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Whether domestic or import, luxury-car sales are on the rise

Luxury cars are on a long-term roll, and nothing seems to get in their way. The luxury segment has risen from 6.7 percent of the total car market in 1965 to 10.3 percent today. During the same time span, luxury imports have soared from 5.7 percent of the luxury segment to 19 percent.

Looking ahead, John O. Grettenberger, head of the General Motors Cadillac Division, expects luxury-car sales to grow by nearly one-third, to 1.9 million units, by 1990. ``Even more significantly, the growth will occur primarily in the world-class and near-luxury segments,'' he adds.

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Mr. Grettenberger defines what he calls the bona fide luxury-car household as one with an income of $50,000 or more in constant 1982 dollars. A near-luxury household has a family income of $30,000 and up.

``The luxury segment has continued to grow as a percentage of the total new-car market,'' Grettenberger says, beaming. ``We don't see that that is going to change.''

In full agreement, Ford Motor Company analyst L. R. Windecker says that sales of the company's own high-level supercars are running off the charts.

The Lincoln Town Car, for example, set a first-quarter record with 27,330 deliveries, an increase of 45 percent from the same quarter a year ago. The Lincoln Continental set an any-quarter record during the first three months of 1985 with 9,428 deliveries, a 70 percent increase over the same quarter in 1984.

Lincoln sales -- Continental, Mark VII, and Town Car -- rose 138 percent between 1981 and '84, from 64,000 to 152,000. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Jaguar sales combined were up 53 percent -- 110,000 to 168,000.

The General Motors Cadillac division sold 320,000 cars in calender-year 1984, compared to 231,000 in 1984, an increase of 39 percent.

Chrysler Corporation continues to produce its hot-selling rear-drive New Yorker Fifth Avenue, and GM plans to keep building its own high-selling rear-drive cars as long as there is a demand. ``We're going to let business dictate, with proper lead times, just how long we will keep the rear-drive cars around,'' says Cadillac's Grettenberger.

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Neither Mercedes-Benz nor BMW, hurt by the seven-week strike of West German metalworkers late last spring, can get enough cars to meet the demand. Gunter Kramer, head of BMW in the US, expects nothing but higher sales for BMW during the foreseeable future.

Luxury cars are not all alike. ``They come in various sizes and images,'' says Ford analyst Windecker. The Lincoln Town Car, Mercedes 300 sedans, and Cadillac Sedan De Ville are the more formal, traditionally larger luxury-car types; the Mark VII and various BMWs and Mercedes models are of the luxurious, high-performance ``driver's car'' variety; and the Continental and Seville are typical of the somewhat smaller high-luxury sedans. Then there are the high-priced Italian cars, such as the Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini. The list goes on.

Luxury cars cost anywhere from $16,000 or $18,000 all the way up to $160,000 and more.

Who buys such Tiffany-image cars in these days of shrunken measurements and smaller engines?

Some of the buyers are those who want to make their success palpable. ``It's even more important for a motorist to display a little bit of his success than it was even six months ago,'' Grettenberger says. ``We've noticed more and more people wanting to make that statement about themselves,whereas before they may have wanted to, but didn't.

``Vanity seems to be in style again, which I feel is fueling the increase in the luxury segment.''

Traditional high-luxury US-built cars include Cadillacs along with top-of-the-line Oldsmobiles and Buicks from GM, such as the Buick Electra and the sporty Riviera, the Olds 98 Regency and front-drive Toronado, and the Lincoln Continental and Mark VII, as well as the Chrysler New Yorker Fifth Avenue.

Import luxury cars include the top-line Mercedes and BMW models. Britain's Rolls-Royce, Jaguar, and Aston Martin join the elite group, too, along with some of the specialty companies that build a few hundred cars a year at Neiman-Marcus prices, such as the Bitter from West Germany.

To enlarge its own competitive stance, Cadillac has gone to the Italian firm Pininfarina to design and build the bodies for the Allante, a two-seat Cadillac convertible due out in 1987. GM's prestige-car division will market a new smaller Eldorado and Seville in 1986, too.

Luxury-car buyers these days are much more knowledgeable about what they're buying. ``The people who are coming in to look at the front-drive De Villes and Fleetwoods are looking under the hood and under the car,'' says Grettenberger. ``They're asking more serious questions and are making better salesmen of us because we have to be better prepared than we ever were in the luxury market before.

``As a result, we're trying to upgrade the quality of our salesmen and are assisting the dealers in a number of ways that we weren't before.''

One potential cloud on the horizon is the new restrictive tax-write-off law on cars costing more than $16,000. ``We have that one to deal with right now,'' Grettenberger says. ``We don't see any good coming out of it, but we feel we can overcome it.''

Also, if a luxury tax is included in any federal tax-reform package, it could affect luxury-car sales. ``It's too early to speculate,'' Grettenberger cautions.

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