by Ian Kuah
The top tier of luxury cars is divided into two distinct camps. Traditionalists in the developed countries favor limousines like the Rolls-Royce Phantom and Bentley Flying Spur, while high net worth individuals in younger economies are frequently drawn to luxury SUVs like the Bentley Bentayga, Rolls-Royce Cullinan, or even the Lamborghini Urus.
Daimler's Chief Designer, Gorden Wagener thinks this bi-polar concept is outdated, and to prove the point his team has created a third way that combines the traditional three-box limousine with the bold look and wide stance of an SUV. And because we are talking ultra-luxury here, they have added more glitz and glamour than you can shake a stick at.
The resulting 19 ft. long Vision Mercedes-Maybach Ultimate Luxury stands on giant 24-inch-turbine design wheels that caught a lot of attention when it was unveiled in Beijing back in April. This holds true three months on even though our backdrop for the day is the futuristic Calatrava designed City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain.
Driving and being driven in this car is a unique experience because it is a one-off, with nothing like it ever seen before in the ultra-luxury segment. The posited 750hp and 155 mph top speed are not eye-opening numbers, but we suspect that even the ultra-rich will be impressed by the environmental sustainability of the four electric motors and 80 kWh-battery said to deliver a projected range of around 310 miles.
The metallic red paintwork is a natural hue for China where red is a symbol for luck, while the white leather trim is attractive to Middle Eastern buyers who favor light colored interiors. This contrasting palette works exceptionally well on the show car and drew much admiration both in Beijing and Valencia.
While the driver needs a bit of imagination to enjoy the full capabilities of this working concept car, the passenger truly enters a new world by stepping up into a unique mobile lounge steeped in a new form of luxury.
There are a couple of obvious practical issues that would have to be resolved for production. One of these is the fact that although the ground clearance is less than on a full-size SUV the very wide sill that has to be negotiated to reach any of the four seats is a physical hurdle in itself.
However, once you are onboard the cabin exudes a wonderful sense of light and space derived from the combination of off-white colored trim and the two long and thin glass roof panels flanking the longitudinal central rib. Both structural as well as a design feature that splits the rear window in a historical reference to cars from the 1940s, these roof panels would likely feature the 'magic sky' technology from the SL roadster to turn them opaque at the touch of a button.
The shapes and forms of the cabin architecture are much more organic than anything in production today, creating a feeling of being in a womb - a high-tech one flooded with natural light.
These elegant shapes and forms re-imagine how traditional trim materials like wood and leather are used. Combined with rose gold colored highlights and high-tech elements the result is a unique forward-looking ultra luxurious interior whose forms and details make for a journey of exploration all by themselves.
Not only are the lounge style chairs unique, the rose-gold covered consoles, inspired by pop artist Jeff Koons, give the plush interior a very special twist. Apart from the red paintwork inspired by China, the strongest market for Maybach, there is also a tea set built into the center console along with electronic controls to maintain the temperature of the tea at the ideal 85°C.
While the rear seat passengers can actually indulge in an unprecedented luxury driving this concept car has many restrictions. The chief mechanic did not actually say, "It cost millions because it was built by hand in several weeks, so don't break it," but his tentative look telegraphed as much.
Yes, it runs, but you have to treat it with kid gloves and keep your speed down. The steering is stiff, the turning circle is huge, and any implied off-road capability ends at the next manhole cover. And curbs are definitely off the menu. Remember, the engineer is always watching.
So does this avant-garde take on the future of ultra-luxury cars make sense? The fact is that while it might find a few hundred buyers in China, the Middle East, and even the US, the management of Daimler considers its potential sales volume way too low to make it a viable business case.
The stretch from S-Class to the very successful Mercedes-Maybach is not that great, but the prospect of massive investment into a bespoke low volume luxury model brings back nightmares of the abortive Maybach 57 and 62 projects from 2004.
Even so, this show car is not a total flash in the pan, and we might well see ideas from its gorgeous interior emerge in one form or another in the coming Mercedes-Maybach version of the new Mercedes GLS flagship SUV. Just don't count on the tea set or electric drive. (Review written by Thomas Geiger, edited and translated by Ian Kuah).