Maserati Kubang SUV: Super luxury vehicles belie gloomy outlook

Maserati Kubang SUV, Lamborghini Gallardo, and other super luxury vehicles shine at Frankfurt auto show, despite Europe's debt woes. Maserati Kubang SUV set for production in 2013.

Michael Probst/AP
A Maserati Kubang SUV is presented at the 64th Frankfurt Auto Show in Frankfurt Wednesday. Manufacturers of super luxury vehicles, including the Lamborghini Gallardo and new hardtop Ferrari 458 Spider, are pledging higher sales despite Europe's economic gloom.

What sovereign debt crisis?

Lamborghini's racy Gallardo, Maserati's concept SUV and the new hardtop Ferrari 458 Spider on display at the Frankfurt Auto Show immediately dispel any gloom emanating from the European Central Bank tower across town where bankers are trying to salvage Europe's single currency.

The super luxury automakers are coming out in force — pledging higher sales and offering ever sexier models despite growing economic uncertainty.

Maserati showed off its new sport luxury SUV Kubang, which it plans to start building in 2013, completing a range that currently includes the GranTurismo four-door sedan and the QuattroPorte two-door coupe. Maseratihas also announced plans to add a small sedan to the lineup.

Maserati CEO Harald Wester's goal is to produce 20,000 of the SUVs a year in an ambitious bid to boostMaserati's worldwide sales to 40,000 by 2014, from 6,400 in 2010.

The SUV will be built at the Jefferson North assembly Plant in Michigan, where Chrysler makes the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango, and will use components from Jeep and engines made by Ferrari. An earlier concept of the Kubang in 2003 was never built.

"This is something without the Chrysler cooperation would have been extremely difficult to be realized, not technically, but in terms of a sustainable, viable business case," Wester told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Although the Kubang is a departure from Maserati's traditional product line, Wester insisted it will be "a real Maserati," with all the major components specific to the brand and a design consistent with the rest of the model range.

"I hope the SUV will be the kind of product that will surprise our internal projections," Wester said. "My personal dream is to go to Geneva in 2015, and review 2014 with total Maserati sales worldwide of 40,000."

The fact remains: the luxury sector was even harder hit than the mass production models in the 2008 crisis, meaning their prospects for success are even harder to predict in the current volatile climate.

"They seem to be kind of quietly ignoring it," IHS Automotive analyst Ian Fletcher said of austerity measures blooming across Europe.

Ferrari unveiled a new 458 Spider with a fully retractable aluminum hardtop, which it boasts is a world first for a similar sports car. The hardtop is not only lighter than a traditional folding soft-top, it also takes up less space, creating more room for luggage behind the two seats.

Ferrari is seeking to boost sales with new products in a bid to remain the world's most profitable automaker by operating margin.

Bugatti presented a piece of automotive art, a version of its Veyran Grand Sport clad in porcelain produced by the Koenigliche Porcelain Company in Berlin. And Porsche launched a new 911, made slightly longer to leave room for a hybrid powertrain in future versions.

Super sports car maker Lamborghini announced at Frankfurt that it will build two limited edition models — a street racing version of the Gallardo and a super lightweight demo model Sesto Elemento.

The Gallardo LP570-4 Super Trofeo Stradale has three times the downward force of the standard Gallardo and a higher power-to-weight ratio for superior handling. Just 150 will be made.

The Sesto Elemento, which was shown in Paris last year, will weigh less than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) with a power output of 570 horsepower.

"We had so many requests, we decided to build 20 units," CEO Stephan Winkelmann said Wednesday. The price: a cool €1.6 million ($2 million).

Alas, the Sesto Elemento was not on display in Frankfurt. Teams have spent the last year running consecutive and rigorous tests on the demo model, until there was nothing to show.

Winkelmann said the super sports carmaker expects to reach sales equaling its 2008 heydey by early 2013. Sales have dropped from a high of 2,430 in 2008 to 1,013 in 2010.

The new Aventador, launched in Geneva to replace the Murcielago, gives Winkelmann some reason for optimism.

"We are very lucky to have a very long and stable order bank on the Aventador, which is almost 18 months long" or about 1,300 cars, he said.

Asia has leapt up in the last four years to become Lamborghini's second largest market after the United States, and Winkelmann, like other luxury producers, see enormous growth potential. Lamborghini has opened 14 dealers in China, where its sales have multiplied from 30 in 2007 to 200 last year — representing around 20 percent of the super sports car sales in China last year.

Looking ahead, Lamborghini is seeking to broaden its appeal with an everyday car, moving ahead with plans to expand its model line from two to three.

One candidate is the Estoque, a four-door sedan previewed in Paris in 2008 that Winkelmann said appealed to drivers who might never have previously imagined themselves owning a Lamborghini. A decision on a direction could come early next year.

"The third car is important ... because you will be less dependent on the super sports car segment, which is very sensitive to ups and downs and to emotions," Winkelmann said. "Even a small manufacturer has to see that if you want to continue to create dreams, you have to create a chain of values."

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