Maybe the rich aren't so different, after all. Luxury-vehicle sales, long considered invulnerable to a sluggish economy, are showing signs of weakness.
GfK Automotive, a market research company, identifies a slowdown in luxury prospects' intentions to buy. That could be a bad sign for coming months, triggering what once was considered unseemly behavior by segment leaders.
"There are food fights in the luxury market, which used to be a gentleman's market," says Doug Scott, senior vice president of GfK in Southfield, Mich.
Such luxury brands as Cadillac, Lincoln, Infiniti and Porsche reported lower U.S. light-truck sales last year than in 2004. Lincoln, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Saab all posted lower car sales in 2005.
Jim Taylor, general manager of Cadillac, says higher gasoline prices and the pull-ahead effect of the Big 3's summer employee discount programs have harmed the luxury segment.
The lukewarm stock market isn't generating "a sense of prosperity" that promotes sales of luxury vehicles, says Susan Jacobs, an automotive consultant in Rutherford, N.J. Jacobs blames part of the slowdown on product cycles. New SUV models tend to sell well for a few years but lag until they are redesigned, she says.
Japanese automakers continue to gain ground in the luxury category, which the Big 3 dominated for decades, Jacobs says.
Lexus remained the top-selling luxury brand in the United States for the sixth straight year. The Lexus Division of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. sold 302,895 cars and trucks in 2005 -- a 5.2 percent increase from the previous year.