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Why ultra-luxury brands are getting into SUV game

Rock-solid confirmation that the world had officially changed arrived Jan. 12. That was the day that Bentley, the Volkswagen Group's super-exclusive British brand, announced plans to introduce an "all-new and ground-breaking luxury SUV" to be called the Bantayga, after the Roque Bentayga with its rugged peak in the Canary Islands.

If anyone had any doubt about this shift in the earth's axis, BMW-owned Rolls-Royce wiped it away a month later. Yes, another storied British brand with no history of making luxury trucks said it will also have an exclusive SUV in its lineup. Company officials were not so gauche as to breathe the actual phrase sport-utility vehicle, instead announcing an "all new, high-bodied Rolls-Royce."

Industry watchers predicted Rolls' ultra chi-chi four-by-four might sell for as much as $400,000, perhaps more, putting it at the top of the SUV range. Details about both ultra-luxury SUVs remain scarce, though Britain's Autocar magazine said the Rolls would ride on a new aluminum architecture and power might come from a version of the 6.8-litre, V-12 in the Phantom.

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Bentley chairman and CEO Wolfgang Durheimer has said the Bentayga will come with a choice of W-12 or V-8 engines, or in plug-in hybrid form. But don't be so brash as to say SUV or truck or crossover when he's around. As the Bentley website notes, the "Bentayga will open up a realm of luxury and performance previously unattainable within a conventional SUV," adding elsewhere, "We don't see an SUV. We see beyond."

We saw all this coming. In 2012, Bentley showed the EXP 9 F concept SUV at the Geneva auto show – to the horror of the assembled throng aghast at how massive and tasteless an uber-luxe SUV can be. But it was only a matter of time until Bentley and Rolls turned to selling off-road machines with built-in picnic tables and champagne buckets.

Indeed, this latest news about the most premium of premium brands branching out from the car business into trucks has been in the works for a long time – since Toyota's Lexus luxury brand put the RX crossover on sale in Japan in late 1997, followed by sales in Canada and the United States the next year. About the same time, Mercedes-Benz began producing the M-Class SUV at a plant in Vance, Ala. Shortly afterward, BMW debuted the X5 in 1999.

Today, luxury makers are moving into trucks with leaps and bounds. Nearly 20 years ago they took to SUVs and crossovers with baby steps, generally preferring to leave luxury SUVs to Land Rover.

Land Rover types – and many others – say their rigs are the best at combining off-road capability with on-road dynamics and sumptuous luxury. Land Rover is in the midst of a dramatic lineup expansion with the Discovery Sport, the latest new model to join the lineup. And while "things-gone-wrong" quality studies suggest Land Rover has work to do, J.D. Power and Associates' APEAL study – a look at what owners say Land Rover gets right – puts the brand at the top of the class. Sales have exploded.

The auto industry has taken notice. In 2015, premium car companies offering SUVs and crossovers are expanding their ranges; those yet to get in the game can see and hear customer demand while also smelling profit and growth. Every car company is moving fast to fill the truck gaps in their lineups.

Fiat-Chrylser-owned Maserati and Alfa Romeo both will launch their first four-wheel drive crossovers soon – Maserati, the Levante, due later this year and aimed squarely at mid-size Porsche and BMW SUVs, and Alfa with a smaller crossover next year to rival the Audi Q5, Porsche Macan and BMW X3.

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Ah, the Macan. It will almost certainly become Porsche's most popular model worldwide and it's only been on sale for a year or so. Land Rover has launched the Discovery Sport to expand its SUV footprint and grow sales. Mercedes has introduced the GLA compact crossover and Infiniti is counting the days to the launch of the similarly sized QX30. Cadillac simply cannot produce enough of the giant Escalade to meet demand. Lincoln's MKC crossover is so popular, it might save the struggling brand all by itself.

Volvo is pinning its hopes for a turnaround on the upcoming XC90. Jaguar? Yes, its corporate partner is the aforementioned premium SUV specialist, Land Rover, but that's not stopping it from introducing a "performance crossover" next year. The F-Pace will go head-to-head with the X3 and perhaps even Land Rover's Evoque. The market seems to have an unquenchable thirst for SUVs and crossovers.

"The luxury market has moved quite rapidly to light trucks," says auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers, of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. "In 1990, virtually all luxury vehicles were passenger cars [99.8 per cent]. In 2014 for the first time, an equal number of luxury light trucks were purchased in Canada as luxury passenger cars."

The fastest growing luxury segment: compact luxury SUVs, up 19.4 per cent in 2014. Compact SUVs account for 21.4 per cent of the luxury, says DesRosiers.

Why this great shift? First, Americans have always loved big rigs. Second, government-mandated fuel economy rules have been such that they actually encouraged growth in luxury SUVs and crossovers. Car makers also soon discovered they could make a profit selling premium trucks and they were greeted with strong consumer demand. So it made sense for premium auto companies to push into luxury trucks. By extension, it now makes more sense for ultra-luxury brands to head down this road.

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