Trucks Go Luxe
Tesla's Model X P90D Signature Edition will deliver up to 257 miles on battery power alone—for a price tag of $132,000.
From SUVs to sports cars and even pickups, rugged vehicles are getting the royal treatment and stretching the definition of “truck.”

The visitor gets a once-over, surrendering camera and cellphone before being asked to sign a strict nondisclosure agreement. He's led through the well-guarded house, then out back through the garden leading him into a tent. There he glimpses the secret project that has consumed Bentley designers and engineers for more than four years. Finally rolling into showrooms now, the Bentley Bentayga is being billed as "the fastest, most powerful, most luxurious, most exclusive SUV in the world." The company might also have said "most expensive," with a sticker starting around $230,000 and going well into the $400,000 range fully loaded. It's a vehicle priced right between more traditional premium-luxury models like the Bentley GT Coupe and the flagship Mulsanne sedan.

The British maker won't have the ultra-premium SUV segment to itself for long. The market is about to get downright crowded. The who's-who list of the world's most exclusive automotive makers set to roll out new utility vehicles of their own includes such stalwarts as Maserati, Aston Martin, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce. More mainstream Land Rover is rapidly pushing up-market with the limited-edition Holland & Holland long-wheelbase Range Rover Autobiography Black. If the name doesn't take your breath away, how about the $285,000 price tag?

The rapid move into the utility-vehicle segment by exclusive manufacturers probably shouldn't come as a surprise. It reflects the broader shift to brawny wheelbases supporting opulent rides in an increasingly truck-centric market. Pickups are having one of their best years ever, and new, well-equipped trucks are pushing into increasingly upscale territory.

A luxury pickup? Lincoln tried several times to plant its badge on a bed, with poor results. It sold less than 1,000 of the quirky Blackwood models of a decade ago. To no surprise, considering the high cost and minimal functionality. Blackwood featured a power tonneau cover over its wood and chrome-lined bed that would crush even a standard grocery bag when the cover closed. And Lincoln didn't score much better with a rebadged version of the F-150 sold by the sibling Ford brand.

That said, Ford can barely keep up with demand for heavily loaded versions of the F-150 itself. Ford was stunned by sales of the King Ranch edition, equipped with leather seats, high-end audio systems, seat and steering wheel heaters and other upscale accoutrements. It nudged a bit higher with the Platinum and recently added the even more upscale Limited. These days, it's not hard to find an F-150 Limited with a price tag pushing north of $70,000.

Chevrolet has seen a similar shift in demand for the full-sized Silverado pickup. And General Motors' GMC has scored a smash hit with the Sierra. The "premium" Denali, now accounts for about a third of its sales.

That said, the real growth is in luxury utility vehicles. Once the purview of blue-collar workers and rugged outdoorsmen, they have been gaining ground across the board. According to IHS Automotive, utility vehicles almost outsold sedans in the United States for the first time last year. Add pickups, vans and minivans, and the "light truck" segment accounted for 58 percent of 2015 sales. Joe Hinrichs, Ford Motor Co.'s president of the Americas, expects utility vehicles alone to gain as much as 10 more points this decade. And while America might be truck crazy, it's not unique. Demand is surging everywhere from Berlin to Beijing.

Entry-level buyers are rapidly migrating away from small cars like the Honda Fit to the maker's new HR-V. The attainable luxury brand Cadillac, which has the big Escalade and mid-range XT5 (which this year replaces the old SRX), will add three new utes before the end of the decade.

Hyundai, which is launching an all-new luxury brand this year, is working up three, and possibly four new SUVs, two for the Genesis division. Without those "we're out of whack, a fish swimming upstream," in the current environment, explains Dave Zuchowski, CEO of Hyundai Motor America.

Land Rover was among the first to spot the potential, bringing the exclusive Range Rover to its showrooms alongside more traditional off-road offerings. A decade ago, Porsche had skeptics scratching their heads when it announced plans to introduce its own luxury ute, the Cayenne. That's now the brand's most popular model and, analysts will tell you, the key to Porsche's current global success. It recently debuted a second, slightly smaller model, the Macan, and can barely keep up with demand.

Mercedes-Benz, through its Geländewagen (G-Wagen), was an early entrant. At least initially, it was a peculiar niche offering suited to military and rescue crews. The Mercedes ML came closer to the mainstream bull's-eye and the German maker has since added so many utility vehicles that it renamed them all, hoping to help consumers figure them out. For Ford's struggling Lincoln division, the Navigator has long been its most recognizable product. It now offers three other utility vehicles, from full-sized down. The compact MKC has become the strongest hit Lincoln has had in years.

Overall, the luxury segment is where we're seeing the fastest growth of utility vehicles, both in sales and available offerings. It is most obvious in the ultra-premium market. As buyers migrate out of traditional vehicles, no high-end manufacturer wants to be left behind.

Surprisingly, it was Lamborghini that introduced one of the first truly upscale SUVs in 30 years. The Italian maker, today a subsidiary of Volkswagen, briefly offered the LM002, which was widely known as the "Rambo Lambo." It sold a mere 328 of them between 1986 and 1993, but it's looking to sell at least three times as many—each year—when it gets back into the business in 2018. It is doubling the size of its operations in the Modena suburb of Sant'Agata, while adding another 500 jobs, to produce the new Urus, which former CEO Stefan Winkelmann (now with Audi) called "crucial" for the success of the company. "We need to be present in a growing segment that is becoming very well distributed all over the world." He adds that he expects the willingness of luxury buyers to pay a hefty premium for utility vehicles to "protect our sports cars."

