Rich And Rare - Luxury Travel Magazine

Rich And Rare

By: Peter Mckay, Issue 26 - Autumn 2006
(Luxury Cars)


They are the last word in self-indulgent luxury, refinement and performance. Selling in their hundreds rather than thousands, their price tags make your eyes water, with zeroes stretching to the edge of the page. These big and imposing bespoke cruisers are the Burj Al Arab and Villa d’Este of motorcars, owned by a tiny coterie of discerning people who settle only for the very best. The owners can be found at the pointy end of the Top 100 Rich List or from the worlds of music and movies. Rolls- Royce, Bentley and now Maybach – these are the rarefied badges of the uber-luxury market. While there are more seriously wealthy people than ever across the globe, not all are prepared to outlay the equivalent of a house on mere personal transport. Some avoid such extravagance; others avoid the inevitable attention that driving such machines brings. So the
uber-luxury market worldwide is saturated, and competition between the brands bloody and unrelenting.

The blood spilt is all Teutonic. All three brands are owned by German car makers: Maybach by DaimlerChrysler, Rolls-Royce by BMW, and Bentley by Volkswagen. And yes, there is great irony in two aspirational marques that once conjured up images of the Empire on wheels – cigars, port, tweed jackets and double parking outside The Dorchester – belonging to German owners.

While Maybach is under-achieving and Rolls-Royce, the name traditionally synonymous with the mega-rich, is still getting back up to speed after ownership wrangles, only a reborn Bentley is cracking the sales numbers required to keep the bean counters smiling.

Bentley’s clever positioning – just north of the BMW 7 series and Mercedes S Class, but well south of the Maybach and Rolls-Royce Phantom – allowed it to tap a rich customer vein with the new Continental GT coupe and now the four-door Flying Spur. Once the racier brethren of Rolls Royce, with which it was joined at the hip between 1931 and 2002, Bentley is now leaving its more-famous former sibling brand behind. Last year, Bentley, with a more diverse product line-up, sold 8,500 cars worldwide. Rolls Royce did 796 Phantoms, the only model in its range; Maybach managed 300. Bentley, reinventing itself with some stunning new models, has best managed the fine balance between exclusivity and volume, resale values... and profits. Its two-door Continental GT, a seductive design marriage of traditional and contemporary, has been a runaway success around the world. Its four-door sibling, the Flying Spur, shares visual cues with the coupé, but has more leg room. The $375,000 Continental GT is the fastest road-going Bentley ever. It and the Flying Spur (priced at $353,000) are powered by a twin-turboed 6.0-litre version of VW's unusual W12 engine developing 410kW and 650Nm of torque. It’s a luxury take on a muscle car. The driver changes gears through fingertip ‘paddle’ controls on the steering wheel. The cabins of the coupé and four-door models are exquisitely detailed, and are as elegant as the exterior. Trimmed as you’d expect with lashings of wood and leather, they’re finished with such touches as a Breitling clock in the instrument panel. As opulent as it undoubtedly is, the bigger, heavier Flying Spur doesn’t resile from Bentley’s sporting traditions. It goes hard, corners impressively, stops brilliantly and, importantly, it’s not so clinically quiet that you look about for the head librarian. The exhausts give a restrained burble that would reassure enthusiasts.

Gearing up to grab a large lump of the toughest of all market segments, Bentley will renew its whole line-up in the coming years. A Continental GT convertible is a year or so away. And orders can be placed for a new Azure drophead convertible for delivery early in 2007. The Azure shares its face and driveline with the Arnage, and seats four adults in an opulent cabin beneath a fabric-folding roof that can be lowered in 30 seconds. Meanwhile the rush continues for the GT Continental. Its appeal is obvious – performance, style, all-wheel-drive grip, and space many of its coupe rivals can’t match. Bespoke craftsmanship – the broadest imaginable choice of colours and trim – is another winning factor for cars of this ilk. Until the advent of the more accessible Continental GT, traditional Bentley owners were mostly older men, predominantly self-made millionaires, with an average net worth of more than $25 million and four or five cars in their garage. Arnage buyers are extremely loyal to the brand, and routinely move to another $500,000 Arnage every couple of years. The racier Continental GT is pulling newcomers to the brand hand over fist. Many more are female buyers, and the average age of customers has dropped to the mid-40s. And while the Arnage is 100 per cent an emotional purchase, the Continental GT is only 80 per cent emotion. (The other 20 per cent, presumably, is based on sound common sense!) “Our competition is not Rolls-Royce and Maybach,” a man from Bentley insists. “It’s Aston Martin and Ferrari.”

Why, then, don’t the customers agree? “We're only just emerging from the shadow of Rolls-Royce,” he continues. “It takes a long time to build brand awareness when you’ve been linked with another brand for the better part of 70 years.”

After a bitter brawl for ownership some years ago, most pundits felt that BMW had scored a major coup in snaring Rolls Royce. Today though, VW looks more a winner. The 6.75-litre V12 Phantom has been criticised for its blocky, incoherent styling. At $915,000, it also costs double the price, and then some, of the new Bentley Continental Flying Spur. John Laws is one of the few local buyers. As might be expected of a car costing close to a lazy million, every Phantom is made to order, with every last detail tailored to the wishes of the owner. Arriving soon is a long wheelbase version at a cool $1,095,000. A Rolls-Royce purchase has been likened to commissioning a piece of art. But wayward things can happen even to the best. The recent introduction of the Phantom in India created embarrassment when organisers made a grave mistake by choosing black as the colour for the launch car. In India, the only all-back vehicles are hearses! Worldwide, the top five Rolls Royce dealers were spread across four continents, with (no surprise) Beverly Hills staying at number one for the second year in succession, followed by Tokyo, London, Dubai and Abu Dhabi respectively. Rolls-Royce sales suffered while there has been a choice of one model. This will change with the extended wheelbase Phantom and a two-door, four-seat convertible based on the Phantom in the wings.

Maybach Type 57 and 62 saloons were launched in 2003 by DaimlerChrysler to challenge Rolls Royce and Bentley, but sales have been sluggish. The Maybach project, cutely described as “a seminal study in properly applied excess” was first conceived during the boom years. Then came the dotcom bust, stock market slump and economic rocky road in the US – the world's biggest car market and source of billionaires.

Three were delivered here last year, taking the total to eight – a further two are heading to their owners this year. The line-up has been expanded with the introduction of the new 57 S, a more powerful 450kW 6.0-litre V12 biturbo version which Maybach is already claiming to be the fastest in the segment. But, like Rolls Royce, it needs to learn how to separate the billionaires from their wallets on a more regular basis. It can look and learn from Bentley.



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