For the crowd gathered at the MGM Grand casino in Detroit last weekend, chef Wolfgang Puck’s lamb with mint-cilantro vinaigrette was only the appetizer. The main draw was $8 million worth of cars from the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati.
The $500-per-head event showed how the recovering U.S. economy has brought conspicuous consumers out of hiding in the world’s biggest supercar market. The return of big-spending Americans is especially crucial for Italian brands as the debt crisis cripples demand in southern Europe.
“Come to Beverly Hills, you’ll see more Ferraris than in Italy and more Bentleys and Rolls-Royces than in England,” Puck said while checking out a $295,000 Ferrari FF. “People in America want to show their wealth, while in Europe they want to hide it.”
Global sales of cars costing more than 100,000 euros ($130,000) are forecast to beat the 2007 peak this year and will climb 35 percent to almost 540,000 by 2015, according to IHS Automotive. The jump, fueled by a 52 percent surge in North America, offers some relief for Fiat, which owns Ferrari and Maserati, and Volkswagen, parent of Lamborghini and Bentley, as European auto demand slumps to an almost two-decade low.
As a sign of the importance of American buyers, Maserati chose the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week for the grand introduction of its latest Quattroporte sedan. The $130,000 model hasn’t officially been presented in Italy, where sales have all but dried up. With austerity measures and a government hunt for tax cheats that targeted luxury-car drivers, Maserati sold fewer than 100 cars in its home market last year.
Italy “had been our No. 2 market for five, six, seven years” accounting for as much as 10 percent of sales at the 2007 peak, said Maserati brand chief Harald Wester. “Europe will remain a very, very difficult territory.”
Luxury-auto sales plunged 44 percent last year in Italy, hurt by higher taxes on upscale models, according to Italian auto-industry group Unrae. Ferrari dropped 57 percent and Maserati was down 72 percent.
While European car demand is headed for a sixth straight annual decline this year, the U.S. is entering its fourth year of recovery from the financial crunch, according to Bloomberg Industries.
“The mood has definitely improved” in the U.S. supercar market, said Marco Mattiacci, president of Ferrari’s North American operations. “We see progress in the segment, progress in the confidence of consumers.”
The prospects are a reflection of the growing ranks of wealthy Americans. U.S. households with more than $300,000 in annual disposable income are forecast to reach 4.6 million this year, 30 percent more than in 2009, and easily outnumbering China’s 1.3 million, according to Euromonitor International.
With demand on the rebound in the U.S. and wealth growing in Asia, ultra-luxury brands are expanding. Maserati will add the compact Ghibli sedan this year and its first sport-utility vehicle, the Levante, in 2014 in a bid to boost sales eightfold to 50,000 vehicles by mid-decade.
VW’s Lamborghini and Bentley are also developing SUVs, while the German manufacturer’s Porsche brand will introduce the 918 Spyder hybrid supercar and start production of the Macan compact SUV this year.
Bayerische Motoren Werke’s Rolls-Royce in March will debut the Wraith, which it calls the “most dynamic and powerful” model in its 108-year history. Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz will expand its S-Class line to five new variants.