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Published: 07/25/2003 - by Erin Riches, Deputy Editor
It was the Germans who pioneered jet technology, and at the end of World War II everyone wanted a piece of the Messerschmidt-262 that, unreliable as it was, far outclassed the propeller-driven planes everyone else had at the time. In the decades since, the Germans have perfected automobile design to the point that they build some of the most desirable (and expensive) cars in the world. Now, the top German automakers have set about reinventing the ultraluxury touring saloon a vehicle segment historically left to the British, who would build the cars by hand at a small factory after they were commissioned by members of the wealthy class.
But if you keep up with the comings and goings of auto manufacturers, you know that BMW took possession of the Rolls-Royce name as of January 1, 2003. Volkswagen, of course, has the Bentley name and the factory in Crewe. Evidently, DaimlerBenz (or more properly, DaimlerChrysler) was unwilling to sit idly by, as its competitors invested in brand names dripping in history and prestige, and then had their pick of an elite class of buyers. So the German conglomerate has resurrected the Maybach name. Once, this was the name of one of the first automotive engineers, the chief designer in fact of the first car that bore a Mercedes badge in 1901. Then, it referred to a line of custom-built luxury cars on sale during the 1920s and 1930s. Today, Maybach emerges from historical oblivion (as far as most Americans know) to become a new luxury automobile division that resides far above the Mercedes S-Class line in price, and if the company has its way, in prestige as well.
Although one of our drivers had already had a brief opportunity to acquaint himself with the Maybach 57 and 62, we couldn't say no to a few days with a Maybach 57. The difference between the 57 and the 62 is all about length. The 57 rides on a 133.5-inch wheelbase and has a total length of 5.73 meters (which rounds out to 5.7, hence the name 57), or 225.3 inches. The 62 rides on a 150.7-inch wheelbase and covers a stretch of 6.17 meters, or 242.5 inches. All of the 62's extra length goes to rear-seat legroom, allowing two occupants to recline fully in their seats accordingly, the larger Maybach is intended for those who will be driven around by a chauffeur. A privacy partition between the front and rear seats is an option, though it drives the 62's already exorbitant base price (with destination) of $359,500 to a cool $408,000.
Price, we suppose, only has relevance for onlookers like us (well, us and 99 percent of the audience for this article). Indeed, the most important thing to know about Maybachs is that they are built to each customer's taste. A long list of options, colors and interior furnishings can be applied to any vehicle, but you won't find a selection of popularly equipped Maybachs waiting for you on dealer lots. Instead, you must commission a Maybach by visiting a "Commissioning Studio" housed within Mercedes-Benz dealerships that have chosen to sell and service these vehicles. There, you will find a "Maybach Relationship Manager," who will guide you through the process (aided by a 50-inch plasma screen that can show every possible permutation of interior/exterior decor). If a customer's wishes can't be met by the factory items, the company will permit said customer to consult with its designers (or even travel to the factory in Sindelfingen, Germany, to discuss ideas) so that the resulting Maybach accommodates him to the greatest extent possible, and according to company product literature, is "as personal a possession as a custom-built home." Opulent as it was, our 57 tester was merely a baseline example of a Maybach, a starting point from which customers can dream up the perfect luxury sedan.
Several of our editors drove and rode as passengers in the 57 during its stay with our staff. We're not sure if we'd call it the "perfect luxury sedan," or whether it would be our choice over the Rolls-Royce Phantom or even the topline Benz sedan, the S600. But we were hard-pressed to find fault with a car that costs over $300,000. Is it overpriced as automobiles go? Certainly. But at this price, one is at least assured that the car has all the basics covered and then some.
The exterior styling was cause for some discussion. Maybach says that designers strove to create a look that was both elegant without being ostentatious and timeless (since this is a car apt to stay in the family for several years). At the same time, they had to deal with size constraints uncompromised comfort for four passengers and room for up to four golf bags in the trunk took precedence over a sleek silhouette. The result of their efforts is a surprisingly slippery shape for a 6,000-pound vehicle; the 57 has a coefficient of drag of just 0.30, the heavier 62 comes in at 0.31. But elegant? Obviously, that's in the eye of the beholder (or the prospective buyer). If you're interested in our opinion, we'll say the 57 is definitely on the chunky side and has a somewhat anonymous look for an elite sedan some compared it to the S-Class; others saw its toothy vertical-slat grille and were reminded of something large and American. Liberal use of chrome trim helps bring it closer to the jewelry-encrusted look of traditional British saloons, but the dowdy seven-spoke alloy wheels that come standard have got to go.
