Something has changed profoundly in the world of ultra-cars. It's impossible to describe in only one word, but we suspect if there were such a word, it would be long and German. Thanks to German investment, modernity has caught up with the luxury limo. Excess is back, and it's state-of-the-art and competent, once more and at long last.
Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Volkswagen, the puppet masters behind the three new or "new and improved" ultra-luxury brands-Maybach, Rolls-Royce, and Bentley, respectively-are all engineering-driven companies with glorious reputations. Each can claim a long, noble lineage as well as recent success and growth. And yet all shared an assumption about the market, for none was prepared to assign to its own name the task of justifying prices several times higher than it had ever charged for a car.
BMW and VW looked westward to England and went name shopping where all things elegant and luxurious pertaining to auto-mobiles were thought to reside, even if the truth, on the technical side, at least, was that the British carmakers had lost any competitive edge in the 1960s. No matter. Under the guidance of former chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder, a well-known Anglophile, BMW worked to spirit the British industry's crown jewel-the Rolls-Royce name-out of the country and out from under VW, which had intended to outmaneuver the BMW chieftain by acquiring Rolls and Bentley but wound up with Bentley-and the factory that builds both cars in Crewe, England-alone.
Both brands are obviously known for their Britishness, a trait the German caretakers mean to preserve. BMW has been inspired to build a virtual theme park of a plant to assemble Phantoms on Lord March's estate in Goodwood, West Sussex. At Bentley, most of the old Crewe work force remains in place.
DaimlerChrysler, makers of Mercedes-Benz, took an entirely different direction in its march upscale, appropriating an obscure brand from Germany's automotive past. Maybach, a name-plate cold-chilling in Daimler's cellar, hadn't been seen on an automobile in more than sixty years. Low-volume luxury machines of some technical interest, Maybach cars were last heard from back in the 1920s and '30s, and may seem an unlikely choice for the move upmarket today. The Pullman name, for instance, served Mercedes very well in the 1960s, its 600 Pullman limousine doing brisk business at the steepest prices then known to kings, potentates, and captains of industry. Perhaps Mercedes sells too many cars for its own good these days. Maybe it's not the exclusive name it once was. But ours is not to wonder why. Maybach it is.
Together, these three revitalized luxury brands set the stage for an all-German battle royale. You don't have to think about it too carefully to realize what excitement this Teutonic rodeo has set in motion. Serious engineers, the people who give us the BMW M5, the Mercedes-Benz E55, and the Audi S8, to name a few, have gotten to work, but with four and five times the money to spend building their new motherships. It ought to be a gearhead's dream. And it is.
We knew we had to drive these cars, the three most expensive sedans in the world, together. We knew we had to lounge in them, big-time. We could be pretty certain that two of them had rarely been seen on U.S. highways before and absolutely certain that they'd never been seen together. Until now. We wanted to drive them long and hard; the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival seemed as good a place to go as any.
An annual tradition for the city since 1984, the Jazz Festival is a more contained and slightly more sober companion event to Mardi Gras. Combining (for two long weekends in late April and early May) vast quantities of indigenous music, fried foods, and overpriced beer, it's designed to benefit the local economy by attracting cross-addicted partisans of all three. A culturally uplifting, officially sanctioned pleasure fest in a city where gluttony and pleasure are the only businesses still going? We were on our way.
Elwood Blues's retired Dodge Monaco cop car might have been a good vehicle to take on the 1500-mile drive from Nyack, New York, but there was a strong case to be made for the Maybach, the Bentley, and the Roller. You see, I spent the summer of 1976 in New Orleans, eventually using a padded rsum to land a job as a teenage waiter at the venerable Commander's Palace restaurant. This was before I was personally fired by soon-to-be celebrity Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme, the father of everything blackened. It seems I offended some guests one night, a bunch of inebriated Rotarian conventioneers. Among them were a couple from Buffalo deep in their cups, one of whom asked me jocularly, "What's a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey doing in a place like this?"
"I don't know! What's a bunch of drunk old farts from Buffalo like you doing in a place like this?" I replied, joining them as they guffawed roundly. Haw-haw-haw. The next morning, I was relieved of my position.
Fast-forward to 2003, and it dawns on me that returning to the site of my former shame in a $199,990 Bentley, a $325,000 Rolls, or a $309,000 Maybach would not hurt the old ego one bit.
The rest of my experience at the Jazz Festival was typical New Orleans. Three days in, I'd heard some fine music. I'd also gained 41 pounds, sent my cholesterol through the roof, and achieved a "perfect storm" blood-alcohol level of 0.4975. Fortunately, I was out of my gourd at the time, having received a contact high from the crowd, and so I failed to notice that I was legally dead, freeing me to redouble my efforts to ably represent Automobile Magazine and the great state of New York by continuing to consume mollusks, crustaceans, and pork byproducts on an around-the-clock, "I care, now please, won't you" basis. I needed to sit in the back of a Rolls-Royce at this point because it was all I could fit in. I love the way powerful electric motors pull the big rear-hinged rear doors closed at the touch of a discreet switch in the C-pillar. It's a surprise-and-delight feature that begins every tour of the Rolls we give. Happily, we knew most of what we had to know by the time we actually hit New Orleans, allowing us to cut straight to the chase. There are no losers in this comparison, only winners. Each car represents a different approach to luxury; each hints heavily at its particular line of German family values, with a slight British accent. We'd drive any one of them to our high school reunion. Hell, we like them so much, we'd even drive them to your high school reunion.
