Death of the super-SUV


How betrayed should those of us who love thoroughbred sports cars feel when their manufacturers decide to slap their names on the sides of two-tonne SUVs? On one level it would seem we are fully entitled to feel thoroughly let down by those who pollute and pervert their reputations by chasing down cheap money with unworthy cars.

I’m the bloke whose verdict on the then-brand new Porsche Cayenne was that I wished it had never been built. For a company that until that instant had never built anything other than lightweight two door sports cars to place the shield of Stuttgart on a vast and hideous VW-derived SUV seemed quite beyond the pale. I was quite aware of the short term gains it would realise, but predicted it would be only at the calamitous long-term loss to the value and reputation of the brand.

Bentley’s EXP 9 F

How little I knew. A dozen years later, the Cayenne still outsells every other Porsche put together and the uncomfortable truth is that without the vulgar returns it has made, the Porsches we genuinely love – the Boxsters, Caymans and 911s – would at best be nothing like as good, at worst not exist at all. I am now persuaded that this is the context in which these cars must now be seen.

And I am not alone. It’s taken a great deal of time but over the past few years, almost every single blue-blooded sports and luxury car manufacturer has flirted with the SUV idea, and I’m not talking about BMW, Mercedes and Audi, all of whom have been in the market for years. I mean Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Bentley and even Rolls-Royce.

Whatever their public pronouncements, I understand every one of these has looked hard at the viability of an SUV and some have gone a great deal further. Lamborghini and Aston Martin have shown concepts, while Bentley and Maserati are absolutely committed to production of such cars.

And yet in the last few weeks the mood appears to have changed. First Ferrari ruled out all possibility of such a car emanating from Maranello and to be fair, it’s never officially talked about such a car. Even so, the rumour mill had been rumbling ever since it became clear that Luca di Montezemolo was going to be replaced by Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne, who is believed to be keen to sweat the Ferrari brand somewhat harder than his illustrious forebear.

Aston Martin’s Lagonda SUV concept

But Aston Martin now seems very cool on the subject too. It’s been five years since it showed its Lagonda SUV concept car and in any normal development cycle the car would be nearing readiness now. Instead the Lagonda name has just been applied to a bespoke saloon for the Middle East and Aston executives say no decision has been made about the car. Given that it has no platform upon which to base the car – and won’t, at least until its business partner and part owner Mercedes-Benz produces the next generation M-class – this would seem to kick the idea of an Aston SUV if not off the field entirely, then certainly some distance into the long grass.

As for Rolls-Royce, it has no platform issues as the SUV could easily be spun off the forthcoming BMW X7 architecture, but board member Peter Schwarzenbauer recently said “there is no decision yet. If we’re not totally convinced, we’re not going to do it.” Hardly a ringing endorsement, you’ll agree.

Meanwhile Lamborghini is singing a similar song despite how easy it would be to re-clothe the platform upon which the next generation Volkswagen Touareg, Audi Q7, Porsche Cayenne and Bentley SUV will all sit. It showed its Urus SUV two years ago and yet still no decision has been made to develop it. Such delays do not happen inside the VW empire without reason.

Lamborghini’s Urus concept

What reason can there be? Perhaps the most often voiced is on-going concern about the stability of the Middle East, considered to be a crucial market for such cars. But I think manufacturers are also worried about the ability of these cars to break new ground not just for their brands, but the market. Selling Porsche Cayennes for £50,000 is one thing, selling Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin SUVs for substantial six figure sums is quite another.

They may all be similar in size, but they will sell to completely different customers with different levels of expectation. In short these cars constitute a risk, particularly to manufacturers looking merely to broaden their portfolios rather than changing the entire focus of their business like Porsche, and for them the risks in terms of potential brand damage may now look they are bigger than the rewards.

Where does this leave Bentley and Maserati, who are already far past the point of no return? Probably in reasonable shape, first because their cars look likely to be less unaffordable than some of their rivals were they to come to market, and second because this apparent bout of cold feet might mean less competition when sales begin.

For myself, while I confess that part of me would be quite curious to drive a Rolls-Royce or Lamborghini SUV, if none ever made it to market, there’s a rather larger part of me that would not miss them in the slightest.


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