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The S.U.V.-ification of Everything Comes to Classic British Marques | Press "Enter" to skip to content

The S.U.V.-ification of Everything Comes to Classic British Marques

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When asked to imagine a British car, most people would picture a buzzy MG or Triumph roadster, or a stately Jaguar or Rolls-Royce sedan. But with S.U.V.s, vans and pickups now accounting for nearly three-quarters of new vehicle sales in the United States, manufacturers in Britain — some familiar, some unexpected — have followed the market.

Aston Martin, the storied sports car maker, has just begun delivering its first sport utility vehicle, the DBX, to American customers. Bentley, known for rarefied luxury, has just released a highly revised version of its S.U.V., the Bentayga. And England’s original S.U.V. manufacturer, Land Rover, has reintroduced its rugged Defender nameplate, which had been absent from this market for nearly 25 years.

Not surprisingly, these vehicles have drawn considerable attention in the States. Bentley’s chief executive, Adrian Hallmark, said interest in the Bentayga, as measured in “website visits and configurations, and hand-raises for further information, was about four times what we saw” at the launch of the Flying Spur sedan in January. He believes that Bentayga sales will match those of “our three other cars, combined” — up to 5,000 or so in a year.

Similarly, Ed Moran, the interim president of Aston Martin of the Americas, anticipates that the DBX will most likely double the brand’s global production.

“The vast majority of our customer base already owns an S.U.V.,” Mr. Moran said. “And I think we’ve seen in the high-luxe S.U.V. segment, for our competitors who have an S.U.V., how much it makes up of their portfolio. We see a correlation with DBX in terms of the role it will play in the Aston brand.”

While Land Rover already produces half a dozen luxury sport utes, Joe Eberhardt, the Jaguar Land Rover North America chief executive, expects the United States “to be the biggest market, globally, for Defender,” with sales “around the volumes we see for Range Rover or Range Rover Sport.” Together, those vehicles account for half the brand’s American output.

From behind the wheel, these vehicles fulfill their missions. The Aston, whose base price starts a couple of lattes shy of $193,000, is the sportiest, with a 542-horsepower, twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8 engine. Though it weighs nearly 5,000 pounds, on back roads it feels nearly as nimble as the brand’s Vantage or DB11 sports car, though it’s less afraid of a little sand and gravel.

Sadly, the infotainment system — purchased, like the engine, from Mercedes-Benz, which owns a 5 percent stake in Aston Martin — is generations behind and already outmoded. Fortunately, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which mirror the functions of your phone on the vehicle’s screen, make up for the infotainment system’s irrelevance, and the DBX’s alluring shape and generous helpings of leather cement its appeal.

While more luxurious and technologically sophisticated — with an advanced infotainment setup, its own 542-horsepower 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8, an alluring cabin layered in burled wood and knurled metal, and a potent all-wheel-drive system — the $177,000 Bentayga can handily tackle dunes, and is vaultlike in its highway composure. Its awkward exterior styling melds bland stolidity and tacked-on glitz, but because it tips the scales at a quarter-ton more than the Aston, it’s more of a cashmere steamroller through the twists.

The $51,925 Defender 110 is the intrepid adventurer. Assembled on an all-new platform, and sporting either a 296-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four engine or a 395-horsepower turbocharged and electrically supercharged 3.0-liter inline-six, it shares its predecessor’s appetite for mud and rubble, but dispatches that truck’s agricultural heritage, providing a luxurious on-road experience.

While each of these vehicles enjoys distinctive positioning, and Americans continue to flock to S.U.V.s, some forces are running counter to their success. Heritage brands like Ferrari, Cadillac, Lincoln and even Jeep are also entering the six-figure S.U.V. market. A host of electric vehicle start-ups like Bollinger, Rivian and Pininfarina have plans to release similarly costly battery-powered S.U.V.s.

These vehicles may steal sales from other offerings in their manufacturers’ limited lineups. And there seems to be an intrinsic disconnect between a high-end marque and the utilitarian nature of an S.U.V.

“There’s not infinite capacity,” warned Alexander Edwards, president of the automotive research and consulting firm Strategic Vision.

The ultraluxury S.U.V. segment can expect some limited expansion simply because about 30 percent of these will be vehicles that “aren’t replacing purchases, but are just being added to people’s fleets,” Mr. Edwards said. But he suggested that an additional 40 percent of these purchases might be made by people moving out of cars, potentially eating into sales of Aston’s Vantage and DB11 and Bentley’s Continental and Flying Spur.

He also noted that more than 20 percent of Defender buyers were coming out of other Land Rover products, but said, “Cannibalization is very common for early buyers.”

Intriguingly, Mr. Edwards suggested that fully 30 percent of sales would involve consumers “moving up” from a luxury to an ultraluxury S.U.V.

Mr. Edwards provided a clever distinction between luxury S.U.V. buyers and buyers of sports cars from these same brands.

“Anybody who drives the Batmobile, they can be Batman. So when I get into that vehicle, I can become that fantasy image,” he said. “Whereas for the S.U.V. person, the car is my ideal self as the way I see myself, and I’m just presenting that to the world. I may not be Batman, but I am a sophisticated, intelligent person who leads an active, healthy life.”

Moreover, instead of diluting a carmaker’s appeal, these vehicles seem to extend it. Mr. Edwards’s research shows that producing an S.U.V. engenders brand gratitude from consumers for understanding their needs.

“It says: ‘We’re not just a little niche group. We’re something that does something,’” he said.

While all of these manufacturers have plans to incorporate mild electric hybridization soon, and remain vaguely committed to a more electrified future, they don’t seem in any rush to abandon internal combustion engines. Only Bentley has set a nonbinding deadline to do so —10 years hence, in 2030.

“We don’t lose any sales to Tesla as far as I’m aware,” Mr. Hallmark said. “Tesla are the big dog in the yard, but you couldn’t call them luxury cars compared to the way that we deliver them. They are high-cost cars because of the high technology. But people don’t buy a Tesla Model X instead of the Bentayga. There’s no cross-shopping.”

So even, or perhaps especially, in these uncertain times, ultraluxury S.U.V.s are drawing the well-heeled buyer.

“A large portion of the population is still working form home, so the ability to get in your vehicle and escape a bit has become that much more valuable,” Mr. Moran said. “And I don’t think that’s going to go away anytime soon. The bottled-up feeling that has transpired through this year, people are looking for avenues to escape a bit, and getting in your vehicle is the perfect way to do that.”


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