The 57 is much more remarkable from the inside. For one thing, it's incredibly quiet in there regardless of the speed of travel. The windows are comprised of a thick laminated glass with an intermediate plastic membrane that insulates the cabin from outside noise. (The gray-tinted glass also filters out UV radiation and reflects much of the infrared light that might otherwise cause the cabin to heat up.) Elsewhere, engineers zeroed in on body components apt to cause wind noise and reworked them where needed. Gaps around the doors, trunk lid and hood were sealed, and extensive insulation material was added to any other trouble spots. The result of these efforts is a tight structure virtually immune to the cares and commotion of the outside world and we didn't detect any rattles or squeaks coming from the inside, either.
Unlike the S-Class cabin which has a few too many materials quality lapses for the price of admission, the Maybach leaves much less to chance. Every single surface is high-grade napa leather, nubuck leather (as on Birkenstock sandals), wood, chrome or some other soft-touch material (the storage compartments seemed to be lined in suede). The wood, in particular, was notable not only for its quality our test car had a lovely reddish-brown cherry but for its generous application even by the standards used to measure ultraluxury sedans (no, this is not a car for anyone with environmentalist leanings). The wood is of course all over the dash and center console, but you'll also find it in less obvious places the stereo buttons on the steering wheel, the grab handles, the door release surrounds and the reading light assemblies. Our favorite trim pieces were the louvered sections of wood that run horizontally across the dash and door panels. Buyers who don't like the look of the cherry can go for burl walnut or amboyna, or a more unusual granite, or likely, any other trim they desire provided they're willing to pay extra for it. One of the few materials we took issue with in the cabin was the black lacquer-finish plastic used for the window buttons they didn't feel quite as solid as everything else.
The instrumentation and controls in the Maybach will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a Mercedes and in our view, this kind of parts-bin sharing wasn't the best idea in a car that costs more than twice as much. The gauges, at least, offered little cause for complaint; they have a familiar Benz electroluminescent layout but Maybach has adopted a serif font to give them a statelier look. Even better were the individual analog gauge pods (also encased in wood) mounted in the headliner over the rear seat, allowing those in back to keep tabs on the driver. After all, who can you really trust when a vehicle costs over 300 large?
The climate, stereo and navigation controls, unfortunately, were no easier to use than those in Mercedes vehicles. The climate setup does allow for individualized temperature settings in all four seating positions, and up front, the controls are reasonably well organized. But the buttons are small and fussy. The audio and nav controls are linked by the Mercedes COMAND (Cockpit Management and Data) system on a central display screen, and we simply couldn't get comfortable using it during the time we spent with the 57. Simple functions require you to cycle through menus using a combination of directional buttons and soft keys (as at an ATM), and that just isn't easy to do while negotiating traffic in a very large car. Of course, if you've driven a Bentley Arnage or even something modern like a BMW 760Li, it's obvious that user-friendly ergonomics aren't really a priority in high-end cars. But shouldn't luxury car ownership be about increased convenience? We think so. On the plus side, the Maybach's navigation system is DVD-based so that you don't have to worry about switching between multiple discs on road trips.
The other thing we noticed about some of the center stack controls is that the plastic used to construct them felt a little cheap. Adjusting the stereo volume, for instance, didn't have the fluid feel that you'd find in a Lexus costing less than a quarter of the 57's price. Same goes for the control stalks. And you'll find that the wispy cruise stalk is still mounted inconveniently in the 10 o'clock position, making it easy to select "cruise" when reaching for the turn signals. What's more, one feels a little silly having to rely on said stalk to activate the sophisticated Distronic adaptive cruise control (it intervenes with the throttle and the brakes to maintain a set following distance when the cruise is set). Aren't some steering wheel buttons in order in a Maybach?
