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Looking at an ultra-dull brand of ultra-luxury car

April 12, 2016
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Are distinctive-looking cars  a luxury that even the rich can’t afford?

Friday evening (April 8) I stopped and photographed a car on Alder Street, not because it was particularly striking but because it had a marquee and a hood ornament that I’d never seen before.

The hood ornament in question (repeated as a badge on the sides and back of the car) was a down-pointing triangle containing two superimposed letter Ms. On the back end of the car there was a chrome marque badge reading “Maybach”.

Otherwise the car looked vaguely and blandly familiar, having the same basic lozenge shape and raked headlights as any number of sober-looking four door sedans that I see on the roads these days.

A Mercedes-Benz by any other name

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On the grill, under the hood ornament, is a very small Mercedes-Benz logo.

A quick spin through the Web told me that a German car company called Maybach Motorenbau, founded in  1909, had been absorbed by Daimler-Benz AG in 1960. The Daimler company of 2002, called DaimlerChrysler, had resurrected the Maybach name (pronounced “my-bahk“) to serve as a luxury marque of its Mercedes-Benz brand in order to compete against BMW’s Rolls Royce brand.

What I saw on Friday appeared to be a Maybach S600 V12, described as an ultra-luxury edition of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. And indeed, the Maybach looked exactly like a Mercedes S-Class.

The Maybach S600 could also be described as a second reboot of the Maybach marque by today’s Daimler, called Daimler AG.

The ups and downs of creating a new luxury car brand

Daimler’s first attempt to launch the Maybach marque, began in 2002 and ended in 2013 as a very expensive failure, though it started out promising enough.

Car and Driver absolutely gushed in its January 2003 first drive review of the then brand new Maybach 57 and 62 midels, calling the Maybach “simply the finest, most spectacular, most technologically advanced, best-performing four-door passenger vehicle that has ever lightly dented the planet’s surface”.

The writer went so far as to dismiss the $350,000-plus price of the cars as being the equivalent to a billionaire, of $18 shirts to someone with $60,000-worth of disposable income!

Seven months later however, an August, 2003 Car and Driver review of the previously glorified Mayback 57 shifted the hyperbole hard into reverse, dismissively comparing the luxuriousness to that of a VW Camper van!

Eight years on, Car and Driver explained in a December 2011 “post-mortem” that Daimler’s decision to retire the Maybach marque was a foregone conclusion—that the Maybach had simply never been able to compete with Rolls Royce, either in terms of cachet or ostentatious splendour.

Between 2005 and 2012, only 3000 Maybachs were sold and Daimler was estimated  by CAR magazine to have lost €330,000 (about USD$437,000) on every single one of them.

So, after retiring the money-losing marque in 2013, why has Daimler brought it back? It still suffers from the same lack of cachet now that helped kill it them.

For what it’s worth, the Maybach is considerably cheaper this time around. The s600 will only set back a U.S. buyer $189,350 (not including $925 destination charge). That’s about half the cost of a 2008 Maybach 57 ($366,934).

On the other hand, it’s still nearly twice the $96,575 cost in the U.S. of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which the Maybach is just a pimped-out version of.

Of course Car and Driver, in a November of 2014 review, greeted the revival of the Maybach with the greatest enthusiasm, calling the 2016 Mercedes-Maybach S600, “absolutely, positively the pinnacle of the S-class range”.

Shades of the exaggeration used in the first review of the Maybach 57 and 62, both of which failed, not because they were ridiculously expensive so much as because they didn’t look ridiculously expensive.

Since 2002 I’ve at least recognized four or five Rolls Royces and some six Bentleys tooling around the Fairview neighbourhood, not to mention various other luxury autos, such as Maserati and Lamborghinis.

But I’ve seen only this one Maybach and I don’t think I’d recognize it again unless I was standing right next to its double-M hood ornament. It just doesn’t make the impression that is one of the points of an “ultra-luxury” car.

In fact, the Maybach S600 makes the dull Rolls Royce Ghost that I saw on the same block of Alder Street in 2015 seem almost memorable by comparison.

Does consolidation make for dull choices or no choices?

Reading up on Daimler AG for this post, I was surprised that the company only controls three brands at present: Mercedes-Benz, Maybach and the Smart Car (with a near 10 percent ownership of Tesla). Between 1998 and 2007 Daimler also owned Chrysler but sold it to Cerberus Capital Management.

Chrysler is now effectively owned by Fiat, which owns 16 automotive brands in total, including Alfa Romeo, Jeep and Maserati.

Consolidation is the trend across the auto industry, with no more than 16 companies currently controlling no fewer than 61 automotive brands globally.

Looking just at the European auto industry of Germany, France, Italy and the UK, in the 58 years between 1950 and 2008, 71 car makers have consolidated down to just 6: BMW, Daimler, Fiat, PSA, Renault and Volkswagen.

This extreme consolidation of brand ownership is a function of globalization (the systematic reduction of national barriers to the international flow of investment)  and is now the rule in virtually every area of the consumer economy, not just the auto industry:

  • Globally, 10 food companies control no fewer than 464 food brands.
  • In the United states, 4 companies control 53 financial institutions.
  • As of 2011, 6 companies controlled 90 percent of the U.S. media.
  • In Canada, no more than 12 companies (including the CBC) control no fewer than 93 media outlets.
  • The 10 largest U.S. airlines are controlled by 4 companies.
  • Only 9 multinational brewing companies control 83 of the world’s beer brands.
  • Approximately 51% of branded global hotel supply is controlled by 6 companies.
  • In the cruise industry, 4 companies control 18 brands and 84 percent of global passenger capacity.

In the case of the auto industry, extreme consolidation of brands would seem to me to be leading to cars with all the variety of chocolate bars, as in “Do you want chocolate-covered peanuts, rice crisps and nougat, or would you prefer rice crisps and nougat with chocolate-covered peanuts?

As for the Mercedes S-Class and the Maybach S600, it looks to me like the choice being offered is between a filling of expensive peanuts and really, really expensive peanuts.

The fact that so many cars are made by so few companies may, or may not, help explain the utter sameness of so many of them (even the really expensive ones).

But there’s no doubt that the degree of general brand consolidation, means that a lot of what passes for competition and choice in the marketplace is nothing more than an illusion of marketing. Click the images to enlarge it.

From → Automobiles, Fairview

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