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Rolling Across Dubai in the Back Seat of the Latest Mercedes-Maybach Pullman

A Glamorous, Storied — and Checkered — Past

Ben OliverwriterDirk Weyhenmeyerphotographer

What do Elvis Presley, Pol Pot, and the pope have in common? The Mercedes-Benz Pullman. For more than 50 years, this six-seat state limousine has transported the 0.001 percent, with the armored version protecting many a dictator, several of whom—Hussein, Gadhafi, Ceauşescu—met a grisly end anyway. The latest model, now badged the Mercedes-Maybach Pullman, is the new patriarch of the S-Class family and a car that should once again reign supreme as the ride of choice for despots the world over.

So far, only a handful of Pullmans have been produced, and I'm being chauffeured around Dubai in one of them. The emirate is awash in exotic supercars costing well in excess of the Pullman's $576,000 estimated base price, but our car still attracts a huge amount of attention. People seem to know it's more than just a stretched S-Class. "In the Gulf, around 70 percent of Pullman customers are royals," explains Markus Rubenbauer, the head of Pullman and armored cars for Mercedes. The locals do little to disguise their confusion at finding a German engineer and an impoverished Irish journalist in the back seat, rather than the aquiline features of their hereditary emir, Sheikh Mohammed. I motor the curtains closed to save any more of them the disappointment.

The new Pullman was first revealed at the 2015 Geneva auto show, and production is just now starting to ramp up. Rubenbauer won't say how many Pullmans will be built each year, just that they're sold out until 2017 and that Mercedes is looking to get the cars in the hands of the "right people." Unfortunately, many of the wrong people have obtained Pullmans over the years, especially during the 17-year run of the original Model 600 "Super Mercedes" from 1964 to 1981. Of the 2,677 Model 600s produced, 304 were Pullman sedans, 59 were Pullman Landaulets (convertible over the rear seat area), and 124 were Pullman six-doors. (Subsequent generations of the S-Class have offered Pullman edition models.)

Rubenbauer is predictably discreet about who the customers are, but he confirms that they include heads of state and that most put tyrannizing aside long enough to personally choose at least the color and trim of their new official ride. In fact, this new Pullman was designed with the input of the United Nations Security Council set. The office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote to Mercedes thanking it for the loan of the last-generation Pullman for state duties (buying one would be extravagant) but wondered if the door of the new model could be made even longer. Protocol demands that heads of state enter the car first. The problem was that their interpreters then had to shuffle past them like middle-seat late-comers at the movies in order to get into the rear-facing seats. You cannot show your backside to a president or king. A more fitting solution was required.

The answer is the new Pullman's colossal, 53-inch-long rear door. It's made possible by the fact that this is not a standard Maybach S600 that has been cut in two and stretched. The Pullman was in the S-Class product plan from the start, and its 256-inch-long body-in-white is pressed out like any of other of the five body styles of the S-Class. This also allows designers to ensure that the Pullman doesn't look like a whale despite being 55 inches longer than a short wheelbase S-Class and 4 inches taller. Its gently rising roofline is graceful, and two deep side strakes help break up the car's visual mass.

So you've overthrown the old guy, installed yourself as president for life, pinned a row of medals to your chest, and bought a Pullman. How's the ownership experience? The door is predictably heavy, but Mercedes' research shows that in 90 percent of "door-opening events," someone other than the rear-seat occupants will be doing the opening. Should your footman go missing, a motor will happily do the job instead.

Once through the door you sit back behind the door opening, looking out partly through the quarter light. Rubenbauer calls the rear cabin a "plastic-free zone." Indeed everything—including the vast prairie of headlining—is made of leather, wood, or metal. The carpets can be soft, inch-deep lambswool that engulfs your shoes because its occupants will never step in dog crap or chewing gum. They have people to step in that for them.

There are gadgets to preserve your privacy, including powered curtains on all windows. A glass divider slides up to shut out your driver and turns opaque at the touch of a button, though you can still instruct them via the intercom. (You know your car is colossal when it requires its own internal communications system.)

Otherwise, the cabin is remarkably sober, the gadgets limited. The main seats recline, of course, and have pop-out calf supports. There's a fridge and beautifully engineered fold-out tables in the divider. Each rear-facing seat houses a small screen in the base that are visible when they're folded up, and an 18.5-inch flat screen motors up from the driver partition. The Maybach hallmark rear-cabin analog dials showing speed, time, and temperature are mounted in the roof, as are two of the 24 Burmester speakers.

I didn't drive the Pullman. It seemed about as relevant as President Obama wondering what Air Force One is like to fly.

There are surprisingly few options. Rubenbauer says the Pullman has been kept deliberately simple to order because, you know, their customers are kind of busy. For $15,000 you can upgrade the already insanely good audio system to "high-end 3-D" status. And for another $10,000, Burmester will run some speakers in on the bench, listen to how their tone changes as they're broken in, and fit your car with the speakers that best match each other and the type of music you most like to listen to. The result is easily the best audio I have ever heard in a car—or ever will. You can also drop $25,000 on a panoramic sunroof, and as much as $500,000 on armoring. Needing armor is a sign you've really made it: Hugh Hefner didn't need to armor his, but you can bet Vladimir Putin does.

I didn't drive the Pullman. It seemed about as relevant as President Obama wondering what Air Force One is like to fly. I assume the chauffeur gets the same tech fest that marks all-new S-Classes, but does Lord Grantham care if Mrs. Patmore's stove has a temperature gauge?

Far more important is how it feels in the back seats. The answer? Eerie and un-carlike, both in the utter sense of isolation it offers (especially with the curtains closed and the partition screen opaque, and then it feels like a small private jet) and in the way it moves. Its vast wheelbase means the Pullman pitches far less over speed bumps, and you can see the front end turning long before the back starts to pivot. Auto journalists like to talk about the distant thrum of a refined multi-cylinder engine, but in this case the 530-horsepower, twin-turbo 6.0-liter V-12 really is a long way away. Pleasingly, it's not Tesla-silent, but any vibration dissipates long before it reaches your royal backside.

But the Pullman's defining feature is its rear-facing "interpreter" seats. That's how Mercedes likes to describe them, but you can put anyone you like in there: your bodyguards, two of your concubines, or your psychotic brother-in-law who doubles as your secret police chief. I put Rubenbauer in there and found that we both had plenty of legroom. I tried them too, just to experience the oddness of traveling backward in a normal-height car. They're a little firm. Their occupants would be wise not to complain.

Let Me Sell You

Khalid al Marzooqi is one of Dubai's top Mercedes salesmen. I took him for a ride in the new Pullman to get his take on what his fellow emiratis would make of it. Despite Dubai's huge wealth, he expects only three or four to make their way here, mainly for the ruling al-Maktoum family. His "ordinary" customers buy more G-wagens than any other model, followed by the S-Class and only then by the C-Class. Most customers want a car with every option, even if they'll never use most of them, and they want their cars immediately. Few want to order one. Limousines such as the Pullman will be used for short chauffeur-driven trips between home, office, and airport or longer trips along the Arabian Gulf coast between the Emirates—that is, if it's quicker than firing up the chopper or the jet.

At 21.3 feet, the Pullman is longer than:
• Shopping cart 2.8 ft
• Average couch 7.0 ft
• Recreational kayak 9.0 ft
• California condor wingspan 9.8 ft
• Party sub 12.0 ft
• Common anaconda 15.0 ft
• Tracker bass boat 18.5 ft
• Standard shipping container 20.0 ft
• Tomahawk missile with booster 20.5 ft
• Great white shark (female) 21.0 ft

 

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