We love this car the way we love the Mercedes-Benz S600, perhaps the smoothest ride known to man and a car that is never far from mind when one gets behind the wheel of a Maybach. The controls and switches are recognizably S-class, revised gauge faces notwithstanding. From the view out to the ergonomic relationships, it all feels similar. That's the downside of sharing so much with the S600, but there's a big upside: the S600. The connection ensures that virtually every mechanical and electronic aspect of this vehicle is as good as it gets, save perhaps the slightly ponderous recirculating-ball steering system that adds refinement to an air-suspended chassis but removes sensitivity.
Like the big Merc, the 57 is more nimble than it has any right to be. But so is the stately Rolls. And the pocket-sized Bentley takes the cornering cake. However, if your main thing is that you want to go 150 mph and barely notice it, then head to the nearest Maybach showroom. (There are seventy-seven nationwide, and they don't have stock. You order a car to be built on a special line at the Mercedes factory in Sindelfingen, Baden-Wrttemberg.)
There is, regrettably, the Maybach's exterior styling, which leaves us a little cold. Make anything large enough, and it will acquire presence, as the 18-foot, 10-inch Maybach 57 and the even longer (20 feet) Maybach 62 do. But, to us, they look like S-classes that somebody took tire pumps to, then gave a two-tone paint job and an any-grille. The Maybach logo, prominently displayed in a hand-sized hood ornament, scans more curious than distinguished. But what do we know? Out among the great unwashed masses, the 57 proved the most popular of our three test cars. Mercedes psychographic style research obviously ran deep and true.
Weighing a very maxi 6030 pounds dripping wet, the Maybach is a seriously heavy car, but it accelerates like a seriously fast one, the result of a whopping 550 horsepower and an even more amazing 664 pound-feet of torque. That's what happens when you take the twin-turbocharged V-12 found in the S600 and tune it for additional low-end muscle. The word seamless doesn't begin to describe the turbinelike smoothness as the Maybach hustles from 0 to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds. Clichs fail us. That is thunderingly quick for a sedan that weighs more than a Suburban, but it's chicken feed next to how you feel quietly blasting from 80 to 130 mph in the blink of an eye, just by slap-shifting the robust five-speed auto box from fifth down to third and standing on it.
Mercedes has the parts bin to make the best car in the world, and it may well have succeeded. Which is why it occurs to us: You could take a wild ride through the Merc options list, have a long phone call with the Beverly Hills Motoring Accessories people, and buy more or less the same car, gaining one additional rear seat and saving shedloads in the bargain. It would be called an S600, and it wouldn't even necessarily be that much more common a sight than a Maybach. So the question is, what are the Maybach name and style worth to you? If you have to ask, then you can't afford them. We've no doubt it will be an acceptable premium for enough of the very few to make this a worthwhile venture for its makers. But true aesthetes may be looking to the white cliffs of Dover.
BENTLEY ARNAGE R
Roll the clock back to 1996. Your choice in insanely upper-crust motors is limited. Why, there's the aging Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit and its equally decrepit sister, the Bentley Eight. And, er, that's it. Handcrafted cabins bursting with leather and wood can't make up for the fact that these machines are badly outgunned in most other respects by any number of cheaper high-end performance sedans from Germany and Japan. From a technological value standpoint, the case to be made for buying the world's most expensive automobiles is as weak as it ever was.
The Germans can't take all the credit for righting the situation. When Rolls-Royce and Bentley were still glued at the hip, corporate parent Vickers reached deep enough into its piggy bank to launch the Arnage and the Silver Seraph of 1998, huge improvements over their predecessors and some kind of small miracle with all the daunting regulatory, engineering, and cost issues they faced. True, BMW powerplants helped move the new cars into the new century with authority and lower emissions, but it was the redesigned body, penned by Graham Hull at Crewe, that upped the twins' game most, affording much-improved roadholding and, even more important, really good looks. Subsequent revisions to the Arnage body undertaken by Bentley stylist Dirk van Braeckel at Crewe have only made the Arnage even more desirable, as any number of professional athletes and hip-hop stars will be quite pleased to tell you. Bada bling, bada boom.
Smitten by the Bentley but completely overwhelmed by its huge size ten months ago, as I reported in my October 2002 column, it amuses me to report that in this company, the Arnage appears the most modest of citizens, even if it is as large and upright, as brutally fast, and as fond of gasoline as ever. In this group, it is like the nimble harbor tender flanked by a pair of oceangoing vessels. Alone among these cars, it is powered by a V-8 engine, turbocharged, naturally. It's also the only car with a proper British powerplant, its 6.75-liter brontosaurus of an engine being a Volkswagen-financed development of Rolls-Royce's venerable corporate V-8, whose roots can be traced back to the 1960s. Suitably updated and desmogged with Volkswagen's money and engineering expertise, it replaced the BMW powerplants initially installed in the Arnage upon its release in 1998.