There are no such compromises when it comes to the seating in the 57. As you'd expect, the front seats offer a myriad of power adjustments and are probably the softest, cushiest seats we've experienced. And during an uninterrupted two-and-a-half-hour stint behind the wheel, we never once felt discomfort of any kind. The seat memory function can store settings for up to five people, and three-stage seat heaters are standard (air-conditioned seats are optional). Comfy as it is to sit up front, one could easily make the argument that the best place to sit in a Maybach, be it a 57 or a 62, is the backseat. It's a twin bucket arrangement with a console in-between that houses a DVD player, a separate six-CD changer for use in the back (two pairs of high-quality wireless headphones are included) and a refrigerated compartment to keep cold refreshments at the ready.
Each rear seat offers a wide range of adjustment for the seat bottom cushion, back cushion and head restraint. A soft nubuck-upholstered pillow is attached to the front of each head restraint, and leaning back upon it is sure to relax even the most uptight passenger. Nestled in each front seat back is a 9.5-inch, widescreen-format LCD screen so that both rear passengers have a perfect view. Visual entertainment isn't limited to DVDs, either, as Maybachs pick up VHF TV signals as well (though maybe DirectTV would be more appropriate in this price bracket). Because there are two screens, one passenger can watch a DVD, while the other watches TV. What's more, there are two sets of composite cable hookups, so if you've got a pair of rabid gamers in the car, one of them could play the Xbox, while the other uses his Game Cube. Whatever the case, a 21-speaker Bose Surround Everywhere Dolby audio system provides the sound; so if the whole car wants to listen to a movie, all four occupants should be able to hear perfectly. And rest assured that while they're being entertained, they're well protected: Each passenger has his own seat-mounted side airbag and headliner-mounted head curtain airbag, which deploy according to accident severity. Also note that the rear backrests are "crash-responsive," such that they return to an upright position to give occupants better rebound protection.
Of course, some people will actually want to drive their own Maybach, and should you have the opportunity to take one out for a spin, we doubt you'll be disappointed. The Maybach's 5.5-liter twin turbo V12 shares its design and components with that of the S600. Since the 57 has about 1,400 pounds on the Benz, engineers increased the boost on both turbochargers to get a little more power out of the V12. Output is rated at 543 horsepower at 5,250 rpm and 664 pound-feet of torque at 2,300 rpm (compared to 493 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque in the S600). This is crazy power even if exotic sports cars are your basis of comparison and although the 57 weighs as much as a Hummer H2, it can still make it to 60 mph in just 5.2 seconds, according to Maybach (Mercedes claims a 4.6-second time for the much lighter S600).
Out on the real roads, it's not immediately apparent just how fast this sedan is, as a stiff throttle prevents the driver from unintentionally gunning it from a stoplight and sailing into the bumper of an SUV. Obviously, the Maybach has no difficulty getting around in traffic, but it's not until you merge onto an open freeway or find yourself on a lonely back road that you can give the accelerator pedal a generous stab and reach extralegal speeds in no time at all. In normal driving situations, the smooth shift action of the five-speed automatic transmission is barely noticeable. When we drove the 57 a little more aggressively on some familiar two-lane roads, we noticed that it could be a little slow to come up downshifts when given less than full throttle. However, switching over to the Touchshift automanual mode solved that problem.
As you can imagine, ride quality in the Maybach is smooth, smooth, smooth, and the only thing that detracts from the experience is the size of the car. Remember, even the 57 is over 18 feet long, and when negotiating city traffic, the 57 felt manageable but somewhat disconnected from the road. The overall sensation is not too different from piloting a Suburban (albeit while much lower to the ground), but if you're used to the agility of a 7 Series or S-Class, you might find the Maybach needlessly cumbersome.
Away from all the congestion, the 57 was surprisingly entertaining to drive. Credit is due to the Mercedes chassis technology onboard. The Airmatic DC suspension system provides for continual adjustment to the spring (and these are air springs we're talking about) and shock absorber rates for the benefit of ride comfort and handling stability. There are three driver-selectable modes for the adaptive shock damping. We opted for the sportiest setting and then proceeded to drive the sedan at a brisk pace around a series of sweeping turns. We were impressed by the Maybach's body control and by the way it settled easily into each turn: Its meaty 275/50R19 Continental PremiumContact tires bit down into the pavement, and the car had a nimble feel that we really didn't expect in a 6,000-pound vehicle. It was almost fun to drive and behaved like a heavier S-Class.
