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  • It won't have escaped your notice that there's a lot more money around these days, and although statistics (and only statistics, there's no judgement here) suggest your share of it is actually getting smaller, personally you might just be feeling that little bit more secure and allowing yourself to dream that little bit more, revising-up your aspirations for your next car. And because it's something that you want maybe rather than something you need, it will necessarily be something of a luxury. To you, that is. But to anyone else?

    Pictures: Alex Howe

    This feature was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Top Gear magazine

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  • All three cars here are certainly luxurious - the Rolls-Royce, the Mercedes-Benz and, yes, the Skoda (it might be born of a Passat but is possessed of a far more accommodating gait and is trimmed with a precision you would not have found on a ‘traditional' luxury German car 20 years ago). You might then be expecting me to follow that with a statement that only one is a luxury car, but I'd argue none of them is, such is the pace and ceaseless mutability of luxury.

    Don't believe me? Look at some of the Phantom's more immediate predecessors. Unless yours is a deeply ironic, knowing take on luxury, you wouldn't tell me a 1980 Silver Spirit - ungainly, unreliable and championed by the kind of ‘UK showbiz' set about which we read rather a lot right now - is a luxury car?

  • I'd rather drive the Skoda; there's a noble honesty to it. (Vaclav Laurin and Vaclav Klement were engineering automobiles in Czechoslovakia in the Twenties with the same sense of craft as Charles Rolls and Henry Royce were in the UK. Skoda's relationship with the name is no more indirect than is BMW's with Rolls-Royce.)

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  • But although in some markets - South Korea certainly, China and Japan less so but for very different reasons - well-appointed but less ostentatious carriages like the Superb are regarded as the only acceptable form of luxury car, it's a hard sell here in the UK. We're just too darn aspirational.

    We're also the most appalling label snobs: take a look at the hordes pouring out of the Bond Street or Westfield stops on the London Underground looking to further load up their credit cards on a Burberry Trench. It's so much more than just a new coat they are looking to put on.

  • Mercedes-Benz knows this better than most. Recognised in more places than David Beckham, Mercedes is as much in the business of selling luxury as it is of selling luxury cars. The latest S-Class is matchless both for the majesty of that effortlessly alpha coachwork and the technology it contains.

    Mercedes-Benz S-Class cars, like Range Rovers or Porsche 911s, define their class and are expected to dominate it, selling in enormous numbers and equally inflated margins. It's how they can guarantee such enormous development budgets.

  • But even in Germany there is no such thing as a free lunch. Those sales aspirations mean S-Classes have to sell. I challenge anyone not to feel that teeny bit less impressed by a new S-Class for seeing one parked on a plinth outside a dealer in Slough, tall, bright plastic numbers on the front door baiting the passing business user with a ‘try me' tag of £399 per month. Isn't luxury supposed to live somewhere beyond money?

  • Which just leaves the Phantom, well over 10 years old now and - in the presence of its sexy stepsister the Wraith - looking more than ever a totem of an other-worldly sense of wealth and privilege, truly a world apart. It's not hard to make the case - subjectively or objectively, even - for the Phantom as the luxury car of the moment. There is no more indulgent car. But I sense that even Rolls-Royce itself knows this won't always be the case; luxury is finding a new definition again.

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  • The Wraith is one clue to what this might be. Rolls's customers have been pushing the boundaries of taste from the get-go in 2003. Rather than snub them, R-R's designers have embraced them, creating, in the Wraith, a completely unexpected profile that's very, very different from the Ghost on which it's based.

  • It's an indication of a growing need for the 21st-century's hordes of new-born billionaires to express themselves more freely in their choices of homes, boats, planes, clothes and lifestyle. And while the car biz's capacity to create wholly bespoke cars remains infinitesimal (single figures inside an industry making 80 million), they'll gravitate towards the more iconoclastic.

    "Take the best that exists and make it better" might have worked 100 years ago, but who decides what actually is better will increasingly no longer be the manufacturer.

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