Sino onanistic excess broadens world market for Merc Maybach
Contemplating the several decades’ worth of investment made by Daimler-Benz in the Chinese car market, highlights Iain Robertson, has proved to be immensely rewarding to the Teutonic giant, as it unveils its most luxurious saloons ever.
Merc has never regarded Rolls-Royce, or Bentley, to be rivals to its uppermost Maybach offerings. In fact, it has given no thought to the BMW, or VW-owned (respectively) and largely British-based exponents of hand-built automotive excess. Its history is intriguing, Wilhelm Maybach having worked for Daimler but departing in 1907, together with his son, Karl, they would form the Maybach Engine Manufacturing Company in 1912, which built engines for the ill-fated Zeppelin airships, which, in turn, became responsible for giving hydrogen fuel a grim repute.
In fact, Maybach engineered most of the running gear for Nazi Germany’s Panzer and Tiger series of tanks and half-track weaponry used to significant effect against allied troops in WW2. Ironically, Daimler-Benz rescued the struggling firm in 1960, since when it has been responsible for hand-building special versions of Mercedes motorcars.
In 2002, off the back of its disastrous partnership with the Chrysler-Jeep Corporation, Mercedes launched both 57 and 62 versions of the clearly S-Class-based fat-cat Maybach. The numbers referred to approximate body lengths of 5.7m and 6.2m, which certainly made them major statement pieces. Boasting around 600bhp and an accompanying mountain of torque from bi-turbo versions of the Merc 6.0-litre V12 engine, they were fairly quick and were launched in a flurry of excess to a strictly limited number of media and potential consumers.
The UK launch involved a week-long exercise, indulging in a much-fanfared QE2 boat trip from Southampton to New York (with a Maybach 62 strapped to the deck in a glass enclosure), a couple of days of high-end celebrations in ‘The Big Apple’, followed by a return flight to the UK on-board Concorde. The event was blighted by problems (invitations sent to the ‘wrong’ people, with costly apologies following) and abundant elitism, supported by a ‘strict invitation-only’ exposition within the stable-block at Goodwood, during the 2002 Speed Weekend. I was allowed a brief sniff at that event. Very few ‘test drives’ were offered, as Merc believed wholeheartedly that ALL Maybachs would be chauffeur-driven, which meant that journalists were relegated to the exceptionally comfortable rear seats…
While Merc, well, Daimler-Chrysler anticipated annual sales of around 2,000 Maybachs, with half of them destined for squillionaires in North America, its expectations were simply never met. It took a whole decade for Merc to sell just 3,000 examples (300 p.a.), before production was cut in late-2012. The extravagant costs borne by Merc included buying back 29 US dealers and, while the cars were ultimately very special, being beautifully built and specified, they were also prime examples of clinical and character-free Germanic excess. Merc’s corporate fingers were burnt clumsily to a crisp, as it reflected on the missed opportunity to bid for Rolls-Bentley. Oops!
Naturally, historical legacy is an important element of brand success. Both BMW and VW recognised it for their respective ‘British’ offerings, which received bespoke underpinnings, with minimal back references to the German marques but copious style reflections on both Rolls-Royce’s and Bentley’s past. As a result, essential degrees of exclusivity grew in ways that were totally alien to Maybach, a marque known only slightly, even in its German homeland.
By 2014, Merc was ready to reintroduce Maybach but only as an upmarket Merc. Helped by an all-new S-Class platform, the hand-built Maybach variants would incorporate levels of untold luxury in even lengthier forms. The programme is working for Merc, as since the market launch in 2015, around 60,000 examples of the Mercedes-Maybach S-Class have been delivered worldwide. In 2019, at around 12,000 units, more Mercedes-Maybach S-Class cars were sold than ever before. The growth rate in China was in double figures but the main sales markets in recent years have been Russia, South Korea, the USA and Germany, with a smattering of them landing in the UK.
A classic three-box saloon, it is distinguished by a bonnet with a chrome fin and a Merc-Maybach radiator grille topped by the ‘Three-Pointed-Star’. ‘Maybach’ is etched elegantly into the grille surround. Its rear doors, with optional power operation, are wider than those of the lesser models and the C-pillars feature a fixed quarterlight. A Mercedes-Maybach S-Class can be ordered in a two-tone paint finish, with dividing line that is applied by hand.
Unsurprisingly, the dashboard architecture, centre console and armrests, while familiar to Merc owners, seem to float above an expansive cabin. Digital and analogue luxury are combined harmoniously, with up to five display screens being available. The standard fayre is a 12.8-inch OLED centre-stack located, high-tech control centre; a 12.3-inch 3D driver display, complete with three-dimensional representation of other road users and pronounced depth and shade effects, is available on request.
Lashings of high-end, high-quality wood trim clad much of the cabin, with even more, should the twin rear seat set-up be specified, rather than the standard three-person bench. A cocktail/champagne cabinet can be incorporated and the rear seats can turn into supremely supportive ‘dentist’s chairs’, heated, ventilated and with massage settings in-built. The only tooth-pulling lies in the wallet draw, which is unlikely to be painful to a Maybach customer.
While the punchy V8 turbo petrol engine is capable of delivering a 0-60mph dash in around 5.0s, the car wafts along on air suspension, driving through a 9-speed fully automatic transmission. Largely tokenism at this stage, a 48v mild-hybrid set-up features a belt-driven starter/generator that is unlikely to reduce the BIK by much, although there is no denying the car’s refinement and wondrous smoothness is enhanced by it. A semi-active ride control system also ensures dynamic grace.
Conclusion: Merc’s original intentions for Maybach may have looked like a total cock-up but the company does appear to have turned a corner competently (not a quality of the original 57/62 models) by turning up the Merc wick. In truth, there is probably no finer mode of dependable boardroom transport and Merc’s returned reputation as the ultimate taxi has almost no rivals.