If the glamour at last week's Geneva Auto Show was any indication, automakers aren't solely concerned with safety and fuel efficiency. In fact, they remain unabashedly devoted to eye-catching beauty and top-of-the-line performance.
This year's show featured 85 global or European premieres of some of the sexiest and most powerful cars ever to be made, including stunners with six-figure price tags from Aston Martin, Ferrari and Maybach.
Of course, a recent hit on your investment portfolio may have killed your appetite for indulgence. Not to worry. These cars are still a couple of years away, so by the time they come around, the economy may have recovered and your garage will be perfectly primed for a new addition.
The best part is, while many of these high-end models are far from inconspicuous, some are surprisingly eco-minded, like the biofuel-powered Bentley Continental Supersports. Others are pleasantly novel, like BMW's hatchback 5-Series Gran Turismo sedan.
In other words, the luxury cars in the pipeline aren't all like the 612-horsepower Fiorano, which will set you back more than a quarter of a million dollars. Many of the luxury cars of tomorrow are surprisingly practical--even if they don't appear so at first glance.
The high price tags of some of these cars aren't intended to be an insult in the face of an economic crisis. Keep in mind, these cars were conceptualized well before the credit crisis and market crash. But executives at top luxury brands say they plan to maintain existing new-product launches within the next few years. In a product-driven industry, they have little choice.
New cars generate interest and drive people to showrooms, if only just to dream. When consumers actually can afford a new car, they then return to the dealership where they saw the latest and coolest luxury had to offer.
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"If you don't have the product, it doesn't matter what you do at the dealership or with the advertising or the marketing or the incentives," says Wes Brown, a principal analyst at Los Angeles-based Iceology, a consumer-research firm. "If you don't have a good product, it doesn't matter. Product is king."
Audi, for one, is trying to make such a philosophy its practice. The German company had its most successful fiscal year in 2008, with record global sales of more than 1 million vehicles and a revenue growth of 1.7% worldwide over last year. It plans to increase its vehicle range from 28 to 40 models in the next seven years.
The Q7 TDI represents Audi's first major foray into clean diesel technology in the U.S. The vehicle will achieve roughly 28 miles per gallon, Audi says, and will consume 30% less fuel than a gasoline engine of equivalent power. It's expected to hit dealerships in April.
"We believe that the introduction of the new models, the Q5 in particular and TDI, the clean diesel, will put us in a good position to reduce the decline in sales," says Johan de Nysschen, president of Audi of America.
Audi needn't worry too much. The company is experiencing relative success among German automakers in the U.S. market right now, down 25.4% this year to date. BMW is down 28.5% and Mercedes 33.1% so far.
Porsche has also forged ahead with new products, namely the Panamera and Cayenne hybrid. The $89,800 Panamera (with a $132,600 turbo edition), in particular, is a new venture: It's the first four-door sedan from the German company. It will hit the U.S. late this year.
"Our hope is that with this fourth model line, the Panamera will drive interest not only to that vehicle but to the brand overall," says Tony Fouladpour, a spokesman for Porsche.
The Cayenne hybrid, too, puts Porsche into the green segment of the market, which is the place BMW is headed, in part, to turn around its slumping sales. Although many details have yet to be confirmed, BMW has shown hybrid concept versions of its X6 sport activity coupe and 7-Series sedan. The two will be the first BMW hybrids sold in the U.S.
Jez Frampton, the CEO of Interbrand, a global brand-consulting agency, says the influx of hybrid variants is part of a larger trend that will make the auto market look "radically different" by 2014.
"I think what you're going to see is increasingly a concern--partly for the pocket book, partly for people's moral code--for vehicles that are less damaging to the planet and more efficient. And, of course, there's going to be a rise in alternative power sources as well," Frampton says.