Deep Dive: Mercedes, BMW, and Volkswagen Group All Expand Upmarket

Automobile Staff
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The SuperVeyron, a 1600-hp Bugatti on steroids that will be shown at Frankfurt next fall, isn’t the only new model on the way from Europe’s luxury carmakers as they look to expand their brands upmarket. Mercedes-Benz’s follow-up to the SLS AMG is already in the works, BMW's product planners are ruthlessly pushing through a new halo supercar in the same vein as the legendary M1, and almost every brand in the Volkswagen Group portfolio has something in the works.

Mercedes Clips Its Gullwings

The SLS AMG gullwing will be replaced in late 2014 by a more compact, lightweight two-seater with conventional front-hinged doors. The surprisingly bold and clean-looking two-seater has been referred to previously as the SLC, but the badge of the trunk will actually read SLR AMG.

The base version of the V-8-engined project, codenamed R190, is said to deliver 487 hp, while the Black Series model is rated at 544 hp. This €100,000 ($130,000) coupe--there will be no roadster—is aimed squarely at the Porsche 911.

The Audi R8 Will Live On

When Audi developed the first R8, it had the same mission as Mercedes' SLR AMG – to beat the 911. Now that Porsche is part of the Volkswagen family, an internal battle was waged as to what kind of car the second-generation R8 coupe and spyder should be. The final decision was made only weeks before the arrival of research and design chief Wolfgang Dürheimer, who was previously with Bentley/Bugatti. Enthusiasts need not worry, as the vehicle concept remains the same: the next R8 will be available with a V-8 or a V-10 engine and will again be twinned with the Lamborghini Gallardo.

Much more interesting is what the research and development wizards threw out. A de-contented and aggressively priced, volume-boosting, entry-level twin-turbo V-6 version did not make the cut. Also gone is an even more extreme, lightweight special codenamed R8 Ultra, which would have featured higher carbon-fiber content, optional rear-wheel drive, and a couple of high-output 340- and 400-hp 2.5-liter engines. The reason they're gone? It would have pitted the R8 even more directly against the 911.

BMW's M8 Is on the Way, Come Hell or High Water

Another German supercar in the making is the BMW M8. Previously known as the M1, this car is believed to be the halo model that BMW will pull out of the bag to celebrate its centenary in 2016. Chairman Norbert Reithofer, who is not known as a sports car aficionado, views this project with mixed feelings. Having recently decided that the next-generation 1- and 2-series will be built on a new front-/all-wheel-drive matrix, the big boss is reluctant to give a green light to a V-8-powered tarmac peeler.

But Friedrich Nitschke, who runs the M division, doesn’t take no for an answer – even if it means tweaking the project so that the M8 can share the carbon-fiber-and-aluminum underpinnings of the super-frugal i8. This approach could kill two birds with one stone by creating significant economies of scale and by giving the 600-hp sports car a weight advantage over its more conventional rivals.

On a lesser scale, Reithofer has personally sealed the fate of the on-off-on Z2 roadster. Apparently the numbers did not work out, and there is not much time left for a compact, rear-wheel-drive platform, which will be mothballed in 2021. If a small, open-top BMW does materialize, it will be front-wheel drive and pooled with an open-top Mini. The Z4 will get a new lease on life, but since the segment is in free fall, the third-generation version needs to combine the existing folding hardtop with a redesigned body and interior.

Ultra-Lux on Ice, but Audi and Bentley Forge Ahead

Contrary to some media reports, the Bentley SUV has a name – Falcon – and has been given the go-ahead by the product strategy team. However, it will be completely redesigned by Luc Donckerwolke, the new man in charge at the Flying B. Other pending luxury-car projects of the VW Group are on hold for at least 12 months. This includes the Bentley Azure convertible, the Lamborghini Urus SUV, and the Bugatti Galibier sedan.

At Audi, meanwhile, the Q8 high-end SUV has received the thumbs-up. Based on the long-wheelbase edition of the MLB platform for the next-generation Audi Q7/Porsche Cayenne/VW Touareg, the coupe-like crossover did so well in clinic surveys that the marketing people feel confident enough to raise the annual production volume forecast to 25,000 units.

The future of the A8 sedan, on the other hand, is not so clear. There are two options: (1) a sportier standard-wheelbase car accompanied by an even-more-luxurious long-wheelbase derivative, or (2) a long-wheelbase model joined by a four-seat A9 coupe. Product planners in Ingolstadt reportedly favor the second option. Although the A9 may attract only 3000 to 5000 buyers per year, a halo car could work wonders for the brand. It would be relatively inexpensive to build and would complement the model mix, which clearly favors the long-wheelbase A8 over the standard-wheelbase car, which is too close to the A6L sold in key markets like China.

--Georg Kacher

Rendering courtesy of AUTOBILD/LARSON

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