FRANKFURT – They may not have been stung personally by the global recession, but luxury-vehicle buyers are mindful of those who have suffered.
So they are restraining themselves, luxury-marque executives tell Ward’s at the auto show here.
Given that many Maserati-brand aficionados own businesses so stricken by collapse they’ve been forced to cut their payrolls, moderated spending is “absolutely understandable,” says Maserati SpA CEO Harald J. Wester.
“They have my full respect; they are behaving morally and ethically correct,” he tells Ward’s shortly after Maserati unveils the 433-hp GranCabrio. No pricing is revealed, but the car, expected to arrive in showrooms by spring 2010, likely will be positioned in the range of the $121,500 Gran Turismo S Automatic.
“You cannot (cut jobs) and show up next Monday with a new Maserati,” says Wester, whose sympathy is admirable considering the consumer pullback has contributed to the auto maker’s 43.2% first-half net-revenue plunge, compared with like-2008.
However, through August, Maserati’s global sales fell 35%, outperforming the market's 40% decline.
Mainstream luxury brands also have witnessed this phenomenon. Consumers fear this is not “the right time (to buy), from a social perspective,” says Andy Pfeiffenberger, vice president-Lexus Europe. They are being careful not to “send the wrong message to the people. A lot of this is going on.”
In the U.S., where the troubled economy sent the unemployment rate skyrocketing to 9.7% last month, luxury-car sales totaled 509,698 units through August, according to Ward’s data, for a 31.5% drop from like-2008. This compares with the total light-vehicle market, which trailed prior-year by 27.8%.
“The dynamic at work is interesting,” says Audi of America Inc. President Johan de Nysschen. “The consumer still has the money. (Buying luxury) was just not considered to be the socially correct thing to do. People have become a little bit cautious about conspicuous consumption.”
This, however, “plays into one of Audi’s strengths,” he adds. “We are a high-end, premium, progressive but understated brand. We are not loud and flashy.”
On the upside, Wester, Pfeiffenberger and de Nysscheen all perceive pent-up demand.
“When a positive economic outlook returns, and it will once again be seen to be an OK thing to be in a new car, the people who have money will come back,” de Nysschen says, noting their return could be marked by a new prudence.
Smaller engines could be in vogue, which, he says, also plays into Audi’s hands, as its acclaimed 2.0L FSI 4-cyl. mill delivers performance comparable to 6-cyl. powertrains.
Adds Pfeiffenberger: “People do need cars. People do have money, here particularly. It’s not like the consumer in the German market is carrying a lot of debt. Everybody’s fairly healthy.”
When will they start spending? Next year, Pfeiffenberger says. “Not in a big way, but slightly.”