If ever there was a sign that for the super rich, austerity is something that happens to other people, take a look at the results of Rolls-Royce, the British car manufacturer whose customized sedans are a byword for automotive luxury.
The fabled British marque, which Thursday said it would launch a new model in its Ghost range of limousines this year, reported its second consecutive annual sales record in its 108 years of history last year, though overall sales rose only around 1% on year.
Still, selling even a few hundred more cars is big business for Rolls-Royce given that its cheapest model sets a customer back by £170,000 ($272,000).
The auto maker, a wholly owned unit of Germany’s BMW AG, sold 3,575 cars as it pushed into new markets including Latin America and Thailand, with sales in its fastest-growing market, the Middle East, up 25%.
Rolls-Royce isn’t alone in enjoying the sustained world-wide demand for premium cars. BMW itself sold a record number of its namesake brand and Mini cars in 2012 as did Audi AG, the premium car maker owned by Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG unit Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar Land Rover, which is owned by India’s Tata Motors Co.
Premium and luxury car sales world-wide have grown by an average 13% over the past four years, according to automotive research consultancy JATO Dynamics. But within the premium market the top-end superluxury brands such as Rolls-Royce, Volkswagen’s Bentley and Fiat SpA’s Maserati, growth has been even faster, up 36% over the same period, said JATO. Bentley Thursday said its sales rose 22% to 8,510 cars last year from the year before.
The premium auto makers’ good fortune contrasts mightily with Europe’s mass-market auto makers, which are much more vulnerable to price-sensitive customers facing higher taxes and rising unemployment across much of the continent.
“There is a disconnect between the mega-rich and the rest us but in the last downturn 2007-2009 even the luxury makers took a hit,” said Tim Urquhart, an analyst at research firm IHS Automotive.
“This time Rolls-Royce [is riding] out the general gloom with the introduction of its Ghost range, which attracted new customers because of its price point—the Phantom vehicle is purely for the ultrarich and only sells in hundreds compared with thousands for the Ghost. It’s a different section of the market,” Mr. Urquhart said.
Indeed, part of BMW’s success has been to invest heavily in new technology and new models, driving its brands into new market segments to take advantage of strong demand, particularly in North America and China. Rolls-Royce is deploying the same strategy.