FRANKFURT (Bloomberg) -- Audi plans to double its lineup of sport-utility vehicles by 2020 to close the sales gap behind BMW as more customers seek high-riding vehicles with the cachet of a luxury brand.
The Volkswagen Group unit is developing the Q2, Q4 and Q6 as a sportier alternative to its current range of three SUVs, according to a person familiar with the strategy, who asked not to be identified because the plans aren't public.
"Audi is really the first with a grand plan to mirror" its car offerings with corresponding SUVs, said Christoph Stuermer, an analyst with researcher IHS Automotive in Frankfurt. "The SUV package, with its high seating position, is similar to those beautiful, upright cars from the 1920s. This could become the normal car in the premium segment."
The push into SUVs, once a quirky add-on for sedan-heavy upscale brands, reflects the expanding definition of a luxury car. Sales of high-end SUVs are forecast to advance 36 percent by 2018, according to IHS Automotive.
The acceptance of SUVs among wealthy consumers has made it one of the fastest-growing segments, fueling a wave of new models as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz vie for the sales lead.
Audi, the world's second-largest luxury-car brand, and No. 3 Mercedes are both seeking to topple BMW as the market leader by the end of the decade.
For Volkswagen, the development of Audi is critical as it aims to become the world's biggest carmaker by 2018. Audi accounted for 48 percent of VW's operating profit in the first nine months of 2012, even though it sold just 14 percent of the group's cars.
"Audi is decisive for VW," said Juergen Pieper, an analyst with Bankhaus Metzler in Frankfurt. "You could say that Audi's the most important part of VW in terms of profit, technology and branding."