Modern luxury collides with post-opulence.
With summer now officially over, and perhaps more in the spirit of hope than confidence, OEM carmakers are gradually returning to the business of product. This week amid the sudden outpouring of new announcements, previously squeezed and distorted through the narrow pipette of PR drip-feed, we are presented with two super-luxury land-yachts from differing echelons of wealth, privilege and position. Let us first away to Baden-Württermburg where “automotive luxury experienced in a completely new way” awaits us.
The Mercedes’ S-Class, the flagbearer of a sector in retreat, nevertheless remains its top-selling exponent. Since the outgoing W222 model’s début in 2013, more than 500,000 S-Class Saloons have been sold, with over a third of those making their way to China. According to Daimler, 9 out of 10 S-Class customers across all markets opt for the long-wheelbase model, begging the question, why make anything else?
The arrival of a new S-Class was once an epochal event, one which in a more innocent era might have been deemed worthy of song. But bearing in mind that the last truly noteworthy Sonderklasse from Stuttgart-Sindelfingen emerged a good thirty years ago, it is hardly surprising that so little is now expected from the current custodians of the three pointed star.
Given such low expectations, you find your scribe somewhat ambivalent about the outward appearance of the W223, finally revealed in official form this week. Shorn of the somewhat ornamental surfacing of the outgoing car, the latest pinnacle of all things three-pointed is a good deal less sensual, but on the other hand, somewhat more pure.
What we see here is possibly something of a formal shift, not simply in visual application, but in influence between Carlsbad and Sindelfingen, with his blessedness it seems, amusing himself in the Californian heat-haze with highly amusing Maybach-branded flights of fancy, while his earthbound deputy gets on with the day to day drudgery now clearly some considerable distance beneath the sensual one’s dignity.
Resolutely unexciting, as is the Robert Lesnik way, there is nothing to thrill the eye, yet simultaneously, little to offend it either, which if blessings are to be sought, are to be found here, one might suggest.
When Mercedes initially made its name, its interiors were stark to the point of austerity. The luxury element was only truly apparent in the clarity of the architecture, the quality of the materials chosen and the features offered – many of which could not be found elsewhere. But in this latest S-Class cabin, while quite the technology-gang-bang, there are few genuine thrills to behold inside.
But we do see where Mr. Wagener enters the current equation. Today’s W223 combines the kind of brocaded and tufted analogue for Modern Luxury that reprises the gilded excesses of 1970s Detroit, mated to a Silicon Valley showcase of tacked on tat; inappropriate mood lighting, acres of shiny piano-black trim, said to evoke the finish of high end yachts (and dirigibles, one imagines), diamond stitched everything and an outbreak of touchscreens so virulent, it really ought to be brought to the attention of the WHO.
Hey Mercedes! is there an app for migraines buried in some MBUX sub-menu?
The Rolls Royce Ghost was introduced in 2009 as a more compact, more driver-focused sibling to the patrician chauffeur-driven Phantom. Credited to Andreas Thurner (exterior) and Charles Coldham (interior) under the supervision of design director, Ian Cameron, the car was an elegant synthesis of imposition, classic proportions, visual restraint and elegance of line. Call it the latterday, more considered equivalent of the Silver Shadow/ Spirit/ Seraph and you would be there or thereabouts.
A decade later, it has been deemed time to refresh the format, and so Goodwood has been drawing up, (under previous design chief, Giles Taylor) not just a new Ghost story, but a framing device within which to house it, termed in RR parlance, Post-Opulence. Rolls Royce PR, in the lead up to Ghost II’s apparition, made much of this facet in the press, establishing the case that it redefines the idea of luxury – especially (as one could infer) now, in a world turned sideways.
It may well do, and certainly, it sounds like a good deal of time, effort, money and cutting edge technology has been poured into making it the quietest of its kind, but to these (untrained) eyes, it’s somewhat difficult to discern what the great leap forward is, given that from both an exterior and interior perspective, post-opulence looks an awful lot like pre-opulence or current-opulence for that matter. To me it’s all just opulence.
One has to hand it to RR’s marketers – they certainly realise how to underline a metaphor – after all, every self-respecting Ghost (those who know their onions at least) understands the necessity to be clad beneath a white sheet. The Ghost, in its clinical press photos is about as suitably amorphous a visual presence to qualify for the shapeless milky haze sobriquet.
Despite being on a version of the same RR spaceframe platform which has been employed on both Phantom and Cullinan, the new Ghost’s exterior instead comes across as a somewhat blunt reskin of the outgoing car, but of course it’s rather difficult to be sure of anything under these lighting conditions.
Certainly, before we can fully ascertain the full visual merits of the new Ghost (and first impressions are somewhat underwhelming), we will have to await more finely saturated images of a car shorn of its artificial (otherworldly even) hue. Only then can we know just how much of a fright it looks.
The luxury saloon as we recognise it is dying. For Mercedes and Rolls Royce, the format has not only been their bread and butter, but their defining products. Understandably then, reinvention is essential when faced with the existential threat both car lines ultimately face. However, is rearranging the deckchairs necessarily going to cut it, no matter how much tinsel, white noise (or lighting) you apply?
Both cars attempt to cloak a primarily technology-laden offer with iterative styling. Both hope the customer will be prepared to appreciate a shift towards a surface-level refinement of the visual offer which is presented with a metaphorical pat on the head. Modern Luxury: Post Opulence – it’s all rather contrived, and rather patronising. Neither car nails its brief – they fail because in essence, they lack an essential honesty. For the money, I’d want more – and a good deal less.