Jan 13, 2009

Luxury cars defy gloom

DETROIT - IF YOU have US$1 million (S$1.45 million) to spend on a car, you may be one of the 'happy few' to be offered a chance to buy one of only 75 new Mercedes SLR 'Stirling Moss.' Unrestrained luxury cars are selling well, despite doldrums in the global auto industry.

The new SLR, which goes on sale starting in June 2009, will be reserved for owners of previous SLR models - which sold for as much as US$300,000 - and them alone, said a Mercedes spokesman at the Detroit auto show.

The nouveaux riches, recent lottery winners and the like, can thus only dream of getting in the driver's seat.

In a market in dramatic decline in the United States and throughout the world, high-end brands such as Bentley, Maserati, Lamborghini, Jaguar, Maybach and Rolls Royce are posting strong sales, up eight percent to 50 per cent notably in emerging markets such as Eastern Europe.

Jaguar, now owned by India's Tata, sold 65,000 cars priced between US$30,000 and US$60,000 in 2008, up eight per cent over the previous year, according to its global marketing director CJ O'Donnell.

'Of course everybody feels the crisis, but Jaguar does not have to sell millions of cars to make a profit,' he explained.

Britain remains Jaguar's primary market, but the United States is catching up.

On Sunday, Jaguar executive director Michael Drisco unveiled the company's new XF, which can reach speeds of up to 362kmh, 'which really pleases women.' He says he is 'pretty optimistic for the future.' It's a niche market and for the most exclusive brands, only a few hundred vehicles are produced.

'We sold 2,430 Lamborghini in 2008, up six per cent, and we have 122 dealers, 50 more than in 2007,' chief executive Stefan Winkelmann said at the launch of its Gallardo LP 560 at the Detroit auto show.

'Lamborghini is style, Lamborghini is lifestyle,' he said, adding that the carmaker more and more customises its vehicles in response to clients' unique demands. 'We individualise the cars.'

These coveted Italian luxury sports cars sell for US$200,000, sales director Enrico Maffeo told AFP.

The US market was its top buyer with 950 vehicles sold in 2007, but sales fell slightly to 750 Lamborghinis last year, while European sales topped 1,000, he said.

Who rides in Lamborghinis in the United States? Hollywood actors, a few rappers, and top lawyers, mostly in New York, California and Florida.

'Elsewhere, we sell mostly in Italy, Germany, Britain and Switzerland. In Russia, the roads and the climate are harsh, but we still sold a dozen vehicles there,' Mr Maffeo said.

'We cannot say we are unaffected by global prices,' commented Lamborghini's Mr Winkelmann. 'But we are not changing strategy. We have a new product each year.'

Even if the car maker maintains its distinctive Italian style, in its designs as in its marketing, Lamborghini is nevertheless since 1998 part of Germany's Audi, which is in turn owned by the Volkswagen Group.

'The synergies between them are indispensable,' said Enrico Maffeo. 'That's something the US automakers never quite got a handle on.' -- AFP