LOS ANGELES - Luxury sport-utilities are not delivering the goods they promise, according to a recent survey.
In crucial areas such as fuel economy, quietness, engine performance and ease of access, luxury sport-utilities are falling short of what consumers demand from a $35,000-plus vehicle.
'Obviously, manufacturers are not completely delivering the kind of vehicle most of these buyers want,' said Daniel Gorrell, vice president of Strategic Vision, the San Diego consulting firm that conducted the survey.
Luxury sport-utility buyers have been seeking a vehicle that is able to handle anything, adds fun to life, creates a sense of freedom and makes the occupants feel in control, Gorrell said. Yet respondents note that the sport-utilities score worse on these attributes than sedans, even though such emotions should be crucial selling points for sport-utilities.
In fact, the only area where luxury sport-utilities outscore their sedan counterparts is in interior roominess. But luxury sport-utilities are falling short in other areas, especially 'finesse' categories essential to luxury buyers such as quietness, comfort, handling, interior craftsmanship and style, the survey found.
The information was derived from a survey of 80,000 owners of new vehicles. Not all of them own sport-utilities, however.
The survey did not specify individual players as offenders. However, another industry researcher, who declined to be named, said Mercedes-Benz is guilty of overpromising luxury sedan-like dynamics of the M class.
Mercedes-Benz countered that it never intended for people to think of the M class as just a big, go-anywhere version of the E-class sedan.
'The M class has much of safety, some of the handling and some of the ride quality of our sedans. There's a tradeoff of the ride quality of an SUV for its obvious benefits. But we'd never say it's an E class,' said Mercedes-Benz spokesman Fred Heiler.
'People need to be careful about what they want and need, and not just give in to a particular hot segment.'
Just the same, the latest M-class advertising veers away from pitching a smooth, supple ride and instead focuses on its handling abilities compared with other sport-utilities.
Gorrell indicated that only one luxury sport-utility is meeting expectations - the Lexus RX 300. That is interesting because the Lexus is a car-based vehicle, and not the 'tough' body-on-frame that many manufacturers insist consumers want. The RX 300 has become Lexus' top-selling vehicle.
Said Bryan Bergsteinsson, Lexus Division general manager: 'You can't throw leather in a truck and make it a luxury car. People like the sportiness and security of SUVs. But because they drive them as everyday vehicles, people carry sedan expectations with them and are disappointed.'
PARADE OF IMITATORS
So what has been the RX 300's secret? Offered Bergsteinsson: 'You don't need a transfer case and you don't need low range, but with all-wheel drive the RX 300 maintains the most desirable elements of an SUV. And from the beginning, we give the RX 300 amenities not associated with an SUV. We didn't just tack them on at the end.'
Many manufacturers are imitating the RX 300 with their own 'hybrid' sport-utilities. Such car-based sport wagons include the BMW X5 and future entries from Porsche, Volkswagen, Chrysler and Infiniti.
Gorrell added: 'We're seeing the birth of a whole new vehicle segment. Many people who want the capacity and security of a SUV don't like the truck-like driving experience or lack of ease and comfort.'