D. John Booth, Contributor
Damn, I was really hoping his name was Jeeves.
Growing up in the wilds of Northern Canada, where not drowning your scrambled eggs with ketchup was considered the height of refined table manners and the opening of the local McDonald's a cultural event worthy of front page coverage, my entire knowledge of the outside world consisted of the tomes I would liberate from the town library. Late at night, Graham Greene, John Fowles and especially F. Scott Fitzgerald filled my head with the concept of a life without the grime of iron ore and the stink of fish. Being an impressionable 12-year-old, the part I liked best was the idea of having a chauffeur who tended to my every need, tipping his hat as he opened the rear door of my Duesenberg, bowing ever so formally in the presence of my obvious importance. And, of course, like any good English chauffeur, his name would be Jeeves.
Unfortunately, I was now in Germany and Jeeves just isn't a common name in the county of Schleswig-Holstein. And the guy waaaay up there in the front seat of the impossibly long limousine is named Andreas. But I am gulping some fine Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin champagne at a rate that would make F. Scott proud, listening to Dire Straits belt out "The Walk of Life" through 21 of Bose's finest speakers and reclining in comfort that would make the Sealy Posturepedic folks jealous. So I'm not feeling terribly put out. Besides, Andreas is getting in the spirit of things. He's letting me call him Jeeves and addressing me in return as "Mr. Trump."
This incredibly indulgent fantasy of wealth and power is entirely appropriate because I'm lounging in the backseat of Mercedes-Benz's new Maybach. Or more specifically, the backseat, complete with reclining function, of the Maybach 62, the long-wheelbase version (there's a slightly less expensive, 18.9-foot-long "57" as well) of the car that Mercedes considers the pinnacle of its automotive abilities. That's a mighty boast considering the company's reputation for already building some of the world's finest luxury automobiles.
But then the Maybach warrants its credentials. Although no American pricing has been set yet, the long-wheelbase "limo" version costs 360,000 Euros in Germany (that's roughly $375,000 U.S.) and it's powered by a 550 horsepower, twice turbocharged 5.5-liter V12. If that number doesn't impress, then consider that under Jeeves' (oops, Andreas') right foot is an incredible 660 pound-feet of torque at its disposal.
But far more important to the hoi polloi who will treat themselves to such an automotive indulgence is this: the view from the backseat is incredible. For instance, part of my champagne-addled voyage was spent watching a DVD of a Diana Krall concert on one of the two high-resolution 9.5-inch LCD screens that entertain those in the aft chamber. Had I become particularly taken by one of Ms. Krall's enthralling solos, I could have raised the optional (another $35,000) electronic partition and turned up the Maybach's stereo so that Ms. Krall's piano meanderings would blare out at 600 watts (yes, 600) strong. And if after a fortnight of Heminwayesque indulgence I suddenly decide that Andreas' visage is just too ugly to contemplate, I could turn the partitioning glass opaque with the flick of a button.
Ditto for the optional panoramic sunroof which uses the same liquid crystals to turn translucent when switched on and opaque when the electricity is shut off. The large sunroof also has a retractable top with an electroluminescent membrane that diffuses light over its entire surface to brighten up the rear cabin at night. Additionally, the front half of the panoramic roof contains 30 solar cells and supplies 63 watts of power to the air conditioning system's fans. It's enough, Mercedes officials said, to cool the Maybach's interior by as much as 15 degrees when it's left parked in the hot sun.
The interior, naturally, is swathed in leather from top to bottom. Said leather comes in many colors and three grades, depending on the usage. The seats and dash have enough nappa and grand nappa hide to reskin a herd of cows while the nubuck (a sanded leather that feels like suede) is reserved for portions of the door. There's lots of wood, of course over 100 trim pieces by Mercedes' count but the triple coolest option will be the multihued granite that will be available to replace the cherry/amboyna and burled walnut later in '03. The only faults I could find being chauffeured about in the 62 were the champagne flute holders, which were occasionally reluctant to release (perhaps they were trying to tell me that I'd already had enough) and some electronic switchgear that was tough to decipher.
The interior's highlight, though, is assuredly the 62's incredible rear seats. Best described as opulent versions of first-class airline recliners, the longer Maybach's backseats stretch out enough to let a jet-lagged auto critic fall asleep almost instantly, even at 120 miles per hour. Contributing to their easy-slumber nature are protective headrests covered by suede-textured down pillows, a substance Professor Hermann Gaus, head of the Maybach division, claims is the best vibration-damping material in the world. I can't vouch for his vibration-reducing claim but can attest that the down is the crowning touch to a hedonism that would make Caligula proud.
All of which would mean little, I suppose, if the backseat of a Maybach 62 weren't such an incredible place to pass a very pleasant time. Thanks to its long 150-inch wheelbase, the Maybach 62 has a stability level comparable to the Swiss franc. Pouring even the second bottle of the Veuve Clicquot at 125 miles per hour results in nary a drop spilled, thanks to the Maybach's all-wheel, semiactive independent suspension. Mercedes claims all manner of attributes for the AIRmatic system including automatic leveling, anti-dive during braking and less roll during cornering. It means that you won't dribble a drop of your bubbly all over your Giorgio Armani at 150 miles per hour, a feature that aspiring Donald Trumps seem to find essential.
