The Deep Dive: Ultra-Luxury SUVs

Bentley Falcon Detailed

Inspired by the success of Range Rover, Germany's high-end brands are preparing new XXL crossovers. All three models have the potential to spawn even more prestigious cousins. The Audi Q8 paves the way for the Bentley Falcon, the BMW X7 enables the Rolls Royce SUV and the Mercedes GL-class coupe will probably be twinned with the Aston Martin Lagonda crossover.

Less than ten years ago, those in Western Europe who dared to be seen in a Ford Explorer/Expedition, Jeep Commander, full-size Land Cruiser, gasoline-engine G-class or any type of Hummer were called all sorts of names by the low-riders around them. Diesel engine refinement has softened the disposition, but in Europe the five meter-plus (197 inches overall length) behemoths will never win the battle against narrow roads, small parking lots and high fuel prices, let alone social acceptance.

In places like North America, China and Russia, full-size trucks are still in strong demand. At the premium end of the market, the new Range Rover and RR Sport are doing so well that the German rivals feel compelled to respond:

Audi's stylish Q8 coupe, derived from next year's Q7, arrives in 2016. It shares its platform with the Bentley Falcon, Lamborghini Urus, Porsche Cayenne III and VW Touareg.

BMW is evaluating a long-wheelbase X7 crossover for 2018 based on the all-new next-generation X5/X6. This flexible lightweight matrix also will be used for the Rolls-Royce SUV, sources say.

Mercedes is considering a coupe version of the luxurious GL for 2016. To make this project financially viable, there is talk of fusing it with the proposed Aston Martin Lagonda crossover.

The Q8 was the only future product that received standing ovations at Audi´s annual management conference, June 27. The array of new models on display included next year's Q7, a big, boxy thing adorned with plenty of brightwork. Not so the Q8: it is lower and wider, more dynamic and more elegant, kind of a tall Sportback on big wheels rather than a low-roof truck.

While the Q7 comes with the full country squire treatment, an in-your-face chrome grille and aggressive LED treatment, the Q8 is a five-door sports coupe with a twist. Its home is the open road, the autobahn and the city. Like the Q2 concept (rest in peace), the Q8 features the new three-dimensional grille, which can be had with three different all-metal frames and insets. The Q8 also is styled with quattro-inspired wheel arches, mildly flared, and has a dynamic greenhouse and 3D taillamps accentuating the deep, horizontal indent in the rear lid.

Although Audi will offer the next Q7 with a 225 hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, it will be combined with a 109 hp e-motor for application in the Q8. A second proposed plug-in hybrid mates the battery pack and motor to a 3.0-liter V-6 diesel. Both hybrids will come with the eight-speed automatic and conventional quattro all-wheel-drive instead of e-quattro for the rear wheels.

The most popular engines will likely be the 310 hp 3.0-liter TFSI and the 272 hp 3.0 TDI. The 435 hp 4.0-liter V-8 and the 394 hp 4.0-liter V-8 diesel both will be one rung up the performance ladder. A high-performance SQ8 flagship model is rumored but not confirmed. While Cayenne, Touareg and Urus sit on the standard-wheelbase platform, Q7/Q8 and the Bentley Falcon, which was just confirmed for production his morning, share the long-wheelbase footprint codenamed PL73. The extra inches create enough room for a third row of seats and make it a lot easier to get in and out of the car.

A four-seat version would be the most up-market, offering all the legroom in the world, combined with a huge luggage compartment. Since the emissions brigade has shot down the V-12 TDI, the only surviving twelve-banger is Bentley´s 6.0-liter gas W-12, offered alongside the uprated 540 hp V-8. The Crewe grapevine suggests that the SUV project has slipped back to 2016, that the PHEV edition was put on the back burner and that the real thing looks like the ill-received concept car. Apparently, a mild redesign clinicked so well that Bentley scrubbed the comprehensive redesign. Brace yourself for another Bentley with big inner headlamps framed by small outer ones.

