- Max Speed
Maybach? Those were the days
Weren’t they just? It’s been almost two decades since Mercedes decided it wanted to bring Maybach, erm, bach.
Founded in 1909 as a manufacturer of aircraft engines, Maybach didn’t start doing cars until the Twenties. Production lasted until the outbreak of World War 2, when the company kept itself busy building engines for tanks, and wasn’t restarted afterwards for... reasons. So of course everyone outside Stuttgart forgot it ever existed.
Daimler bought the Maybach name in 1960, but didn’t do much with it until 2002 when the much maligned (not least by us) 57 and 62 were launched. Based on the then outgoing W140-era S-Class, the short wheelbase 57 and long wheelbase 62 were... disappointing. Hugely expensive, luxurious and powerful, but compromised by an ancient platform, questionable styling and the fact Rolls-Royce had just brought out the excellent Phantom.
Sales of up to 2,000 cars a year were expected, but when production was halted and the whole brand put on ice ten years later, only around 3,000 had been sold in total. It’s estimated Daimler lost over €300,000 on each Maybach it delivered, despite an asking price of almost £300,000 in the UK.
Woah. So why does this S-Class still have a Maybach badge on it, then?
Because a few years ago Mercedes bought Maybach... bach. Again. Now called Mercedes-Maybach, you’ll find the familiar badge on the plushest versions of the S-Class and GLS SUV. And only there, for this time around there is no standalone Maybach, and nor is there likely to be for the foreseeable. The Mercedes-Maybach S650 driven here is fundamentally an S-Class, just a bit posher and a whole lot more expensive.
Does a normal S-Class have that much chrome?
It does not - well spotted. On the face of it there aren’t many differences between the Maybach and a normal S-Class - the ‘Bach has lots more chrome trim, a new deeply unattractive grille and different wheels, among other things. It's all designed to appeal to the Chinese, Russians and so-on - places where more chrome equals more luxury, and where Maybach is comparatively popular. Still quite subtle though - merely glance in its direction and you might not twig it’s anything other than a long-wheelbase S350d. It’s certainly a bit more discreet than a Bentley Flying Spur or Rolls-Royce Ghost. In this spec, at least, which forgoes the optional £12,000 two-tone paintwork and bright-finish wheels.
Look harder and you’ll see the signs, and not just in the form of all the badges. You’ll notice just how long it is - over 20cm longer than the already very, very long long-wheelbase S-Class - and how the rear doors are actually an entire different shape, the quarter windows having been integrated into the C-pillar for better privacy. You’ll notice too how it sounds, which is unlike any other S-Class, courtesy of a 6.0-litre bi-turbo V12.
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What about inside?
Knowing what’s back there, how comfy those seats are, at no point in the few days I spent with the S650 was I glad I was driving, rather than quaffing champagne, watching crap telly and having a hot stone massage in the back. It’s all about the rear-seats, this thing. Precisely nobody is buying a Maybach to drive themselves around. They’re all buying them for other people to drive on their behalf.
So it’s nice in here. But again, not all that different from a long-wheelbase S-Class. The dashboard architecture is the same and though material quality is broadly excellent, you can only mask so much with quilted leather, Mercedes. Much of the switchgear feels exactly like it does in a £80,000 S350d. For an extra £100,000 - yes, this car costs over £180,000 - we were hoping for more.
Tech is plentiful, but the central screen is laggy and recalcitrant, while the screens in the back aren’t as flexible as, say, an Audi A8’s built-in Android tablets (admittedly this generation of S-Class is set to be replaced very soon). This car has the £7,300 ‘First Class Cabin’ package, which adds a big centre console running the length of the cabin containing fold-out tray tables, temperature-controlled cup holders, an actual fridge and storage for two solid silver champagne flutes that, bought independently, cost over £700 each. Don’t bother with it - the tables are handy and big/solid enough for a laptop, but the fridge inelegantly eats into your boot space to the tune of about 40 litres. Given the Maybach’s size, there isn’t much space for luggage full-stop.
The seats, meanwhile, adjust in myriad ways and are mighty effective at heating/cooling their occupants, there’s lots of light courtesy of a panoramic roof (yet good privacy thanks to dark-tinted glass and auto blinds for every window aft of the B-pillar), and the Burmester hi-fi is quite excellent. Whichever way you look at it, this is an exceptionally comfortable car in which to travel. The back is undoubtedly where you’ll want to be 99 per cent of the time.
What will my chauffeur think?
The way all the major controls are calibrated (the brake and accelerator pedals are progressive and long of travel, while the steering is relatively slow) mean your chauffeur will find the Maybach exceptionally easy to drive smoothly, and comfortable to drive for long periods of time. Though they will have to stop for fuel quite often. Even on a long run you’ll only see 25mpg, putting range at around 300 miles. Talk about range anxiety.
The culprit, that engine, is just so quiet. A quarter-throttle is all you’ll ever need, even for joining motorways or emerging from busy junctions, thanks to 738lb ft of torque and 621bhp giving 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds. Most of the time it may as well be electric - it’s only when you really bury the throttle that you actually remember there are 12-cylinders hidden under that expansive bonnet, complete with three-pointed star reticle.
The gearbox is a seven-speeder (apparently Merc’s newer nine-speed can’t handle the torque) and it’s great. Takes a bit of temperature to operate at its smoothest, but it makes good use of the available shove (always moves off in second) and seldom fluffs a kick-down. There are paddles but you’ll leave them well alone.
As you should the Sport mode and G-readout, which are hilariously unnecessary, and the Curve function that means it leans into bends at higher speeds. While clever, the effect it has is of overactive all-wheel steering, a la Renault Megane GT. Smoother progress can be made with it turned off (actually its default setting), which is fine given the S650 doesn’t actually roll that much anyway. More impressive is the predictive suspension, which can effectively pick the car up ahead of speedbumps to lessen their impact. The system is a bit hit and miss and only really works in town, but when it works, it works very well indeed. In general the Maybach rides well, as you’d hope and indeed expect it to.
Even now, mere months before its replacement is due, the S-Class remains our favourite limo. So as the ultimate version of the ultimate limo, the Mercedes-Maybach S650 ought to be a bit of a no-brainer. Only it isn’t. Good though it is, a long-wheelbase S500 is 90 per cent as comfortable, more economical, just as fast, more discrete and far, far cheaper. While impressive on many levels, the Maybach simply doesn’t offer enough over and above the standard car to justify costing more than twice as much.
Images: Jonny Fleetwood