I know that Andreas is doing over 150 miles per hour whilst I'm sipping the champers from custom-made sterling silver flutes, no less because the rear seat has an overhead console that consists of a clock, outside temperature gauge and, of course, a speedometer to monitor "Jeeves'" progress along the autobahn. Artificially limited to 155 mph, Professor Gaus claims the Maybach is easily capable of 180-plus miles per hour. The reason for limiting the speed relates to the 275/50R19 Michelin tires. At speeds above 160 mph a tire's sidewalls must be very stiff too stiff for the comfort level sought by the Maybach's engineers.
As it is, Mercedes' people claim the big Maybach 62's 550 horsepower is good for a 5.4-second 0-to-100-kilometers-per-hour clocking, while the smaller 57 gets there in 5.2 seconds. For those not yet metricized, that's equivalent to less than five seconds for a zero-to-60-mph time, a feat made all the more incredible when you consider that even the smaller Maybach weighs in at a substantial 5,852 pounds. Even hauling all that avoirdupois, when Andreas presses on the loud pedal, the champagne-enhanced scenery quickly zips past.
I learn more about the Maybach's driving characteristics a day later when it's my turn behind the wheel (albeit this is the smaller 18.9-foot-long version that's intended for the well-to-do who prefer to drive themselves). Some 17 inches shorter than the 62, even the 57 is a mighty large car. An E320 wagon is positively dwarfed by the big Maybach and even the S-Class, long considered this segment's behemoth, feels compact by comparison.
At speed, however, the Maybach seems to lose many of those pounds. Acceleration is determined, even when the starting speed is above 120 miles per hour. It's hard to describe the sensation of such a heavy car rushing so relentlessly forward, but that feeling of incredible power permeates the driving experience. Those 660 pound-feet of torque are available between 2,300 and 3,000 rpm, but Gaus claims that 90 percent of that is available as low as 1,800 rpm. Except in first gear. So formidable is the engine's ability to shred tires and shear drivelines that Mercedes limits the engine's output in the first cog. That's what you get when you take the turbocharged 5.5-liter three-valve V12 from the S600 and increase its boost to almost 20 psi.
At the high speeds offered by such an engine the Maybach's stability is magical and the steering laser precise. And for such a large car, body roll is well contained by the two-stage air suspension. On the twisty roads around Stuttgart, the Maybach even managed to hustle through some hairpins.
But at lower speeds in traffic, it's simply too big. The steering feels heavy, almost ponderous, the throttle and brakes are a little sensitive and even parking the shorter version is an exercise in paranoia, especially since a body panel probably costs as much as several Kias. Mercedes has designed the Maybach as a high-speed grand tourer for those with a fleet of cars to perform ordinary chores. It's much happier in its natural habitat, namely the open road. Even an S500 makes a better grocery-getter.
But then, one hopes that's obvious. Equally obvious is that the Maybach has an impressive array of safety gadgets. There are, of course, two front airbags, each modulated to the severity of the crash. Four side airbags, as well as four window bags, protect all four passengers. The electronic stability control system, along with the ABS and ASR traction control systems, provides additional collision avoidance abilities.
The brake-by-wire Sensotronic brake system automatically determines if the driver is braking in a panic situation and can apply the brakes faster than the driver can. And since Mercedes fears brake fade more than Jerry Falwell does indiscriminate sex, each of the Maybach's front disc is gripped by not one but two four-piston calipers. That insistence on duplication continues throughout the Maybach's braking system. The ABS control unit, the high-pressure reservoir and the hydraulic actuator all have spares, virtually eliminating the possibility of a brake failure. Stopping power, needless to say, is incredible even from the Maybach's 155 mph top speed.
It's almost redundant to mention it, but the rich do receive attention to which we mere common folk can only aspire. Eighty-eight dealers have been approved for Maybach sales and keeping customers happy is the job of a personal liaison manager (PLM). Basically every Maybach owner's attendant, the PLM, manages every aspect of the ownership experience from the initial purchase (which can involve a trip to the factory to individually spec your car as well as an elaborate color demonstration kit in every dealership) to any and all follow-up service. Speaking of which, while local Mercedes dealers are allowed to do routine maintenance like changing tires or oil, anything unforeseen results in one of Maybach's 20 "flying doctors" winging their way from Sindelfingen to sort matters out, presumably wearing white lab coats and surgical gloves.
Incredibly, all the items listed above barely touch on what the Maybach has to offer. I haven't mentioned, for instance, the dual air conditioning compressors for the four-zone climate control system, the dual batteries nor the extra-thick window glass that contributes to making the cabin all but silent. None of those, however, will be what sells the Maybach.
The exclusivity of that astronomical price will. Time and again, Mercedes officials stressed that Maybach customers wanted something far rarer than even the company's S600. Owners will brag of each minor and major feature offered on their third-of-a-million conveyance, but the real reason they'll pony up all those dollars is that every time they get in their two-tone leviathan the chances of seeing its duplicate will be approximately that of my winning the lottery. And even then, I probably couldn't afford a Maybach.
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