We originally wanted to title this post, "Why would Maserati and Bentley want to sell SUVs?” Then we recalled the words of famous felon Willie Sutton who responded, when asked why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money’s at.”
Sport-utility vehicles may be on the verge of becoming passé here in the U.S., but there’s apparently room for growth in global markets where an inbred fascination with big trucks is not part of the culture. According to Bloomberg News, demand for upscale SUVs has nearly doubled since 2000 with high-end carmakers actively targeting what’s become a lucrative market segment.
It’s debatable whether getting into the people-mover business might sully either Maserati or Bentley’s top-shelf image, but selling the Cayenne hasn’t seemed to hurt Porsche’s sports-car credibility despite being responsible for roughly half of the company’s sales. Likewise, Mercedes-Benz makes bushels of money selling no less than five SUVs alongside its luxury cars – including the army surplus-styled $107,100 G-Class – and Land Rover has had no trouble attracting affluent motorists to its overpriced wagons over the years.
Maserati reportedly plans to build its first-ever SUV here in the U.S. at Chrysler Group LLC’s Jefferson North assembly plant alongside the vehicle upon which it will be based, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Both Maserati and Chrysler are operated by the Fiat Group, with this being but one step in the ongoing integration of the automakers’ various brands.
Selling what will essentially be a Maserati-fied Grand Cherokee to well-heeled buyers here and elsewhere in the world may not be as much of a challenge as one might think. It’s well known that the aforementioned Cayenne shares much of its design and engineering DNA with its proletarian cousin, the Volkswagen Touareg, and that hasn’t seemed to drive away many potential Porsche buyers.
Obviously the Maserati version would have to carry strong brand-specific styling cues – we guess it would look something like our ersatz Photoshopped rendering above. It would also have to back up the brand’s nameplate with sufficient luxury and performance to help convince well-heeled buyers they’re not just getting a nicer Jeep. Commandeering the Grand Cherokee SRT8 version’s gutsy 470-horsepower 4.6-liter V8 engine and the vehicle’s superior Terrain Management 4X4 system would obviously be steps in the right direction.
The irony, of course, is that this isn’t the first time a Chrysler vehicle was dressed up and passed off as a Maserati. The two companies were responsible, back in what were dark days for both brands, for the Ill-conceived Chrysler TC by Maserati. Built from 1989-91, it was a midsize convertible that was built in Italy and based on the mediocre Chrysler “K-car” domestic platform. The TC was perhaps best known for its removable hard top that featured round opera windows emblazoned with the Maserati trident logo. The car sold for $33,000 when it debuted, but proved to be a miserable failure; Wikipedia says only 7,300 units were built during the vehicle’s brief run.
For its part, Bentley CEO Wolfgang Durheimer confirmed in a recent Motor Trend interview that a forthcoming SUV would share a common platform with another model courtesy of its corporate overseer, the Volkswagen Group. This would mean Bentley's sport-ute would likely ride on the same “PL71” underpinnings that serve as the basis for the Audi Q7 and the aforementioned VW Touareg and Porsche Cayenne, but perhaps given a longer wheelbase to afford additional rear-seat legroom.
Though the 500-horsepower W12 engine that currently resides under the hood of the long-wheelbase Audi A8 sedan would seem to be a natural fit, Durheimer says that powerplant is not in the vehicle’s future. More likely is a version of Audi’s 4.2-liter V8 engine – it generates a full 430 horses in the R8 sports car – that could come mated to an eight speed automatic transmission and drive all four-wheels via Audi’s “Quattro” AWD system. Expect to see classic Bentley styling with roundish headlamps and a bold grille on the outside and plenty of leather upholstery, wood veneer trim and lambs’ wool carpeting on the inside.
A concept version of the as-yet-unnamed Maserati SUV will be unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in mid-September. No word yet on when we might get a sneak peek at whatever Bentley might have in the works for its posh people mover.
Of course car buffs know that an exotic car company selling an SUV is not without precedent. In 1986 – back when the SUV craze was in its infancy – Lamborghini launched the testosterone-infused LM002. No mere carpooler, the “Rambo Lambo,” as it was called, ran on a go-anywhere 4X4 chassis and packed a V12 engine it shared with the Lamborghini Countach sports car. This militaristic SUV was the ideological forerunner to the Hummer H1 and was popular among wealthy Saudi sheiks for its ability to conquer desert terrain (it was said the LM002 was designed to accommodate gun turrets for such owners to defend their sheikdoms, but this could not be confirmed). It was sold in small numbers through 1993.
What do you think? Are these smart business moves or do Maserati and Bentley’s parent companies risk damaging two storied brands for the sake of chasing easy money?