Engineers opted for a recirculating-ball steering system. This type of setup often limits the amount of road feedback felt through the wheel, and indeed, the 57's doesn't offer much information about the goings-on of the tires. However, the weighting of the steering is about as good as it gets for a vehicle of this weight: An adjustable tension feature allows it to go from offering a lot of power assist at low speeds (for easier parking lot maneuvers) to considerably less assist at highway speeds. As a result, the wheel felt tight and alert in our hands as we drove around curves.
Like the Mercedes SL roadster and the midsize E-Class, the Maybach is equipped with an electrohydraulic braking system. This means that when you hit the brake pedal, a computer decides how much brake pressure should be applied to each wheel. Our instrumented testing of various SL roadsters and an E500 sedan has shown that this kind of system can indeed produce short stops in emergency situations. And these stops occur without the customary vibration and noise of conventional brake systems equipped with ABS. But we've also noted a drawback to this technology, as the brake pedal doesn't have a natural, progressive action to it, which can be disconcerting when making routine stops in traffic. That said, the Maybach offers an improved version of the electrohydraulic system. Engineers have incorporated a soft-stop function, which reduces the brake booster pressure just before the Maybach comes to a normal stop to avoid the customary jolt (which might disturb the occupants). While we still weren't totally satisfied, we did find the brake pedal easier to modulate this time around. Moreover, there's a lot to be said for a brake system that requires so little effort from the driver to bring a three-ton vehicle to a stop.
Our editor in chief tells us that the Maybach 57 is more fun to drive than the Rolls-Royce Phantom, and if you prefer to drive an ultraluxury saloon rather than be driven around in one, perhaps your choice in transportation is already made. Is the Maybach as much fun to be seen in as the Rolls? Well, that's up to you (or rather, that's up to the holder of the offshore account who's already at the dealership configuring his car on a plasma screen). Luxurious as the 57 is, though, we're sure that most buyers would be better served by an Audi A8, BMW 7 Series or Mercedes S-Class. Give up some of the wood, get a much more practical car for life in the city and suburbs. Pocket the difference, buy a high-end roadster for summertime driving.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
When you pass the $300,000 pricing point, it becomes difficult to evaluate a vehicle on any sort of real-world basis. In the real world, people don't spend that kind of money on ground-based transportation, and they certainly don't have to worry about such trifling issues as gas mileage, insurance premiums or squeezing a 19-foot sedan into their two- (or three- or four-) car garage. Someone else inevitably worries about these items, leaving the likely Maybach buyer to focus on how well the car serves his needs.
If said buyer's needs include an always-on cooler bin between the rear seats, individual video monitors for each rear passenger and the ability to monitor the driver's speed via a roof-mounted speedometer, the Maybach 57 has no competitor, except its own bigger brother, the Maybach 62. The closest comparison comes by way of the new Rolls-Royce Phantom, but the Maybach has an edge over the Rolls in terms of handling dynamics when hustled along twisty roads (not that I expect the owner of either car to oblige such pedestrian behavior). It's true that much of the Maybach's interior looks and feels like an S-Class. But the engine is far more advanced (and powerful) than the S600's, and the exterior looks nothing like a Mercedes (whether that's a good or bad thing is up for debate). In terms of high-tech pampering, it simply doesn't get any better than this.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
You know that law of diminishing return that says once you have enough of something, getting more doesn't make things much better? That more or less sums up my brief experience with the Maybach. Sure, it has an engine that could propel a cruise ship, and the interior feels more like a suite at the Four Seasons than a drivable car, but how much better is it than a Mercedes S600? Not much. Not enough at least to justify the $170,000 price premium.
On the other hand, one might argue that the Maybach is for those for whom money is no object, so price matters little. To that, I would respond that the Maybach still falls short. Why? It's a matter of style and presence really. Drive it down the Pacific Coast Highway, as I did, and it lumbers along virtually unnoticed. Not surprising considering that other than the front lights and the rather hideous rear end, the Maybach looks like any other S-Class. Contrast that with the Rolls Royce Phantom, a car so overtly ostentatious that bystanders practically bow as it glides by, and it's easy to see which one of these wealth meters on wheels comes out on top.
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