The Bentley looks the best. At 5700 pounds, it's no lightweight, but it carries the weight well. And with 400 horsepower and 616 bountiful pound-feet of torque, it lacks for nothing in the forward progress department. At $199,990, the Arnage R we drove is also the cheapest of our test group. A long-wheelbased RL would have afforded our rear-seat companions an additional 9.8 inches of legroom but would cost $256,990, still a bargain in this company, while a $228,990 Arnage T makes do with the shorter wheelbase but gets 450 horsepower and 645 pound-feet of torque.
The R's your bargain ticket and the one we would choose to drive around the French Quarter of New Orleans, the original tight quarters, or any city, for that matter. When attempting to navigate narrow streets, the extra few feet the Rolls or the Maybach occupies as compared with a normal car is an active intrusion upon one's mellow. Trying to park either car in our compact hotel parking lot becomes the worst part of the day, and we start taking taxis. Or the Bentley. Next time, we must bring the chauffeur.
The Rolls-Royce is the big daddy of our funky bunch at 19.1 feet in length, and it's easily the freshest and most interesting. By turns, one is impressed by its mass, its audacity, its design cleverness, its comfort, its performance, and the sheer wonder of the thing being made in the first place. No one fails to clock a car boasting the world's largest passenger-car tires (22-inch Michelins which stand 31 inches tall and feature a hubcap with an RR logo that remains upright while the wheels spin around), especially when it has a grille as big and bold as the Phantom's. In spy pictures, we hated it. At the auto shows, we were frightened of it. But on the road, coming up fast in your rear-view mirror, the Phantom's visage looks just right. Driving it feels just right, too, even though this is a giant car with a high, cab-rearward seating position quite unlike anything else going.
The Phantom and the Bentley Arnage start with the same design DNA in mind. Both cars pay visible homage to the Silver Clouds of the 1950s and '60s, our favorite Rolls period and most everyone else's. This undoubtedly explains the related feel of the rear styling of the two cars. We think the Bentley might be the better-looking car overall, but toward the rear, the Phantom-the work of Marek Djordjevic, a young designer based at BMW's Designworks/ USA studio in Newbury Park, California-has got some magic of its own going on.
Keeping things down to a comparatively trim 5577 pounds, the Rolls-Royce is spotted an aluminum spaceframe clad with composite and aluminum skin, with an interior nicer than any we've ever seen. BMW 7-series mechanical bits and electronic gadgets populate the Rolls, but they don't define it. It is the best proof yet of the wisdom of spending a little bit more to make a car a little more different from its corporate relations, the first proof being the splendid cabin of the underrated BMW Z8 convertible. If you accept the need for spending more than $300,000 for a car, the additional cost of a Phantom over the others might be considered well spent.
In the Phantom, BMW's extra trouble gets you the world's best wood-and-leather car interior, circa 2003. From the deco overhead lighting to the gauges using Rolls's own 1930s typeface, to the brilliantly reverent retro steering wheel with its large-diameter rim, to the trademark organ-stop fresh-air vents, heavily chromed and as wonderful as ever to use, to the most credible wood veneers in all creation, it spells Rolls-Royce the way the Maybach spells Mercedes-Benz. And, miraculously, the Phantom's computer control dial seems considerably less irksome than it does when it appears as iDrive in the 7-series, omitting the heating controls.
The aluminum spaceframe makes the Rolls not just lighter than the others but stiffer (more than twice as stiff as the Arnage and the lately canceled Silver Seraph), which aids the causes of refinement and handling. At low speeds, there is no quieter, more serene vehicle. As the pace quickens, the Phantom loses the edge to the Maybach, although it, too, uses double-glazed glass and is still very quiet into the triple digits. The Phantom leans more than the king of Sindelfingen, but it also can be hustled with more alacrity than any Rolls ever, with brakes to match. The steering has better feel than the Maybach's, and the car is almost as stupid fast (5.7 seconds from 0 to 60 mph), with a bored 6.75-liter version of BMW's 6.0-liter V-12 dispatching 453 horsepower and 531 pound-feet of torque. The transmission, electronically actuated and most delightful for it, is a good six-speed ZF unit, but it can't be downshifted manually by its operator, having but two positions, forward and reverse. For $325,000, I think I'll reserve the right to shift for myself.
Not surprisingly, the Phantom gets about no miles per gallon (the Maybach actually averaged 20 mpg over one full highway tankful, which was a pleasant surprise). Thanks to its thick C-pillars, however, it actually affords its showoff occupants complete privacy, meaning that no one necessarily knows who is wasting all that gasoline and enjoying the pleasures within. That's assuming you aren't driving, which you might well want to be. In the driver's seat, you will be more visible, though still looking down on the world, high and mighty, as Rolls drivers were in the old days. The Phantom feels 1930s tall and 1950s strong. Viewed in today's terms, it bridges the gap between the feel-good elevational majesty of a high-end SUV, a performance car, and a balls-to-the-wall luxury automobile. Isn't this what they call a segment buster?