It’s ‘bach, and still wrong.
In 2002, Mercedes-Benz introduced a new star: Maybach, a hitherto dormant name awoken from deep slumber. Its bones were largely beyond reproach; based upon the decade-old W140 series S-Class, the final saloon programme to be conceived at Sindelfingen to a standard rather than a price, yet with this announcement one could nevertheless discern a strong sense of a carmaker not only stretching itself too thinly, but suffering from a lack of self-awareness.
Maybe they simply started out with bad directions, but when the wheels came off this particular wagen in 2013, few were surprised, given the execution. But other council prevailed at Baden-Wüttermberg; not entirely better, but certainly, one imagines, better remunerated. Far from allowing the small matter of a €1Bn loss to impede them, Daimler management elected to once more reimagine brand-Maybach, no longer as a stand-alone product (that one really couldn’t stand unaided), but as something a good more to the cost-accountant’s taste.
Hands up now – how many new-era Mercedes-Maybachs has anyone spotted locally since its 2016 introduction? Hardly surprising, since Daimler’s most expensive trim-level not only sits well outside our narrow ideas of taste and aesthetics, but also our geographical purview. According to Daimler’s recent press release, key markets are said to include China, Russia, North America, South Korea and Germany. It’s not difficult to envisage the richer Gulf states also being eager recipients. Over 60,000 Maybach-branded Mercs have found buyers since its re-reintroduction in 2015/16, of which, some 19,000 were sold in 2019 alone.
But are Mercedes still metaphorically splashing about in the shallow end, or have they simply discerned a lucrative, hitherto untapped sub-seam of the ultra-luxury market? It does appear that the re-establishment of Maybach as über-Mercedes is proving the success its predecessor wasn’t, not only in sales, but in profitability. After all, bodywork revisions apart, the cost base is broadly the same. Given the expense incurred by BMW and VW to develop and maintain both Bentley and Rolls Royce brands, one has to wonder who of the three carmakers are enjoying the better return on investment – but is ROI enough? Surely at this end of the market at least, there are other, more nebulous factors at play. What price reputation? Image?
Of course, one can argue that Mercedes have successfully burned through both with as much alacrity as Jürgen Schrempp once burned through Deutchmarks. But how much do Daimler’s German rivals gain in reputational and image terms by association with their adopted brands? One answer sits within the cold calculus of the balance sheet, but another lies within how each carmaker is perceived and how desired its brand.
In 1991, when the W140 S-Class was introduced, there was no rationale for anything but Mercedes-Benz branding. That a mere decade later, this would prove no longer the case is an indictment that can only be laid at management’s feet. Because despite its more recent success, there is no running from the fact that Daimler have conceded the broader pitch to the their rival-owned British heritage nameplates. For a carmaker of the size, reach and past reputation of Mercedes-Benz, this is a humiliating capitulation.
The 2002 Maybach illustrated how little contemporary Daimler-Benz management understood its history. Because it wasn’t as if Mercedes was new to the upmarket saloon game – quite the contrary. So much so, one would have imagined by the late 1990s they would have have taken the time to carry out a sufficiently robust assessment of what actually constitutes luxury.
After all, neither the Adenauer 300 nor W100 600 series’ had any such indecision regarding either their appearance or position. Nor indeed did generations of Sonderklasse models prior to the palace revolution which took place in the bitter wake of the W140’s announcement. These cars knew what they were, and what’s more, so did everyone else. They very simply, powerfully and with a seemingly effortless superiority exhibited the ultimate expression of marque values.
Maybach failed because it could not convince as a top-end luxury product. It simply wasn’t special enough. Today’s Mercedes-Maybach on the other hand doesn’t try to deny its background, in fact it makes a point of it. So in that respect at least, it’s a more honest product – if only in that respect. Last week Daimler revealed the Z223, based upon (and the hint is in the product code) the recently announced W223 S-Class saloon. Unsurprisingly, given the 290 mm added aft of the B-pillar over the entry level Sonderklasse, the Mercedes-Maybach is orientated towards owner-passengers who will never trouble the driver’s seat.
Actually little has changed. The wrapping is different but the recipe remains the same. More of everything. Better, more adjustable ‘first class’ rear seats, more padding, more pleating. More Brushed (brashed?) metal finishes, or failing that, rosé gold for that extra level of distinction. More mood lighting. A New Definition of Luxury, is how Daimler announces it, but what’s obvious here is that its creators still don’t get it: True luxury is less. Less noise, less upset, less discomfort, less intrusion. Less disturbance. So desperate is the Mercedes-Maybach to display its wares that it simply wears. This is the inverse of luxury. It’s noise.
But how can we define this so-called New Definition of Luxury; these tasteless vehicles created by an equally tasteless creative director, aimed at at the tasteless, indolent wealthy? The luxury espoused here is forced, inauthentic and self-consciously gauche. They are not in any meaningful sense of the term, luxury cars. Daimler, by dint of their position as the World’s oldest and most storied carmaker (if for no other reason) really ought to be making more of an effort than this.
But it’s getting close to the season of goodwill, so one perhaps ought to be charitable. And given that there are more punters capable and willing to spend the requisite premium for the distinction of having an illuminated Maybach brand emblazoned upon their festive S-Class’ C-pillar than heretofore, the new Z223 Mercedes-Maybach looks like the Christmas gift that’s likely to keep on giving.