We drive Mercedes-Benz’s second attempt at producing a top-end luxury rival to Rolls-Royce and Bentley, almost a year ahead of its Australian showroom debut
WHAT IS IT?
Maybach is Mercedes' revived sub-brand. It's designed to be the ultimate in luxury, with a level of exclusivity and opulence to wrestle buyers from the classic choices of Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Designed for the driven, not for drivers, it starts as a 600L – the V12-powered former crown of the range – and adds space to the wheelbase and gives it all to the rear passengers. Its biggest markets are expected to be China and Russia.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
The irony of testing a car that most buyers will be chauffeur-driven in rather than at the helm is not lost here as we see if the Maybach can offer the same levels of luxury as its opposition, or if Mercedes has wrecked a perfectly good S-Class trying. It's a stretched, nipped and tucked S-Class rather than a stand-alone model like the original 2003 Maybach, but whether or not it feels like an S-Class with a few options is the key here.
Rolls-Royce Ghost, Bentley Flying Spur
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The Mercedes-Maybach S600 is a brilliant machine, superbly engineered, designed and executed. Yet it lacks the sense of occasion and grandeur that a Rolls-Royce has, and that's crucial to the fight it has walked into.
PLUS: Fit and finish; refinement; technology; cabin space
MINUS: Not distinguished enough from the rest of the S-Class range
THE WHEELS REVIEW
AUTHENTICITY is a word used a lot by the Germans flown to California for the global launch drive of the Mercedes-Maybach S600.
This is a car designed to steal sales from the likes of Rolls-Royce and Bentley, but it's much more affordable than the million-dollar mess that was the previous Maybach. That car, which sold only about 3400 globally between 2003 and 2010, flopped. Oh, and it was a Maybach, not a Mercedes-Benz, even though its S-Class underwear was visible through its Maybach dress.
The 2015 version is different. It’s out of the closet as a Mercedes, with a three-pointed star proudly on the bonnet, and officially badged a Mercedes-Maybach as a sub-brand of Stuttgart's finest saloon-car producer. It's also an S-Class, part of the S-Class family, and one of six body styles on sale once the final brick in the wall, the coupe-based S-Class convertible, arrives by the end of 2015.
China is expected to be the sweet spot, where Mercedes will sell about 60 percent of the Maybachs it builds. The Australian arm is hoping for double figures, which seems realistic given that Rolls-Royce sold a record 39 cars in 2014. But that still depends on whether a larger S-Class hits the spot.
The wheelbase is a whopping 3365mm, which is 200mm more than the long-wheelbase S600L, and the biggest contributor to the Maybach's 207mm increase in overall length.
Visually, the Maybach is distinguished by different grille inserts, split twin pipes at the rear (unique to this car), a silver B-pillar, 20-inch wheels, an extended and flatter roofline, and a unique C-pillar and quarter window, thanks to the rear door actually being 66mm shorter than in the regular 600L. That means the tiny triangular window is separate from the door, enabling the rear passenger to sit further back behind the door opening, giving celebrities and gangstas both improved crash protection and privacy from paparazzi.
That extended length also means an ‘executive’ chair that reclines 43.5-degrees and shames airline seats can be fitted on both sides of the Maybach; in the other S-Class models, it's only offered on the passenger side due to space limitations. They're trimmed in Nappa leather, and so are the doors, pillars and even the roof. The diamond pattern is exclusive to Maybach, but in terms of trim there's little else to distinguish this car from its lower-spec stablemates, apart from a Maybach badge on the console and an IWC-brand clock also found in AMG models. Even the wood-rimmed steering wheel still has Mercedes-Benz script, not Maybach, at the bottom.
For the chauffeur, he or she will feel like they're in any other S-Class. That's not necessarily bad, as the crisp digital instruments and huge 12.3-inch centre screen make life easier, and there's that stunning centre Comand touch-controller. Yet it doesn't feel extra special or have the mystique of a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, even if the latter's interior is utterly shamed by the Maybach in terms of design. To elevate to the heights of such brands isn't an easy task.
Driving the Maybach, the strengths of the S-Class haven't been diluted with the additional length and weight. It doesn't feel hefty or obese, with a 5.0sec 0-100km/h claim.
The standard Magic Carpet adaptive airbag suspension gives it a smooth ride on those 20-inch wheels, even if it feeds a little too much of the road surface back through your seat. The steering is well-weighted, if a little slow, but that seems deliberate as it makes the 390kW twin-turbo V12-powered limousine easy to drive smoothly through a set of curves, even at considerable pace, controlling the little body roll adroitly.
There is a Sport setting for both the engine and suspension, but even in its softest full marshmallow Comfort mode, it's responsive and competent. Despite some wind noise up front, undetectable gearchanges, effortless torque, strong, progressive brakes and an excellent driving position will make this a chauffeur's choice.
However, it's the CEO or rock star in the back seat paying the bills, and despite the claim of the quietest rear compartment available, a few decibels doesn't mean its rivals' rear seats are exactly noisy, and it simply cannot match them for brand cache and grandeur, that sense of occasion.
This car is brilliant; the S-Class is a technological masterpiece, but this car challenging Rolls-Royce is the sort of mountain Korean carmakers faced against the Japanese two decades ago. The brand cannot be made overnight. Even if the product is superior, it doesn't mean it will gain acceptance in certain circles.
The Mercedes-Maybach S600 – there will also be an S500 version that Australia is unlikely to get – is a brilliant car that offers quality engineering, fit and finish, is high-tech and performs strongly whether you're the driver or passenger.
Yet chasing Rolls-Royce is a mammoth task, and won't be achieved easily or quickly. Bentley may be slightly easier meat, with a far less advanced product, but saying you own a Bentley or Rolls has more clout than saying Mercedes-Maybach. That's where the word authenticity rears its head. It's not the product so much as the perception that will be the tallest order, but if anyone can do it, it should be Benz.
Model: Mercedes-Maybach S600
Engine: 5980cc V12, dohc, 48v, twin-turbo
Max power: 390kW @ 4900rpm
Max torque: 830Nm @ 1900-4000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Economy: 11.7L/100km (EU)
On sale: Now (first deliveries Q4 2015)