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VOL. 38 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 8, 2014

Middle Tennessee has a growing appetite for luxury cars

By Joe Morris

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Even the sunniest of car salesmen changes the subject when 2008 and 2009 are referenced.

U.S. auto sales had slumped along with the economy, and dealers were slashing prices just to clear inventory. It was not a happy time in the business.

Like its lower-priced brethren, the luxury car market struggled. But some within the high-end arena say a customer base that wasn’t hit as hard by financial woes helped insulate luxury dealers.

That’s a point that could be argued – these are salespeople, after all – but what’s not being upsold is the state of high-end car sales these days.

Just ask Jeff Escue, the general manager at Porsche of Nashville.

“Between our new location and the brand performing the way it has, we’ve actually been up 30 percent year over year,” Escue says.

The dealership moved to its Mallory Lane location in Brentwood last August, giving up a spot on Franklin Road that also had fairly high visibility. It brought repeat customers with it, but also many new buyers thanks to Porsche’s introduction of new vehicles.

If a new Rolls Royce Wraith fits your budget, this black-over-gray (above) is available at Maserati-Rolls Royce Motor Cars-Bentley of Nashville. Expect to pay around $300,000.

-- Lyle Graves | Ledger

“The brand has expanded to areas it didn’t have before,” Escue explains. “Fifteen years ago, we had the 911 and the Boxter. Now we have the Cayenne, the Macan, hybrids … we have more to offer, and we’re seeing a broader demographic of buyers thanks to that.

“We’re in a very good place right now.”

An expanded lineup coupled with lower entry points also has been valuable for Maserati-Rolls Royce Motor Cars-Bentley of Nashville, says Tom Buckley, general manager.

“Maserati has really come to the table with new products and lower prices, so on that side we’re seeing a lot of activity,” Buckley says. “Bentley also has some new products out, and so that line is busy as well.”

On his lot, buyers are trading in late-model Mercedes, Porsche and BMW vehicles to get into those new offerings.

“A few years ago, getting into a Maserati was going to be around $133,000 at the lowest end,” Buckley says.

“Now it’s just shy of $70,000, and that’s brought in a whole new customer. They were buying cars in the $60,000 to $90,000 arena, and we never had anything that could pay there.

“The economy picking up is certainly helping, but we’re seeing a strong run right now more to our new offerings than anything else.”

This slightly pre-owned (21,000 miles) 2009 Aston Martin is available at Global Motorsports for $77,000.

That said, he does admit that the Bentley, and its buyer, is pretty much the same as it ever was.

“There, you’re talking about the difference between $220,000 and $200,000, so it’s pretty much the same buyer,” Buckley says.

“Now there’s a V8 offering, which is lighter and gets better mileage, but with Bentley, it’s the same person who’s just going to move over into a different product because it provides a little better value.”

Owner loyalty has also served as a buffer in rough times at Jaguar Nashville, where owners tend to stay with the brand, but move into the newer models pretty regularly, adds Rich Herstek, one of three sales managers at the dealership.

“The new-car market for us has been exceptional, and we’re experiencing very good back-to-back years,” Herstek says.

“We’ve had remarkable vehicles, and this year is superior to what we’ve had even in strong years.”

Herstek describes 2008 and 2009 as “painful,” but “in 2010 it was like flipping a switch. Everything was back to normal almost overnight; it bordered on bizarre.

“I went from 60 percent of previous income to all the way back in one month. I kept thinking that it was going to be a fluke, but it has held steady since. We had two bad years, and then everything was pretty much OK again.”

Like the other vendors in his price-point range, he points to new makes and models as lures to both new and existing buyers.

“We have an entirely new Land Rover lineup, and still more coming,” he says.

“Land Rover has really been driving us forward the last couple of years. We are still getting to know our Jaguar clients, because that line is fairly new to us.

“Even so, in the last 90 days we’ve averaged better than the previous year, so I think we’re understanding the psychology behind who those clients are.”

Indeed, getting to know the client, whether first-time or repeat customer, is a must in the luxury trade.

Building those relationships has helped Global Motorsports succeed, says Larry Thorne, one of the dealership’s owners and also general manager.

“Most of our business is repeat and referral, and we don’t have to advertise a lot,” Thorne says.

“Ours is more of a boutique business, and so we want to be very personal with our buyers.”

Global’s also in the business of pre-owned vehicles vs. introducing new lines, and that makes a difference to the customer approach as well.

“Our model is consistent, in that we know our buyer is very value conscious,” Thorne says. “It’s not the guy who wants to go out and pay $60,000 for a brand-new car, but is more than happy to pay $30,000 for that same car when it’s two years old.

“That’s the zone in which we make our living, and that encompasses a lot of people.”

This year has been “crazy,” he reports, noting that in addition to economic recovery, some of that uptick was due to something as pedestrian as the climate.

“It was brutal for everyone selling cars this winter, because it was so bitter cold the first three months of the year,” Thorne says.

“But that led to a lot of pent-up energy, and we’ve had a buying flurry since then. We’ve been extremely busy.

“There are construction cranes all around Nashville, all around our stores, and we think that as more people come to town, we’re going to sell more cars.

“A lot of people are looking to move up a level in terms of what they’re driving,” he adds, “and we’re eager to wrap our arms around them and follow them from their first car with us into their next, and their next.

“That’s what we do.”

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