Hubert Burda Media

Who's next on the SUV bandwagon?

Given the soaring popularity of SUVs, it's only a matter of time before luxury carmakers got in on the act.

SUVs are big, not just in the physical sense but also in terms of sales, as they top the league among motorists. Global SUV sales rose a massive 88.5 percent between 2008 and 2013, to 15.7 million, according to IHS Automotive. That was three times faster than car sales as a whole. This year, it is predicted that annual SUV sales will total 20.1 million, or about one of every five vehicles sold. 

This has opened up plenty of opportunities for carmakers to jump on the SUV bandwagon, with some surprising new entrants such as Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar and even supercar manufacturers Lamborghini and Maserati. The latter will unveil its much anticipated Levante SUV at the Geneva Motor Show this month.

All these follow on the heels of upmarket brands BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche who all launched SUVs to huge success, driving up their total sales. It is no secret that Porsche’s Cayenne and Macan SUVs now dominate its sales charts, outstripping sales of its iconic 911 sports car.

While SUV sales are growing rapidly across the globe, they are also proving popular in Asian cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, despite the prospects of never actually taking them off-road. Instead, drivers love their other qualities — safety, higher seating position, spacious interiors and now, status symbol.

SUVs are actually enjoying a second coming, having originally been popular during the last decade. However, rising oil prices then made these petrol-guzzlers expensive to run and they fell out of favour. This forced carmakers back to the drawing board to design more fuel-efficient and compact SUVs. With this surge in popularity, luxury carmakers, along with supercar brands, are now looking at SUVs to sprinkle a little magic dust over the slowing sales of their traditional models.

At Rolls-Royce, a new SUV is still under wraps but we do know its codename: Cullinan. (Cullinan is the name of a “gem-quality diamond”, which itself took the name of the man who discovered it, Sir Thomas Cullinan.) Despite the secrecy, Rolls-Royce boss Torsten Müller-Ötvös has revealed that the upcoming SUV would be launched in 2018. While he is confident about the progress being made in the development of the brand’s first high-riding SUV model, he prefers to call it an all-terrain vehicle. It is likely to come with a V12 engine, so expect something north of 500bhp. There could also be a plug-in hybrid version too.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan

Rolls-Royce has seen huge success in its master plan to attract younger buyers with sales of its sportier-looking Ghost and Wraith models dominating sales. The new SUV could see its average age come down even further. But Rolls-Royce has stressed the new all-terrain vehicle will keep the values of the brand. An open letter from the company reads: “Rolls-Royces conveyed pioneers and adventurers like Lawrence of Arabia across the vastness of unexplored deserts and over mountain ranges. We are creating a motor car in the greatest traditions of our marque.”

But it has a fight on its hands as luxury rival Bentley is also moving into this space and has the upper hand — Bentley’s Bentayga has already launched to much hype and will go on sale this year. Bentley chief Wolfgang Dürheimer has long promised that it’ll be the fastest, most powerful, most luxurious and most exclusive SUV ever made. And if the numbers are anything to go by, he could be right. The Bentayga’s 6.0-litre W12 power plant will produce 600bhp over its four-wheel-drive, eight-speed, automatic transmission. It’ll go to 100km/h in 4.1 seconds and hit a top speed of 301km/h.

Bentley is proud of its British heritage (even though it’s now owned by Germany’s Volkswagen group) and each Bentayga will be handmade in Crewe, England, by third- and fourth-generation workers. When it comes to the hours spent stitching, polishing and refining the interiors, this is where the mainstream SUVs can’t compete with the luxury models. The Bentayga comes with a choice of four or five seats covered in hides taken from bulls bred in the Alps and tanned with all-natural ingredients. Each one is individually selected and inspected for blemishes and defects. Bentley will offer 15 different colours of leather, plus dozens of combinations with exotic woods and gleaming brushed metal trim. This wide range of choice also sets the luxury brands apart.

There are other little touches that luxury brands can afford to add, leaving mass market ones to just watch in awe. For Bentley, this includes a Breitling tourbillon clock on the dashboard, which comes with a choice of either a pearl or black ebony face and eight diamonds embedded inside. And of course, like any good luxury brand, it has a bespoke service where you can choose some of your own features. Popular add-ons include wooden cabinets to hold watches and jewels, cigar humidors, gun safes and, believe it or not, bullet-proofing. These are all part of efforts by Volkswagen to hike Bentley’s output to 15,000 units over in the next three years. Last year, it sold just over 11,000 worldwide. Target markets include China, India, Brazil and Russia. These countries have plenty of rough roads and growing numbers of high-net-worth individuals.

Bentley Bentayga

One of the biggest shocks in the car industry was when Lamborghini announced it was also moving into the SUV segment. Lamborghini has one of the strongest associations with supercars in the world, so to move into SUVs was seen as a big shift in the brand’s direction. To be fair, not everyone was pleased to hear this announcement from Lamborghini. Despite its critics, the Italian supercar-maker will launch its Urus in 2017. The smart thing about this move is that Lamborghini’s SUV could share the same platform as the Bentley Bentayga and the next Porsche Cayenne (all three brands are owned by Volkswagen). Lamborghini engineers are keen to showcase their sporting heritage so the engine will be one of the most powerful ever put inside an SUV. But while its current V10 and V12 engines are magic in supercars, they won’t necessarily do the job in an SUV. Instead, Lamborghini has confirmed that it will use a 4.0-litre twin turbo V8 engine to power its new Urus.

Launching an SUV is also a massive change in direction for Jaguar, as it looks poised to enter the compact SUV market in 2017. Its offering is rumoured to be called F-Pace and will be spun off the new steel Land Rover Discovery Sport platform. Both Jaguar and Land Rover are owned by India’s Tata Motors. While the new Land Rover model is longer and can accommodate seven passengers, the Jaguar SUV is likely to be a strict five-seater that puts an emphasis on sporting handling and performance. It is, for sure, another exciting development to look out for.

The SUV trend is clear to see. Luxury car brands see plenty of potential in SUVs as this market segment grows faster than any other. And the brands launching these new upmarket models can leverage the engineering and expertise from their parent companies, which already make SUVs under other marques. It’s a no-brainer really for these manufacturers and although it will see a crowded market in years to come, it also means more choices for the discerning motorist.