Vulgarians at the Gate: The Revenge of the Super Utes
Remember when new money wanted nothing more than to be understated and stylish, just like old money? Me neither. But if recent developments in the new car world are anything to go by, the situation is growing worse, as the steady trickle of hyper-expensive luxury SUVs becomes a tidal wave. The bad taste level is rising, and those lounging recumbent on the shores of restraint and timeless elegance are in for a nasty surprise.
Item: The unveiling of the new Bentley EXP 9F before the automotive press corps at the Geneva Motor Show in March.
Bentley insisted its new SUV was only a concept vehicle, and no one believed it. That is, the international press corps fully believed it was a concept -- and a bad one at that. But it also appears certain that this abomination is a done deal, headed for production.
Why? Because the Bentley SUV seems ready for market -- and why wouldn’t it be? It’s easy to build (being a branded variation on the Porsche Cayenne) and it has everything to appeal to the modern consumer of over-the-top luxury automobiles. It’s from a known luxury brand, it’s large, it’s in charge, it’s new, it’s expensive and it purports to be athletic even though an SUV, no matter how good, can’t ever be as athletic, or anywhere near as fine as a high-quality car, when it comes to the things that one might reasonably expect of a luxury conveyance. Say, in no particular order: ride, handling, good looks and efficiency.
Of course, any limitations to be found in the new Bentley’s supposed raison d'etre (its off-road attack), will be of infinitesimal relevance, shielded by the good sense that says, “Hey pal, you’re not really driving that leather-lined, exotic-veneer-filled, satin-finished monument to your personal wealth, down the rock-faced gulley at Creech’s Crossing, are you?” Then there’s the fact that virtually no one who buys an SUV drives it off-road anyway.
As is to be expected, despite heft closing in on 6000 lbs., the lumbering Bentley SUV’s speed credentials are fully in order. Six-hundred horsepower, 590 lb-ft of torque, and all four 23-inch chrome wheels driven via an eight-speed automatic all qualify it as another example of that increasingly familiar automotive oxymoron, the heavyweight dragster on stilts. (See also AMG ML63 Mercedes, BMW X6M, Range Rover Sport Supercharged, Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8.)
The existence of cars like these is hard to explain without reference to bad taste and a resurgent vulgarity that spans the automotive world, from Moscow to Shanghai, from London to Dubai, from Beverly Hills to Mumbai. Thanks to major restructuring of the world’s transportation policies to better comport with the wishes of the masses, the entire planet has now entered the Automobile Age, with China, Russia, India and large parts of South America and the Middle East hitting the highway both feet in. Among the inevitable beneficiaries is that sector of the car market where irrational speed lust mixes with barely muted aggression and a willingness – née a desire – to appear to be going over the top. Luxury SUV demand is on the boil and the world’s stupidest machines are ascendant.
Ironically, the EXP 9F Bentley on display at Geneva was universally deemed to be alarmingly ugly. This ought to intensify the inherent, offensive nature of a three-ton SUV that is likely to cost a quarter of a million dollars or more. Indeed the social networks lit up as reporters, bloggers and their readers strained to describe an apparition so hideous it elevated jaded hacks to new heights of eloquence. When I tweeted that Bentley had been flirting with vulgarity for years, but it suddenly it looked like they were getting married, the tweet had a wider reach than any of the 525 inconsequential other things I've ever proposed.
To every blogging man, woman and child, and even a few talking pets, everyone hated the Bentley SUV. Yet somehow all observers agreed – they'll sell every one they can build. The luxury SUV’s brash offensiveness is, it seems, like Marshall McLuhan’s medium, the message. You say it’s ugly like that’s a bad thing.
Nonetheless, reaction to the EXP’s styling was so harsh -- compared unfavorably to a Studebaker Lark by many (though personally I think this a favorable comparison) -- Bentley made noises after the show about revisiting it. I’m betting it’s too late. Even so, while Bentley clearly trolls the world for its most uninhibited vulgarian potential consumers, one suspects an outpouring of hate wasn’t what they had in mind. Kind of like the reaction when you drop an atomic bomb. Wow, where’d all the people go? How’d that happen?
