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Lots Of Action In The Super-Sedan Segment

By: Tony Whitney
May 2010

Although some manufacturers of luxury automobiles have been sulking over slow sales and coming up with various reasons why their bottom lines aren’t looking too good right now, a solid number are recording exceptionally strong performances.

Audi

Several upscale automakers have been posting strong sales this year, following up on a surprisingly good 2009. Mercedes-Benz has been reporting sales gains and BMW, Lincoln, Audi and Lexus are also pleased with their 2010 results to date.

Bentley

The basic fact is that the luxury segment is intensely competitive right now in Canada and buyers here don’t seem to be as reluctant as their U.S. counterparts to splurge a little and display their achievements in the form of a new luxury car. There may be ‘doom and gloom’ in some auto industry segments, but you won’t find much around the corporate offices of Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, and a fair number of others.

Mark Of Achievement

Of course, not every upscale automaker is posting figures like Mercedes-Benz, but many are reporting steady sales and there’s certainly been no letup in new model development. The focus for this article is the ‘super-sedan’ segment, which remains strong despite the fact that many CEOs are making a show of frugality by opting for more modest transportation. And for buyers who’ll probably never see the inside of a boardroom, the purchase of a luxury car is still very much a mark of achievement.

Hyundai

There’s no question that right now that the two stars of the season are Porsche’s exciting new Panamera four-door and Jaguar’s completely re-designed XJ sedan.

JaguarJaguar Interior

Any Porsche with four doors (apart from the company’s SUV range) is bound to grab plenty of attention, even though the prestigious German sports car specialist has played around with the idea for years. Early conceptualizations of the Panamera showed a more striking and sleeker design, but the real car has ended up looking a lot like a four-door 911 – and maybe that’s just the way buyers will like it.

MaybachPorsche launched the Panamera earlier last year at Auto Shanghai with the notion that since China was a rapidly growing market for the company, this was an appropriate place to introduce the car to the world. Basic engine (if 400-horsepower is ‘basic’) is a V-8 mated to Porsche’s much-praised PDK auto/manual transmission. The top-of-the-line Turbo delivers 500-horsepower and will top 100 km/h in 4.2 seconds, then go right on up to 303 km/h if you can find an autobahn to do it on. The interior is beautifully done – very luxurious, but sporty at the same time. Panamera models start at $115,000, a figure that surprised many observers who believed that it would be much higher than that. Porsche is about to become even more competitive with this model having just announced a sub-$100,000 6-cylinder version. Another contender in this rarefied class is the new Aston Martin Rapide – a supercar that needs a close look to discover that it really DOES have four doors. Rival Lamborghini has been showing a concept four-door model dubbed Estoque, but production doesn’t seem a strong possibility right now. If built, it would almost certainly be a lot more costly than the Panamera.

Jaguar is making similar headlines thanks to the introduction of its all-new XJ - successor to a model line that goes back to 1968 – and even further if you count non-XJ four-doors. The last XJ was criticized by many for being too much like its predecessor despite its advanced technology, but that accusation will never be levelled at the new model. It’s a truly beautiful car that’s every inch a Jaguar, but with svelte lines drawing on some exciting new design cues that draw only partly from the XK sports car models. Engines include several V-8 variants and Jaguar makes use of both superchargers and turbochargers across the XJ range. Hitting the showrooms at the same time as the Panamera, it’s been creating a lot of excitement in the flagship sedan market already this year.

‘Mid-cycle Refresh’

For 2010, Mercedes-Benz has updated its entire S-Class range – what the industry calls a ‘mid-cycle refresh.’ The S-Class is often described as the benchmark for large, opulent four-door sedans and there’s no doubt that the car is a target for rival makers. The new ‘S’ has several styling updates to differentiate it from the older version, but these are subtle. After all, the car has long been considered the best styling job in its class, so there’s no need for a total work-over for a few model years yet.

