This is what happens when the Mercedes S-Class is made larger and more luxurious.
The first couple years of this century saw a luxury car market which was in sorry shape. Vickers, the parent company of Rolls-Royce
, hadn't put much into development for their ultraluxury brands though most of the Nineties. When Rolls-Royce was sold to BMW
and Bentley to Volkswagen
in 1998, the legendary marques didn't have much to bring customers into their showrooms. Platform sharing meant that neither brand had a single model which was wholly unique.
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As late as 2002 they were still selling only models introduced under Vickers management. More and more customers were buying long-wheelbase versions of the large luxury sedans offered by the big three of German luxury cars when they wanted a limousine, and the British marques were looking increasingly old fashioned and irrelevant. The car which was primarily responsible for this situation, the Mercedes-Benz
S-Class, was still the best-selling of the big luxury cars, and Mercedes decided that they could step it up with another model slotting in above the S-Class. Back in 1997, they unveiled a concept form of such a car at the Tokyo Motor Show.
It generated moderate interest, despite its comparatively uneventful debut. The 2002 production model would be similar in many ways to this concept, despite being built on a later S-Class platform. It would have seemed as though the time was perfect for a new ultraluxury sedan. The Maybach
was out of reach of the volume-selling German cars (including the Maybach's platform-mate), and the competition from the British was weak. But there were some major problems. The first of these was prestige. The Maybach name had a history that theoretically tied the new car to great icons of luxury, just as the Rolls-Royce name does.
Except that those icons were so long ago (1909-1940) that not many people outside of Germany knew or cared about the history of the hood ornament. Moreover, that hood ornament was about the only feature of the car which even slightly hinted at this heritage. For the most part, it was regarded as what it was, a bigger and cushier S-Class with a massive price tag. Prestige goes a long way, it's why Rolls-Royce can sell the Ghost, which is built on the 7-Series platform, but the Maybach struggled. The second problem which the Maybach faced was the 2003 debut of the new Rolls-Royce Phantom
, but more on that later.
There is essentially only one model under the Maybach marque, although a few different versions of the car existed. The 57 is the short-wheelbase (relatively speaking) while the 62 was the long-wheelbase which is more likely to be chauffeur driven. It should be said at this point that one thing which the Maybach never suffered from was a lack of quality, it is a fantastically luxurious and technologically advanced automobile. Power comes from a 5.5-liter twin-turbo V12 which produces between 518 and 633 horsepower, depending on which version of the Maybach it is installed in.
It can accelerate up to 60mph in 4.5 seconds in its fastest form, which is pretty impressive in a car which weighs more than 6,000lbs. The driver will notice some shared components with the S-Class, but the driver is generally not the owner, so Mercedes didn't perceive this to be a problem. The Maybach was the first of a new generation of ultra-luxury cars. It reintroduced us to the old-school limousines which had been in decline since the early seventies. However, it was still a commercial disaster. Mercedes had set the absurdly high sales goal of 2,000 units per year, but the all-time annual high in 2004 was just 244 units.
What is important to note at point is that this sales record was achieved after the debut of the Rolls-Royce Phantom. Competition from the Phantom is often cited as one of the big reasons for the Maybach's poor sales, but if that were true, the 2003 sales figures should have been better than the 2004 figures, but they weren't. No, it seems more likely that the poor sales of the Maybach was something which Mercedes did to themselves, and it was recently announced that 2013 would be the final model year of the big car. The Maybach is an interesting chapter in the history of not just luxury cars, but indeed on the nature of luxury in general.
If you were to look at nothing but stats and figures, it can be difficult to understand the failure of the car. There was nothing exactly wrong with it; in fact, it was an exceedingly good car, a fine example of the breed. But it was here that we learn the importance not only of prestige, but also of the word "bespoke". There was a logic to the assumption that a shared platform, and indeed a shared factory with the S-Class wouldn't matter. After all, you can't actually see either of these things, and they certainly don't make the car any less comfortable or well-built.
But that indefinable feeling that it somehow just wasn't as special as it could have been is a difficult one to shake, and when you're spending well over $300,000 on a car, you want it to feel a bit special. The Maybach certainly deserves to called iconic for its roll in once again raising the bar for luxury cars, but unfortunately that didn't save it from failure.