Luxury SUVs are the hottest trend in car ownership

One of the last big profit centres for traditional automakers, the sport utility vehicle (SUV), is under siege. An onslaught of competitive new SUVs, especially in the most profitable high-end segment, is in the development pipeline or already showing up in dealer showrooms.

At this year's New York International Auto Show, the star attractions weren't the usual sleek sports and muscle cars, but new luxury SUVs from Jaguar, Maserati (where a line formed for a chance to be enveloped in the wood-and leather-lined interior) and even Bentley, which had its new Bentayga safely cordoned off behind velvet ropes. No wonder, with a starting price of $US229,000 (this will translate to upwards of $600,000 when the first high-spec model goes on sale in Australia).

Intense competition

There's intense competition even at that stratospheric level. A Mercedes G65 AMG can easily cost more than $US220,000. Range Rover, which has long dominated the SUV market at the very top, has introduced a model in collaboration with Holland & Holland, the London manufacturer of sporting guns, which sells for about $US245,000. (The price includes a built-in gun storage compartment.)

New SUVs are on their way from Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini and even Aston Martin, the famed sports-car maker that put its toe in the water with a Lagonda SUV at the Geneva International Motor Show.

"It's an arms race at the moment," said Ian Fletcher, an automotive analyst for IHS who previously worked at Jaguar and Bentley. "Carmakers are making ever bigger vehicles."

And for the comparatively few SUV customers who seem to care about fuel efficiency and the environment, Tesla updated its SUV line with the all-electric Model X 75D, which starts at $US83,000 and features sexy gullwing doors reminiscent of a vintage Mercedes sports car or DeLorean.

Following demand

Automotive purists and driving enthusiasts may sniff at the bulky profile and truck-like handling of the traditional models (Ferrari insists it won't make an SUV), but automakers are following demand and looking for growth by appealing to the world's most affluent consumers. And some of the new models, like the Maserati, manage to disguise their bulk with sleek curves and distinctive styling.

Many of these factors were in evidence at this spring's New York auto show. Mike Fedorenko of Westfield, New Jersey, told me he was trading up from a Ford Explorer to one of the new luxury SUVs after recently inheriting some money. He admired the red and black leather seats in the Jaguar F-Pace and the reasonable price (starting at $US42,000) but otherwise dismissed the interior appointments as "cheesy". (It probably didn't help the Jaguar that the Bentley's burled walnut and quilted leather was in our peripheral vision.) He said he was leaning toward the new Maserati Levante or a Porsche Cayenne.

Fedorenko said fuel efficiency wasn't a concern. "I'm sure the world would be a better place if we all drove Minis," he said. "But with so many crazy drivers on the road, I want the biggest vehicle I can get."

New York Times