Car sales are hot, hot, hot right now. In 2014, automakers moved 16.5 million vehicles in the U.S., and even conservative analysts predict that number could hit 17 million in 2015. Last month, U.S. light vehicles sold at a rate 13.7 percent higher than the same time last year -- even with frigid temps that often keep buyers at home.
But as quickly as mass-market vehicles from Chrysler, GM, and Toyota may be selling, they're not moving nearly as fast as ultra-luxury rides. According to Bloomberg, sales of six-figure vehicles grew more than five times as fast as sales of mainstream cars and trucks last year, and there's little indication that the segment is slowing.
Why the boom?
Global recovery from the Great Recession: It took longer than many would've liked, but it appears that most of Planet Earth has bounced back from the financial meltdown of 2007-2009. Undoubtedly, one of the biggest trouble spots was Europe, but even that region is on the road to wellness. Consider Rolls-Royce: the brand saw a global sales increase of 12 percent last year, but in Europe, the figure was closer to 40 percent. (In the U.S., it was 30 percent.)
Growing wealth in the developing world: For many, many reasons -- far too many to discuss here -- households in countries like India, China, and Brazil are finding themselves with more disposable income. With that has come a desire for luxury goods, including luxury cars. Sales of ultra-high-end vehicles in China have zoomed past those in other parts of the globe, growing by more than 450 percent between 2009 and 2014.
Automakers are feeding demand with new models: Car companies aren't sitting on their laurels, accepting five or six percent annual growth. They're adding new models to lure in new customers. The most popular additions have been SUVs like the Porsche Cayenne, which now accounts for more than 35 percent of Porsche's U.S. sales. Electric cars are coming, too, to attract well-heeled, eco-friendly shoppers.
Smaller numbers distort growth figures: Luxury automakers work at much lower volumes than their mass-market cousins. For example, in 2014 Honda sold 1,373,029 vehicles in the U.S. (not including sales of its Acura luxury brand). That was an increase of one percent over 2013, or nearly 14,000 vehicles. Rolls-Royce, on the other hand, sold just 400 more units worldwide in 2014 than it did in 2013. Because its output is so small, though, those 400 vehicles represented a sales increase of 12 percent.
All that said, January wasn't a stellar month for luxury car brands in the U.S. Jaguar sales fell six percent compared to January 2014, Maserati was down more than 20 percent, and Bentley fell 50 percent for the month. However, as we said before, these are small volumes we're talking about, so even a change of a few units can seem like a big shift. Analysts at IHS Automotive still expect that over the next two years, ultra-luxury car sales will grow by 21 percent -- if not more.