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Supercar appeal drives austerity off the road

By Andreas Cremer and Jennifer Clark

GENEVA (Reuters) - Forget austerity in the supercar zone at the Geneva Auto Show.

Lamborghini and Ferrari flaunted some of their most expensive models to date, confirming the recession-proof appeal of ultra high-end cars to the world's wealthy.

Volkswagen unit Bentley, boasting a rich heritage of super-expensive sedans, coupes and convertibles, unveiled a 12-cylinder concept sport-utility vehicle code-named EXP 9 Falcon touted to outshine topline SUVs and command a 180,000 euros price tag.

Bugatti announced eight potential sales of its Grand Sport roadster. The 1,200-horsepower Vitesse version will sell for 1.69 million euros.

"Anyone who thinks that the era of austerity has overtaken luxury will think twice when they roam the halls of the Geneva show," said Scott Oldham, editor in chief at U.S. website edmunds.com, which tracks auto sales and marketing.

"From all-new Ferraris to slick concept designs from BMW and Infiniti, there will be no shortage of toys on display in Switzerland."

MYSTERY BUYER

Lamborghini, also a VW marque, unveiled a one-off Aventador Jota, its most expensive model which it has already sold for 2.1 million euros. It would not disclose the identity of the buyer.

"There are signs that give us hope that this year will turn out to be better than last year," Lamborghini Chief Executive Officer Stephan Winkelmann told Reuters.

Against a background of global economic crisis, Lamborghini increased deliveries in 2011 by 23 percent to 1,602, lifting revenue to $429 million from $361 million a year earlier.

It already has orders for the next 18 months for the Aventador and has increased capacity twice since its top-of-the-line second model line went into production last year.

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At the same time Ferrari, owned by Fiat , rolled out its 272,000-euro, 740-horsepower F12 Berlinetta, its most powerful road model.

While premium manufacturers Audi and Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz tout sporty compact models, the supercar segment "is effectively recession-proof" as demand exceeds supply even in a declining market, said Christoph Stuermer, an analyst at research company IHS Automotive.

Sales in North America, the largest market for the most expensive cars, could surge this year by 59 percent in the $200,000 to $400,000 category, IHS said.

Sales to China are forecast to rise 27 percent in China to 5,185 vehicles with deliveries in Europe including Russia up 24 percent to 11,500.

SURGING SALES

At Bentley, global sales surged 47 percent in the first two months of 2012 to 894 vehicles, Chief Executive Officer Wolfgang Duerheimer told Reuters.

Like all supercar makers, Bentley is balancing its abiding appeal against its response to environmental pressures.

It is seeking to reduce vehicle weight and cut emissions by using more lightweight composites in frames, overhaul exhaust systems and retool engines.

Bentley's downsized version of the Continental GTC convertible relies on a new eight-cylinder 507-horsepower engine that burns 40 percent less fuel than the previous 12-cylinder 640-horsepower power unit.

"Performance is still the name of the game but performance has got to be smarter and more efficient," Duerheimer said. "There are certain requirements that have to be met."

Maserati, which presented the 460-horsepower GranTurismo Sport, plans to broaden its portfolio to include a new version of the Quattroporte model next year as well as a new four-door sedan in the second half of 2013 and an SUV in 2014, said Marketing Director Massimo Farao'.

The Italian manufacturer has a goal of increasing sales almost sevenfold to 40,000 units by 2014, Farao' said, noting that efforts will focus on the United States, Maserati's main market. ($1 = 0.7625 euros)

(Editing by David Cowell)

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