Stephan Winkelmann, head of Volkswagen AG's Lamborghini division, said in an interview at the show. A trend toward customization is helping boost per-vehicle spending, which benefits the Italian supercar maker too, he said.
Still, Winkelmann predicted that, while demand in the performance-car industry will probably remain stable, competition will become stiffer as luxury manufacturers expand model ranges and newcomers join the segment.
The showroom floor in Geneva, where carmakers typically present their most glittering models, illustrated his point during previews this week.
One focal point at Mercedes-Benz's display was the three- row Maybach Pullman, with a starting price of about 500,000 euros ($556,000). Ferrari brought its turbocharged 488 GTB. At Bentley, the biggest crowds surrounded a two-seat sports car called the EXP 10 Speed 6, a concept that the U.K. company said shows what could be next after it introduces the Bentayga sport- utility vehicle in 2016.
Cadillac, meanwhile, is working on a low-volume luxury model to compete with the Mercedes-Maybach S-Class, Johan de Nysschen, the General Motors Co. unit's president, said in an interview Wednesday.
To boost the Cadillac brand and challenge the German luxury-market leaders, "we also need to create some highly aspirational vehicles," De Nysschen said.
By 2019, the number of millionaires is expected to surge 53 percent to 53 million people, according to Credit Suisse's Global Wealth Report 2014. About 0.7 percent of the world's adult population now owns 44 percent of household wealth.
Ultra-luxury cars will probably keep multiplying as manufacturers "exploit this new paradigm for high levels of individual wealth," Tim Urquhart, an analyst at IHS Automotive research company, said in an e-mail. IHS is predicting that ultra-premium sales will triple this decade, to 352,000 cars by 2020 from 122,000 in 2010.
Even so, Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes, head of BMW AG's Rolls- Royce ultra-luxury division, sounded a note of caution on Tuesday as he introduced the U.K. carmaker's inlay-and-silk Phantom Serenity.
Rolls-Royce probably won't repeat last year's 12 percent growth, Mueller-Oetvoes said in an interview. The Russian market may shrink, while anti-corruption measures and investigations into high-net-worth individuals in China have left potential customers hesitant to buy, he said.
"As an English person would say, I'm quietly confident we'll sell at least one more car this year compared to last year," Mueller-Oetvoes said. "I don't think we'll see double- digit growth again. But it'll be at least one more car."
The Geneva show opens to the public on Thursday and runs through March 15.
--With assistance from Kyle Stock in New York and Mathieu Rosemain, Naomi Kresge, Dorothee Tschampa and Hans Nichols in Geneva.
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