Luxury cars in pole position at LA auto show

LOS ANGELES - Luxury cars lead the grid at the LA Auto show: limited editions, $200,000+ price tags, 3D dashboards for drivers and champagne on ice for passengers.

What more could the ultra-rich motorist want?

Red-hot stock markets, historically low interest rates and cheaper gas prices are fueling a surge in sales of top-of-the-range cars at the West Coast show.

"The market is very robust," with 5-6 per cent growth expected next year, said Johan de Nysschen head of General Motors' high-end brand Cadillac, presenting the new ATS-V on Wednesday.

The sports car will cost from $63,000 (S$82,070) but Nysschen noted that the market is stronger for more expensive models, at over $100,000 - a segment dominated by European automakers, but where Cadillac soon hopes to compete.

Those carmakers from across the Pond have in recent years extended their range to smaller and less expensive models, accessible to more customers notably due to low-interest financing.

The risk for brands like Porsche, BMW, Mercedes and others like Jaguar is to see their image suffer among the millionaire type customers they try to woo in the United States, China, Europe and the Middle East.

Their challenge is therefore to continue to produce high-end luxury cars which make people dream, a little like how haute-couture fashion fuels sales of ready-to-wear clothes on the high street.

"You have (leasing) offers for Maseratis at $699 per month, so luxury carmakers have to protect their brands," said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at specialist website

Cars for the 0.1 per cent

The Mercedes Maybach S600, unveiled Wednesday in Los Angeles, is a text book example.

Like many cars for the so-called 0.1 per cent the Maybach, whose price is as yet unknown, includes "not necessarily groundbreaking new features" compared to the Mercedes S Class, but lots of luxury detailing, said Caldwell.

This includes padded leather finishing like a Chanel handbag, with every attention paid to the "very important passenger." Thus rear seats recline almost to bed angle, a fridge comes complete with two champagne flutes ready to toast, and the audio system is designed so that the driver can be heard without turning around of raising his or her voice.

The new Porsche Carrera 911 GT has a programme which allows the driver to set the air conditioning temperature remotely, among other gadgets.

To woo the wealthiest customers, automakers are also making limited edition cars. The number made is tiny, but they have vast profit margins, and prestige is everything.

For example only 100 cars will be made in the Porsche Panamera Exclusive Series. Audi, the premium brand of the Volkswagen group, will make only 60 of its R8 series, with a price tag of roughly 200,000 dollars.

To highlight its high-end range, Audi also brought a prototype to Los Angeles: the "Prologue" has a 3D dashboard and a glove compartment covered with a screen from which information can be "swiped" across to the driver.

To seduce the stars of Wall Street, not to mention Silicon Valley or oil magnates, carmakers say they are not only adding engine power and a more luxurious experience inside the car.

"We create a different world for these very exclusive customers," senior Mercedes executive Carsten Oder told AFP.

Treats include private philharmonic concerts, test drives on race tracks, meetings with celebrities or champions at golf tournaments, masterclasses with designers.

Automakers offer their wealthiest customers an experience "where you can meet people exclusively from your type of circle," said Oder.