The X7 has returned to the BMW product planners' agenda for the third time. The first version was deemed the wrong car at the wrong time and the second version did not comply with the mix of old DNA and new X5/X6 sheetmetal.

Third time lucky? The new X matrix, which is part of the modular 35up components set, won´t see daylight before 2018. Early vibes are positive, work has already begun on small-scale clay models, and the case for the X7 is further pushed forward by the fact that Rolls-Royce is now seriously interested in that exciting on/off crossover.

Simply extending the wheelbase by approximately six inches won´t do. To bring the weight down by 350 kilos (772 pounds, the target Audi set for the Q7), BMW must also alter the material mix. It needs a new suspension, too. The current layout is only good for 20-inch rims. The next X6 will want to show off 21-inch rims, and Rolls-Royce is requiring 22-inch footwear, but 23 inches would be even better. Let's hope an all-new chassis replaces the heavy and complex blend of Dynamic Drive, Dynamic Performance Control, Dynamic Damper Control and the self-leveling rear end with a lighter and much more versatile air suspension.

Although the Rolls SUV will tag on to the X7, it needs bespoke architecture to integrate the trademark door concept, to boost the carbon-fiber content, to package the group´s biggest drivetrain and to make sure that four-wheel-drive is not a hollow promise. While the Q8 is a poseur that could easily get stuck on a wet meadow, Rolls-Royce wants its SUV to score 75 out of 100 points on a scale dominated by the Range Rover.

Owners might not risk damaging their $300,000 SUVs by indulging in borderline off-road frivolities, but a sheik simply won´t tolerate a SUV that gets stuck on the first dune it encounters. A fair bit of mud-wrestling capability is a must. Wall-to-wall luxury is also essential, which makes the 6.75-liter V-12 mandatory. It may be tweaked for even more low-end torque. Alternatively, we are likely to see a PHEV option featuring a V-8 and a seriously potent electric power pack.

For its X7, BMW will probably restrict the choice to six- and eight-cylinder units. We would expect a 3.0-liter, 400 hp 45i and a 4.0-liter, 500 hp 55i. The straight six diesel will acquire a fourth turbocharger to generate about 400 hp and 590 lb-ft. Cylinder deactivation and a nine-speed automatic complete driveline changes.

Four years ago, Mercedes prepared a Maybach Über-Benz edition of the GL SUV. It had loads of bling, a lavish interior and even more poke for that AMG V-8. A second one-off GL was skinned in Gaydon where Marek Reichman converted it into the Lagonda show car. Both vehicles bombed: the Maybach because the brand was killed overnight, the Lagonda because it looked ho-hum and Aston Martin had no money anyway.

Both projects are back on, in modified form. Mercedes still likes the idea of doing a very high-end coupe edition of the GL. Aston still likes the idea of a crossover. The human link between these two products is Andrea Bonomi, the new strong man at Aston who used to collaborate with Mercedes´ AMG division when he owned Ducati. So far, the crossover program is still tentative, but if the numbers add up and the people don´t clash, Mercedes may in late 2016 introduce a new product to its Tuscaloosa facility. From there, the Lagonda would be shipped to the UK for final assembly.

Although Aston could simply buy engines, transmissions or half-finished vehicles from Stuttgart, the situation is apparently much more complicated. Imagine that adapting the V-8 costs about ten million Euro. Instead of paying this sum outright, the new owners prefer to hand over a roughly five-percent share in Aston worth 50 million euro. If this kite does fly, a ten percent penetration could be the next step, sources say. If Aston ever wants to replace its VH matrix with a more modern formula created by Mercedes, an even bigger financial commitment is likely.

However, the Bonomi people are merger & acquisition specialists who buy a company, fix it and sell it on at a profit. If Aston Martin Lagonda becomes a thriving enterprise in four years time, ready for a new buyer, it would practically force the Germans to pick up the remaining shares, if only to protect their investment and to make sure the Mercedes connection does not end up in a hostile new home. -- Georg Kacher, photo illustrations by Larson

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