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PARIS/BERLIN (Reuters) - Lamborghini, the maker of low-slung supercars once advertised as "closer to the road," is planning a new model that will be further from the tarmac than ever: an SUV.
The Italian brand, owned by Volkswagen, aims to announce the vehicle at April's Beijing auto show for a 2016 launch, according to two people with knowledge of the strategy.
At the risk of alienating purist fans of its 313,000 euro ($413,000) Aventador carbon-fiber sports car, Lamborghini hopes to repeat the Porsche Cayenne's success in the fast-growing market for luxury four-by-fours.
"An SUV could be cool, but it would have to be the fastest on the planet and look extreme," said Andrew Romanowski, president of the world's biggest Lamborghini owners' club, based in Los Angeles.
"If it turned out like a run-of-the-mill BMW X5, it would be a betrayal," Romanowski said. "People would be very upset."
The planned vehicle reflects a push to increase profitability at Lamborghini and VW stablemate Bentley, with new models to meet upscale demand for all-wheel-drives. Britain's Bentley last year announced tentative plans for its own SUV.
"Porsche proved that it works, to the industry's great surprise, and now everyone is flocking in," said Christoph Stuermer, Frankfurt-based research director at IHS Automotive.
By 2015, sales of the plushest SUVs will increase about 20 percent in Western Europe, 30 percent in the U.S. and 50 percent in China, the consulting firm predicts. The Cayenne has become Porsche's top-selling model since its launch a decade ago, with 59,000 sold last year and a 121,000 euro price tag on the high-performance Turbo version.
Some of the world's most hallowed auto brands are stretching to adapt. Fiat's Maserati last month unveiled its first SUV, the Kubang, to be assembled in Detroit instead of its Italian factory.
"On the one hand you need to have a pure, clearly positioned brand," Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann told Reuters recently, declining to comment on specific model plans.
"On the other hand it would be good to enter a new segment that brings higher volumes and more stability," he said. "It doesn't necessarily dilute the brand if you sell a bit more."
Lamborghini, which has been loss-making since 2009, last year increased deliveries by 23 percent to 1,602 vehicles.
The new four-by-fours from Lamborghini and Bentley, maker of the 293,000 euro Mulsanne limousine, would share parts and engines with VW, Audi and Porsche models including the Cayenne. Volkswagen took control of Porsche in 2009 and plans to integrate the auto business with its own operations.
Unlike ousted Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking, Volkswagen boss Martin Winterkorn has few taboos about pushing the brands to pool powertrains, chassis, electronics and other out-of-sight parts with Audi, the group's main premium division.
The Gallardo, Lamborghini's entry-level car starting at 155,000 euros, already shares its 5.2-litre V10 engine and some on-board systems with the Audi R8 sports car.
The new SUV will be prefigured by a concept car unveiled at the Beijing show, the sources said. The VW group is expected to decide within months whether to go ahead with the new Bentley and Lamborghini vehicles.
The show car could include a stylistic nod to Lamborghini's last foray into off-roaders. Derived from an abandoned military vehicle design, the Hummer-like LM002 was sold in small volumes from 1986-1993 and became known as the "Rambo Lambo."
To develop the new model, Lamborghini is shelving plans for a four-door sedan along the road-hugging lines of its 2008 Estoque show car. Its "closer to the road" slogan was introduced the same year and still used in 2011 product videos.
Romanowski, whose Lamborghini Club America has issued carbon fiber membership cards to actor Nicolas Cage, talk show host Jay Leno and about 4,000 others, warns that even a perfectly executed vehicle could hurt the brand if production runs too high.
"They have to keep the numbers in check," he said. "What's special about owning a Lamborghini if you see one at every other gas station?"
Still, owners also acknowledge that sharing VW parts and engines brings benefits to supercars like the Gallardo.
"It's more reliable than Lamborghinis ever were before, and everyone knows that's because of Audi," the club president said. "They're just grateful."
($1 = 0.7577 euros)
Additional reporting by Christiaan Hetzner in Frankfurt; Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford