GENEVA (TheStreet) -- When Bentley makes a crossover vehicle, it's a good indication that even the moneyed masses are running for the post-recession shelter of the family station wagon.
The Bentley Continental Flying Star has extra cargo space in back but still only two doors.
To a generation that grew up and came of age in the waybacks of Buick Roadmasters, Oldsmobile Vista Cruisers and Ford LTD Country Squire wagons with 500 cubic-inch engines that got 9 miles per gallon, the notion of an $800,000 two-door Bentley-Touring Superleggera Continental Flying Star with a 560- a 620-horsepower engine may seem just slightly ridiculous. To luxury carmakers, whose crossover vehicles are filling the sales void left by large SUVs and whose marketing teams fight a daily battle against the words "station wagon," a superwagon such as Bentley's represents the next logical step.
"You had the wagon, which was replaced by the minivan, which was replaced by the SUV, and has now been replaced by the crossover," says Scott Oldham, editor in chief of Edmunds.com. "In each case there was a sense of cool to it, and what's funny now is that we're back to what we started with -- the original family mover that came out about 70 years ago."
Explaining how Bentley got involved in the wagon business, however, requires a brief climb through its family tree. Bentley is owned by
, which is also home to Audi, Lamborghini and Bugatti. On the lower end, Volkswagen experienced a great deal of success with its Volkswagen Tiguan crossover, which saw sales rise 94% from February 2009 to last month. The 1,690 Tiguans sold in February made it Volkswagen's No. 2 seller behind the Jetta sedan, though the Jetta SportWagen crossover experienced a 78% uptick.
The crossover caught on at Audi as well, with the Q5's February sales up 69%, second only to the A4 sedan. However, it took the success of the
Cayenne to make the luxury world take notice. With an engine that can get up to 550 horsepower and 141 mph and a price tag that tops out above $126,000, the Cayenne still managed a 26% improvement in sales and comprises nearly 40% of Porsche's total U.S. sales.
Other companies and their clientele have caught on, with
Cadillac seeing sales of its SRX crossover rise six-fold to 3,542 to make the vehicle more than seven times more popular than the Escalade. Sales of Acura's RDX and MDX wagons rose 20% and 65%, respectively, with the MDX becoming Acura's best-selling automobile. Even stodgy Lincoln got into the act, with sales of its MKX up 7.2% year to date.
Not to be outdone, Mercedes' towed its sales up 8.4% last month behind a 22% rise in sales of its M-class crossover, a 46% hike in GL-class sales and nearly 11% improvement among GLK-class crossover vehicles. Though Mercedes didn't break down the 92% spike in E-Class sales, a popular wagon version may have helped accelerate sales.
"What they've tried to do is meld what SUVs gave people -- which was a cool, hip, rugged image -- with what station wagons and minivans gave people, which was a car-like drive and riding quality," Oldham says. "The difference is that it's an image thing and you'll never hear anybody call it a wagon; it's always a crossover or activity vehicle."
Beyond that imaging and branding, though, are polished versions of the same concept that American Motors Corp. used from 1979 to 1988 while making the AMC Eagle wagon. It was a wooded, metallic, clunkier version of Volkwagen's Tiguan, but its high ground clearance and then-novel all-wheel drive set the template for today's car-based cargo vehicles. The use of that mold by Volkswagen, Volvo and Subaru helped give wagons the upper-middle-class, lacrosse-practice cachet that led to the luxury-crossover movement. Though Bentley is preparing a limited crop of 20 Continentals, and Volvo and Subaru report growing crossover sales -- with Subaru's Outback sales up nearly 160% last month -- names and nice trim are all that really separate these vehicles from their humble, grocery-getting roots.
-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.
Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.