Two ultra-luxury sedans high in price, low in sales

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DALLAS - In a world of Camrys and Accords, the 3-ton, $300,000 Maybach might seem a bit much - a tycoon transporter laden with nappa leather, Indonesian wood and slots for champagne flutes.

But Eric Brauss of Dallas can't get enough of the giant German ultra-luxury sedans. He and his wife, Christine, own a million-dollar stable, one Maybach for each of them and a stretch version for evenings and weekends.

"In a Maybach, you're definitely on top of the world," said Brauss, 61, a developer.

The Maybach (pronounced MY-bock) and the similarly priced Rolls-Royce Phantom are the main occupants of the exclusive $300,000-plus sedan segment. But the view from up there is not as sweet as some had expected.

In what is probably a reflection of the major changes that have swept through the economy since 2001, neither superstar luxury car is selling as expected.

Maybach - in effect, the ultra-luxury division at Mercedes-Benz - had projected sales of 400 to 500 cars last year in the United States. Through October, Maybach officials say, they had sold or held orders for 302 cars. The industry publication Automotive News counts 133 sales through October.

Rolls-Royce had anticipated sales of up to 1,000 Phantoms worldwide - the maximum production of its factory in England - with about half of those in the United States. Through October, 242 had been sold in the United States, according to Automotive News.

Both automakers dispute the numbers. Although Rolls-Royce declined to disclose its sales, spokesman Bob Austin said Automotive News' numbers "lag a bit," a contention that Maybach officials echo.

Whatever the totals, some industry observers wonder whether sluggish sales at the top are trickling down to other luxury segments.

Through October, sales of the BMW 7-Series were down 18.8 percent, and those of Mercedes' competing S-Class had dropped 11.9 percent, according to Automotive News.

And sales decreased for just about every maker of high-end luxury vehicles except Porsche and Maserati last year. Ferrari sales are down 10.5 percent.

"The segment of the market above $100,000 is very dependent on mood, and the country just doesn't feel very good right now," said consultant Todd Turner, president of Car Concepts of Thousand Oaks, Calif.

The Maybach and the Phantom were conceived in the blazing late 1990s, when the Dow Jones industrial average doubled in 3 1/2 years. In that "remarkable climate," manufacturers proposed a half-dozen sports sedans and luxury cars that cost $300,000 or more, said Rex Parker, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, Calif.

"They spewed out onto the marketplace at a time when people were reassessing their Nasdaq and dot-com holdings," Parker said. "The fact is, among real tycoons, it has become more difficult to explain - to your accountant, to your shareholders, to the IRS - why you bought and are trying to write off a $300,000 car."

Maybach calls its buyers and buyers of Phantoms "deca-millionaires," people with $10 million or more. They tend to be men in their mid-50s to late 50s who are executives, entrepreneurs or investors. Most own at least six other cars.

"There are 200,000 people in that group in the U.S.," said Wayne Killen, Maybach brand manager. "He is a car enthusiast or collector. He collects fine art. He appreciates a good wine."

The Maybach and Phantom are similarly loaded, but the Maybach has gotten more attention for its amenities. The Maybach has a 543-horsepower V-12 engine and the Phantom a 453-horsepower V-12. The Maybach's base price is $305,500; the Phantom's is $320,000.

Inside the Maybach, flat-screen televisions connected to the car's DVD system are mounted on the backs of both leather-covered front seats. A 600-watt surround-sound system supplies the audio. In back, besides the wood-trimmed compartment for champagne flutes, the car has wireless headsets and a jewelry holder in the door.

Maybach introduced a "business package" in October that includes a portable Internet connection and a wireless color printer to supplement the two cell phones that are standard.

"Both of these cars are at the top of the luxury game," said Robert Ross, senior vice president and creative director at Robb Report, a lifestyle magazine for the affluent. "No one can match them in appointments. Both cars offer luxury and comfort. These also are very fast cars."

But is a $300,000 car really twice as good as a $150,000 car?

Lee Bailey of Plano, Texas, said she and husband, Edward, discussed that when they considered buying a Maybach.

"We asked ourselves that question and gave it a lot of thought," said Bailey, who with her husband owns 56 McDonald's franchises in the Dallas area. "People may not recognize [the Maybach], but they are drawn to it. It has such an elegance they know it's something special."

Ultimately, they decided to buy one. "To be honest," she said, "I can't deny the appeal of exclusivity."

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