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The Final Frontier: SUVs Go Ultra-Luxe - The Big Picture

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 4/15/2015 Angus MacKenzie

"We will solve the problem that you cannot spend more than $160,000 on an SUV," deadpanned Bentley boss Wolfgang Dürheimer about the company's forthcoming Bentayga off-roader. Dürheimer was only half-joking: It appears there are indeed enough people in the world willing to spend four times or more the average annual wage in America on an SUV to justify Bentley spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing one for them.

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Bentley. First World problems solved here.

Dürheimer expects the Bentayga to boost Bentley's global sales to 15,000 vehicles a year when it launches in 2016. And while that total is still only about two-thirds the total number of vehicles Toyota sells worldwide every single day, it represents a 50 percent increase in Bentley's output. Small wonder, then, that other ultra-luxe brands are jumping on the SUV bandwagon. Daimler is planning a Mercedes- Maybach version of the next-gen Mercedes-Benz GL. Lamborghini has already shown potential customers its Urus SUV. Aston Martin's Geneva show concept, the DBX (shown here), will morph into a sporty four-door hatch-type SUV along the lines of an upscale Range Rover Evoque. And Rolls-Royce has announced it will build a "high-bodied car" that "can cross any terrain," which sounds like how they'd describe an SUV on "Downton Abbey."

All SUVs once shared DNA with the seminal off-roader, the WWII Jeep.

A vehicle genre that began with the Jeep Grand Wagoneer in the early 1960s and has since spread worldwide is about to cross the final frontier.

The Final Frontier: SUVs Go Ultra-Luxe - The Big Picture

Not that long ago the DNA all SUVs shared with the seminal off-roader, the World War II Jeep, was fairly obvious; they were wagon-style, four-wheel-drive, off-road vehicles wrapped in a veneer of car-type luxury, with stuff like carpets, sound systems, air-conditioning, nice seats, alloy wheels, and power windows tacked on. With rare exceptions -- most notably, Britain's Range Rover -- they were little more than trucks in a tux, and drove that way. These days, though, about the only thing many modern SUVs share with traditional off-roaders is high ground clearance, a high seating position, and a moderately flexible interior package. Everything else -- even all-wheel drive in some cases -- is optional.

Ironically, as the attributes that define them have become less … definitive, SUVs have become a much more viable vehicle type for automakers whose laserlike focus on their brand would have in the past prevented them from even considering the idea. Like Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce, and Bentley.

Lamborghini created the LM002 as a military vehicle concept, so there is perhaps precedent for the Urus; Lawrence of Arabia once said the Rolls-Royce armored cars -- built on Silver Ghost chassis -- he took through the desert in the Middle East during World War I were "more valuable than rubies," so the idea of an all-terrain vehicle carrying the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot isn't entirely far-fetched; the Sultan of Brunei had Bentley hand-build six SUVs in the mid-'90s, so the Bentayga might not be an outrageous leap of faith. But these are tenuous links at best, obscure factoids beloved of car geeks rather than a credible basis for launching whole new vehicle lines.

SUVs will work for these ultra-luxe brands for the same reason they work for Chevy and Ford and Toyota: People like riding high so they get a good view in the traffic, they like something they can drive in all weather on all roads, and they like a vehicle that offers more passenger and load-carrying flexibility than a regular sedan without looking like a station wagon or a minivan.

The folks at Rolls-Royce and Bentley see SUVs as additive to their businesses -- existing customers will buy one to keep alongside their Phantoms and Mulsannes -- while the Urus and DBX will likely bring people to Lamborghini and Aston Martin who would never have considered owning one of their sports cars. And, more important, all have the potential to deliver healthy profit margins because the capability their owners want can be largely delivered via electronics and software rather than unique, expensively engineered, Rubicon-busting hardware (an early Rolls-Royce SUV prototype is shown here).

One potential Bentayga owner summed it up this way: "If you can afford a Bentley SUV, your boat is too big to tow."

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