Another Italian automaker betting big on SUVs is Maserati. The high-line division of Fiat Chrysler just officially revealed its first offering in the form of the Levante. Originally unveiled as the Kubang concept vehicle at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show, the idea was to borrow from the best of the Fiat Chrysler family, lifting bits of the familiar Grand Cherokee platform and pairing it with a Ferrari-derived V-8. Like many of its luxury competitors, Maserati is putting the emphasis as much on "sport" as on "utility" with the 2017 Levante—no surprise considering it will be going up against the likes of the Porsche Cayenne, the first real luxury alternative to a classic sports car or sports sedan.

Rolls-Royce is another brand where a utility vehicle might seem a rolling contradiction in terms. And, indeed, the maker refers to its as-yet-unnamed model as a "sport-activity vehicle," or SAV, rather than a sport-ute, adding that it will be a "high-bodied car with an all-aluminum architecture...that can cross any terrain."

To calm the nerves of those elite motorists who still might not get it, Rolls CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös stresses that while the new ute will mark "another seminal moment," it is not entirely unique in "Rolls-Royce's 111-year journey." He points to the British brand's "pioneering, adventurous spirit," and to one of the U.K.'s true adventurers, British Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence. Better known as Lawrence of Arabia, he used a squadron of armored Rolls-Royces during his campaign against Turkish forces during World War I. In fact, there were six squadrons formed during the "War to End All Wars." Lawrence later proclaimed, "I should like my own Rolls-Royce car with enough tires and petrol to last me all my life."

Exactly what Rolls' sport-activity vehicle will look like remains top secret, but it's expected to share some of its underlying components with the full-sized X7 SAV being developed by the British maker's parent, BMW. That's common in an industry where so-called platform sharing helps improve economies of scale.

In sharp contrast with early luxury SUVs like the Mercedes G-Wagen and Lambo's LM-002, the vast majority of today's high-line utes are more formally designated "crossover-utility vehicles." They're based on beefed-up versions of the same unibody architectures found in conventional passenger cars. The classic utility vehicle, using a massive body-on-frame design, has all but vanished. While that sometimes—though not always—reduces off-road capabilities, it can yield big improvements in on-road manners: handling, performance and fuel economy in particular.

Even classic "truck-truck" models, such as the big Range Rover, have gone through significant changes. The latest version of that ute shed hundreds of pounds of mass by migrating from steel to lightweight aluminum. That translates into big improvements in maneuverability, as well as mileage.

The rapid plunge in fuel prices has been a major factor in the equally quick surge in SUV sales this past year. Yet, Ford's Hinrichs is betting that even if—or, more likely, when—we see $4-a-gallon gas again, demand will remain strong. Improved efficiency is a key factor. Most utility vehicles today suffer only a modest mileage penalty compared with similarly sized sedans and coupes, while offering the features buyers seem to crave, including extra space and a better view of the road.

Even as luxury buyers would seem particularly unmotivated by any rise in gas prices, industry studies show that elite motorists are calling for greener vehicle technology. So-called lightweighting, such as the switch from steel to aluminum and even carbon fiber, will help. Manufacturers are adopting downsized and turbocharged engines, more efficient 8-, 9- and 10-speed gearboxes and technologies like stop/start. The latter briefly shuts the engine off, rather than letting it idle while waiting for a light, before automatically starting back up when the driver's foot lifts off the brake.

Expect to see a growing number of utility vehicles adopt battery-based drivetrains, including Toyota Prius-like hybrid systems, and more advanced plug-ins. That's the approach taken by Volvo with its new XC90 SUV. Just named North American Truck/Utility Vehicle of the Year, the XC90's fastest and most powerful version uses a plug-in system that the Swedes are calling a Twin Engine. Meanwhile, Mercedes plans to have 10 plug-in hybrids in production by 2017 and that will include several of its utes, including the newly renamed GLE: the former ML-Class.

Tesla took things further down the road when it introduced its first crossover-utility vehicle, the Model X. With its distinctive "falcon-wing" doors, the Model X P90D Signature Edition will deliver up to 257 miles on battery power alone—for a price tag of $132,000. It will also go from 0 to 60 in around 3.2 seconds if you opt for Tesla's new Ludicrous Mode, only about 0.3 seconds slower than the low-slung Tesla Model S sedan.

Audi recently revealed plans to produce the e-tron Quattro Concept it unveiled last September. The street model is expected to hit 60 in less than 4.5 seconds, and travel more than 500 kilometers, or over 310 miles, using a 95 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. Using one of 440-volt Level III chargers now appearing across the country, Audi says it will need barely 50 minutes to recharge.

On top of all that technology, the latest luxury SUVs are adding even more of the accoutrements upscale buyers expect. The Bentley Bentayga is loaded with the latest safety and creature comfort technologies, in some cases, more than even on the flagship Bentley Mulsanne. That includes advanced infotainment systems, front and back, as well as forward-collision-avoidance technology that can detect not only a stopped car but also a pedestrian. There's even an "event seat," a slide-and-fold system that can be used to tailgate party in style. Not only are there comfortable, foldout seats but the Bentley Bentayga can be ordered with a built-in picnic basket. Make that a portable catering system, as there are bins for china and silverware, as well as a compact powered food cooler.

Incidentally, the most expensive option on the Bentayga—and likely any new luxury SUV—is the Breitling Mulliner Tourbillon clock. The self-winding system will spin the clock around three times every 15 minutes. And to be sure it's wound—or simply to impress friends—a motorist will have a button to tap to spin it one more time. The Tourbillon will cost about $234,000, or more than the base Bentayga itself.

Bentley is so upbeat about the SUV's options that it is giving serious thought to adding a second, lower-range utility vehicle. "We are a fairly small company and can't have too many balls in the air at the same time," cautions CEO Wolfgang Dürheimer. But if the Bentayga is as successful as Bentley believes it will be, don't be surprised to see it expand its SUV range. And its competitors likely wouldn't be far behind.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of the website TheDetroitBureau.com.