For many, an SUV from the now-British-in-name-only firm –a Bentley designed to get down and dirty with Mother Nature -- strains credulity. It just won’t do. And yet it hardly matters –they will sell every one they can build. Though one might ask, at what price?
Item: In April, Lamborghini spirited a delegation of visiting journalists away from the New York Automobile Show at the Javits Convention Center to a private room at the Chelsea Piers.
Attendees, myself included, were required to sign forms (of questionable legal moment, in my professional opinion), embargoing them from sharing anything they were about to see for over a month. Then there was much waiting around before finally we were ushered into a dark room, where a large odd-shaped box was, and an interminable number of moments later, opened to reveal a large, odd-shaped Lamborgini.
Another ungainly SUV concept sure to go into production; it has since been named Urus. It drew not gasps like the Bentley but largely stunned quiet, with several of the assembled silently mouthing words like “Why?” and “WTF?” over and over, as you might when confronted with senseless destruction; in this case, the imminent ruination of the Lamborghini brand, built up haphazardly but genuinely for more than forty years before being sacrificed to the gods of cost accounting.
Aside from being overlarge, silly and overpriced (expect a price tag in the mid-$200,000’s), the common thread between the Bentley and the even more shameful Lamborghini SUV is their overlord, Volkswagen, parent corporation of both the formerly British and formerly Italian firms, and supplier of their SUV’s innards, shared with the Cayenne, VW’s own Touareg and Audi’s Q7.
Volkswagen is engaged in a multi-year campaign to become the world’s biggest automaker, and lately it’s stepped up efforts to squeeze every short-term advantage from its copious assemblage of luxury brands, as soon as possible. Having struck upon the insight that if the pricetag is high enough and the vehicle outlandish looking enough, luxury buyers can easily be persuaded to ride high in the sky, and they’re letting it rip. Lamborghini, if things go according to schedule, will triple its annual sales to 4500 a year. A three-hundred-percent sales spike more or less overnight, two-thirds of brand sales now expected to come from an SUV.
You could argue that Lamborghini’s going back to its roots, as founder Feruccio Lamborghini made tractors first. But you’d be on firmer ground arguing that VW is cashing in on these vaunted brands without regard to what it will do to their essence and exclusivity, both of which can now be placed in the presumptively debased category.
Indeed, VW’s role in accelerating this trend of brand inflation, not to overlook its German competitors, BMW and Mercedes, is central.
It wasn’t like there weren’t early warning signals that good taste was going on an extended holiday – the automotive taste barometer had been below sea level for years. If anything, the economic collapse of 2007 held out hope that some of the worst excesses would be gone for good. After a very-bad-for-automotive-design 1980s, with some truly tacky memories, the rise of the SUV in the 1990s was epic, explosive and like the tail-finned dinosaurs of the 1950s impossible to forget.
In the post 9/11-period, the continued ascent of luxuriantly priced Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator SUVs was a sight to behold. Loathsome in so many ways, yet wildly successful as many Americans found congenial the idea of combining an ass-kicking truck "pose" with snob appeal sold by the pound. The emergence of high-end SUVs from even more unlikely makers of fine automobiles such as Porsche (Cayenne, 2003) and Audi (Q7, 2007), followed soon after, striking terror in the heart of responsible automobilists, especially those of an enthusiastic bent, and with good reason. Lo and behold, they (particularly the Porsche) sold well, in spite of a certain inherent, well, grossness.
And now every remaining luxury carmaker in Christendom readies to offer up its own costly exercise in jacked up aggression: its own SUV. To Audi, Volkswagen, Volvo, Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti and Land Rover, we will add Bentley, Lamborghini and Maserati. And now even Jaguar is making noises about reversing its principled and longstanding refusal to descend into the sport utility fray. It will be among the last to fall but it won’t be the final domino.
That will be Rolls Royce. BMW, its owner, which has a lot to answer for elsewhere in its portfolio for the ever increasing size of most of its models, has demonstrated an impressive and improbable ability to resist the temptation to build the Rolls Royce of sport utility vehicles. The ease with which they might base one on one of their king-sized SUV platforms must tug at BMW’s corporate heartstrings every day. It is an idea most foul. But you know it will sell.