As much as I love German cars, I can't help thinking that the people who make them are kind of weird sometimes. One needn't go back as far as the twentieth century -- a fine one for Teutonic nuttiness, it must be said -- to uncover proof of loose screws in the world's most screwed-down auto-manufacturing land. Even while marching from strength to strength, as they usually seem to be, unsere deutsche Freunde rarely fail to be amusing, surprising, disarming, or alarming. From Volkswagen Group chairman Ferdinand Piech and his twelve children by four women and his megalomaniacal world-domination plans; to the high-wire combat over ownership of Porsche and VW; and on to whoever is responsible for the BMW X6, a rare repeat candidate for this column's Least Favorite Car of the Year honors, one is truly spoiled for choice. But what concerns me today is the news that Daimler plans to shutter its Maybach ultraluxury brand in 2013, just eleven years after it launched.
Admittedly, few will be mourning the loss, but guys, could you tell us, what was that all about? In 2002, with great fanfare, you mysteriously resuscitated the firm founded in 1909 by former Daimler engineer Wilhelm Maybach and his son. In 1921, they expanded their operation designing and building diesel rail and marine engines to create some of the most luxurious automobiles the world had ever seen, before losing heart and quitting automobile manufacture in 1941. Although you purchased the remnants of Maybach in 1960, it wasn't until another great megalomaniac, Juergen Schrempp, emerged on the scene in the mid-1990s that Daimler thought to capitalize on the obscure and largely moribund name. After more than seventy-five years devoted to establishing Mercedes-Benz as one of the finest brands in all of luxury automobile-dom, you were going upmarket with an ultraluxury product so advanced, expensive, and exclusive that plain old "Mercedes-Benz" just wouldn't do anymore.
And, yet, even though you reportedly spilled billions into Maybach, it's hard to believe you ever spent or did much of anything. Why, even Merkur -- a lame, erstwhile outlet for German Fords in America and generally regarded as a low-water mark in careless secondary brand management -- saw more obvious care and attention lavished upon it.
Problem number one, and it wasn't a secret even in 2002, was that the car called Maybach wasn't particularly special -- not bad, mind you, but certainly not awe-inspiring enough to justify its awe-inspiring $300,000-plus price tag. Indeed, its rarefied price may have been the Maybach's greatest calling card. Early in the reborn marque's run, Automobile Magazine drove a Maybach 57, along with a Rolls-Royce Phantom and a Bentley Arnage R, from New York to New Orleans [August 2003], and while judging the styling unimpressive and the quality less than convincing, we were most vexed by the question of why one would choose a Maybach when he could buy either of the other cars. Or, better yet, why not buy an S-class, upon which the Maybach was clearly based -- and at which one might throw the options book and still come home with six figures in change? BMW did a much better job with Rolls, and Volkswagen, although it hadn't yet really gotten its fingerprints on Bentley, had plenty more up its sleeve. From the start, Maybach was to Mercedes as Lincoln became to Ford -- not different enough.
Aside from being a comparative stiff on arrival, the single most glaring problem with the reborn Maybach was that it was never replaced or significantly improved. Ten years on, you're still selling the same never-ran whose suspension (and recirculating-ball steering!) was from the W140-chassis S-class that was replaced in 2000. Which is why you sold only 157 Maybachs in 2010, leaving us to ponder yet again what you were thinking. Were you still rubbing in Herr Schrempp's shame five years after his unceremonious departure? Or was there some larger point?
Because in Mercedes-Benz, Maybach had access to some of the most awesome automotive hardware known to man, courtesy of one of the greatest assemblages of engineering talent the world has ever known. Mercedes' world-class designers were there for it, too, yet a car whose lines might have been a throwaway doodle on a Hyundai designer's napkin from the bad old days, circa 2001, was forced to soldier on for a superannuated life cycle that will exceed a decade. If the goal was to preordain Maybach's failure, sure, but mostly I can't understand how Mercedes -- like the other German carmakers, acutely sensitive to its domestic competition -- didn't step up Maybach's game to compete seriously with its fellow Germans' English baubles, Rolls and Bentley. There's no reason Maybach couldn't have won.
True, I've been grumbling since the mid-1990s about Mercedes' decision making, as reflected in its quality lapses and downmarket tendencies while it has frantically chased volume. But recently I've had occasion to reconsider. When I borrowed an all-wheel-drive S350 Bluetec diesel for travel that included Thanksgiving in the East End of Long Island and a family wedding in deepest, darkest South Jersey, I was shocked. In fact, in three days and 700 miles of driving -- on a single tank, I might add -- the loudest thing you'd have heard was the sound of me eating my words.
Not only did we average 33 mpg, but the S350 Bluetec transported my parents and kids in such comfort, serenity, and safety that, no offense to the relatives we visited, no one wanted to get out of the car. I don't care for the styling, but the rest of the current S-class is so good that I realized why it is the world's best-selling full-size luxury automobile. I also realized that it was high time for a major recalibration of my Mercedes prejudices. Today's S-class is basically as good as a car can be, well worth its $112,000 price, heavily optioned. And with this kind of fuel economy in a machine that weighs the better part of 5000 pounds, I can't imagine why rich people bother with anything besides large Mercedes-Benz diesels.
Perhaps this is the true logic behind the cruel starvation diet dealt Maybach. As Daimler celebrates its 125th anniversary with a year of hearty profit, it has certainly got the money, along with the skill, to build the best cars in the world. So maybe it is tempted, in its signature self-satisfied way, to suppose that the upper reaches of its Mercedes-Benz brand's multidimensional footprint will allow it to bag the growing number of ultrarich customers it's after without resorting to another name. After all, the "haves" -- whose numbers are growing in eerie, concomitant proportion to the "have nots" created by the worldwide recession -- have never shown an aversion to cars called Mercedes-Benz. Nor should they. Like German carmakers, the rich may be strange on occasion, but they're usually not stupid.