Luxury cars leave the rest trailing

Despite the economic problems around the world, demand for premium brands such as Lamborghini, Daimler and Ferrari is accelerating.

Fiscal cliffs may have loomed and debt crises rage on but luxury-car makers are roaring ahead.

The acceleration is powered by a race to satisfy surging demand from a fast-growing class of rich and super-rich customers in emerging economies, especially China, but also in the rebounding United States market.

While many volume car makers are in the doldrums, particularly in austerity-hit Europe, premium brands such as BMW, Audi, Daimler, Lexus, Jaguar, Ferrari and Lamborghini are bucking the trend and will continue to enjoy strong growth in coming years, say analysts.

Italy's Fiat is a prime example of the contrast. It has cut its sales and profit targets for the group for this year and next due to a slump in sales in Europe. But its sports car unit Ferrari is on course to post record sales for last year after nine-month turnover climbed 10 per cent to an unprecedented €1.76 billion (Dh8.49bn) - despite a 49 per cent collapse in sales in Italy.

Fiat is so confident of its prospects in the high-end segment that last month it said it would invest €1.2bn in another luxury brand, Maserati, to develop new models and lift sales to 50,000 cars by 2015.

The focus on premium cars, which have far higher profit margins than mass-produced vehicles, makes business sense. According to a study by Germany's Institute for the Automotive Industry (IFA), the global luxury car market will continue to show above-average growth in the coming years.

The IFA expects annual average sales growth of 5 per cent in the worldwide premium segment by 2020, exceeding a projected 4.4 per cent rate of annual expansion for the overall car market.

That alluring prospect, however, is likely to turn the luxury segment into a battleground.

"The global premium market for cars is becoming more fiercely contested," the IFA says. German players aim to boost their global sales by 70 per cent to some 7.3 million units by 2020, and other brands have even more ambitious growth plans, the institute notes. "The result could be massive cut-throat competition from which volume manufacturers would also suffer."

At the moment, the Germans are so far ahead they are distant dots on the horizon to their rivals, at least in terms of sales. German automobiles account for an 80 per cent share of the global premium market. And German car groups have long since snapped up some of the world's top luxury car brands such as Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti.

Last year was the best ever for BMW, Audi and Daimler. At BMW, global sales jumped 20 per cent in the first 11 months of the year to 1.66 million vehicles - already exceeding the whole of 2011 by 10 per cent. Audi, a unit of VW, sold 1.34 million vehicles in the same period - in excess of 30,000 more than in the whole of 2011, previously its best year to date.

Strong sales in the US have played a major role and BMW even managed to increase sales in Europe by almost 10 per cent - in the midst of the euro crisis when car markets in much of the debt-plagued south of the continent collapsed.

But the biggest factor is China. Both BMW and Audi sales jumped more than 30 per cent there in the first 10 months of last year. German car makers have a 22 per cent market share in China, which has transformed itself from the land of the bicycle to the world's largest new car market in the space of a decade. In 2000, China had 4 million cars for a population of 1.3 billion people. The number of cars has since risen more than 20-fold, beating all forecasts.

In China, a car is about more than freedom, it's above all about social status. As the affluent classes grow, so does demand for eye-catching limousines, 4x4s and sports cars. The country already has more than 60,000 people classified as "super-rich" with assets exceeding US$12m (Dh44m). Some 1,000 people in China have assets exceeding $320m, according to Rupert Hoogewerf, the publisher of the China Rich List.

"The luxury market in China will remain gigantic for at least another 10 years," says Mr Hoogewerf. "The market is becoming more differentiated and competition is increasing. But demand for German luxury cars will remain big for many more years."

According to a study by the consultancy Bain & Co, China spent €23bn on luxury goods last year, making it the second-biggest luxury market in the world after the US. For many makers of cars, watches, jewellery and leather goods, it's become the most important market because of the exorbitant prices the goods can fetch there.

Personal wealth in China is at unprecedented levels, says Simon Wu, a sports car importer from Hong Kong. "Someone in Shanghai or Beijing who has their heart set on a Porsche Cayenne doesn't want to wait three months for one," Mr Wu told the German magazine Der Spiegel last month. "He'll write an email saying: 'Want car immediately, will pay €50,000 extra'."

China's appetite for 4x4s has even led Britain's Bentley, a VW subsidiary, to launch a special luxury version. And the Italian sports car maker Lamborghini, also a unit of VW, is considering developing a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

"In most parts of the world, especially in Asia, there is a big acceptance of the success of wealth. One shows what one has achieved in life and is proud of it, and that is respected," says Torsten Müller-Ötvös, the head of the British luxury brand Rolls-Royce, a unit of BMW.

German car makers are doing so well they risk becoming a victim of their own success. The more cars they sell, the less exclusive their products become.

"Unrestrained growth can quickly damage the brand image," says Professor Willi Diez, the head of IFA.

Car makers that sell many thousands of cars will not be able to maintain their standards of individual customer service, which buyers of exclusive cars tend to set great store by. According to an IFA survey, 82 per cent of respondents said personal service was important to them.

"The risk of rapidly growing premium brands isn't so much that the increasing spread of the brand will lead to a loss of exclusivity," says Prof Diez. "The bigger danger is the loss of an intense and individual customer relationship. If this can't be safeguarded when sales numbers rise, there's a risk that customers will be lost." Lamborghini is unlikely to face such problems anytime soon. An Aventador, with a top speed of 350kph, costs upwards of €300,000 but demand isn't just limited by its price. "Different rules apply to us than to other manufacturers," says Stephan Winkelmann, the marque's chief executive.

"In Brazil, for example, it's often dangerous to drive expensive cars due to a lack of security. India lacks the infrastructure our cars need - meaning the right kind of roads. Russia isn't ideal for our cars because of its climate."

Lamborghini sold 1,600 cars in 2011 and expects to have achieved double-digit growth last year, thanks largely to the US market where its sales jumped more than 70 per cent, says Mr Winkelmann.

But sales are not the beall and end all for the company, he says. "We want to remain a luxury brand. We're not focused on sales but on exclusivity. That's important to our clients."

That, says IFA, is a promising approach. "It offers a chance for smaller premium brands such as Jaguar and Volvo but also Porsche, which can offer something different."