Mercedes

The car bristles with technological and safety innovations including lane assist, night vision, drowsiness detection, and much more. Clearly, this will be the safest Mercedes yet. Major news with this model, though, is the addition of an S400 hybrid version to the range – Mercedes’ first. Using a V-6 engine, the car is said to offer 30 per cent better fuel economy than the S550 model, which itself is very economical for a big V-8. The car uses the first lithium-ion battery system in a production vehicle, according to Mercedes-Benz. Expect this S400 to be a close rival for the big Lexus LS hybrid. Other S-Class models offer engines ranging from a 382-horsepower V-8 to a mighty 604-horsepower V-12. Priced a level below the S-Class, the slightly smaller E-Class is entirely new this year and, like its bigger sibling, boasts a wide range of upscale engineering and comfort features.

Porsche PanameraPorsche Panamera

For those who want to spend some very serious money on a luxury sedan, Mercedes-Benz offers its superb Maybach range, starting at close to $400,000 and going on up to three times that sum. These cars are very much in the lofty Rolls-Royce/Bentley class.

Technological Tour De Force

BMW’s 7 Series range is usually the one that comes up first when top-end luxury sedans are under review (Audi isn’t far behind) and justifiably so. The model on offer right now is all-new, not a refreshed version of the earlier big Bimmer. Base power plant is a 4.4-litre twin-turbo V-8 delivering 400-horsepower with commendable smoothness and torque. Like its Mercedes-Benz S-Class rival, it’s a technological tour de force with a lengthy roster of safety and handling innovations. Think no less than 10 air bags on the top version, and you’ll get the idea. As with 7 Series models that went before it, the big car was designed from the outset to handle and perform like something much smaller, so don’t expect a lumbering monster here.

Rolls RoyceAudi’s most recent addition to its large sedan line-up is a ‘new generation’ A6 with upgraded technology, more attractive bodywork, and, as a bonus, a 15 per cent reduction in fuel consumption right across the line-up. The sheet metal is mostly new, but as with other Audis, changes are always subtle even when a new generation takes its bow. Big news on the engine front with the A6 is the addition of an all-new 290-horsepower 3.0-litre direct injection V-6 which uses a fascinating Roots-type supercharger just like Auto Union Grand Prix cars of the 1930s. The new motor (TFSI in Audi-speak) is a real delight in this new A6 and driving one will make some potential buyers wonder why they need to opt for the (available) V-8. The entry-level 3.2-litre non-supercharged V-6 is still available, but only with the (non-Quattro) front-wheel drive models. The 4.2-litre V-8 is much the same as that fitted to the 2008 models and earlier.

The interior of the new A6 has been extensively re-worked with new trim, an updated instrument panel with aluminum dial bezels, better seats, and even more convenience and safety features than the last model. Noise levels have also been reduced and this is a very quiet car, even at highway speeds – a great long-distance tourist.

Often overlooked by buyers focusing on the luxury sedan market is the majestic Maserati Quattroporte, a sleek four-door with some of the best DNA in the quality automobile field. Maserati’s auto racing history goes back a long time and the new Quattroporte inherits lots of tradition accumulated over the decades. It’s a large, fast, comfortable car which has been described by some critics as a worthy rival to the better known German products in this class. There’s a 4.2-litre V-8 under the hood and it’s built alongside power units for sister company Ferrari, which can’t be all bad. Best of all, the Quattroporte isn’t that expensive for a super-sedan and costs about the same as a Porsche Panamera – though available customizing can run the price up fairly high.

Opulence Scale

Heading up the opulence scale a little, Bentley has just launched its very impressive Mulsanne large sedan and it looks like setting some new standards in this lordly segment. It replaces the Arnage model, but is a ground-up redesign. With its 6.75-litre, 505-horsepower, V-8 this remarkably luxurious and beautiful executive hauler is capable of startling performance to go along with its expectedly cosseting ride. In recent years, Bentley has been one of the most successful specialist luxury car builders in the industry, surprising many with its continually strong sales record. In many parts of the world, this brand is ‘the celebrity’s choice’ and they’re driven by everyone from movie and music stars to European soccer heroes and business moguls.

Even competitors would argue that no car manufacturer has ever quite achieved the mystique of Rolls-Royce, though many have tried over the decades. Charles Rolls and Henry Royce were an unlikely pair to found the iconic nameplate back in 1904. Rolls was a youthful and wealthy aristocrat while Royce was a down-to-earth engineer and businessman. These cars were never the ‘shrinking violets’ of the motoring world and so it goes today. The Phantom is not a car that’s easy to miss when you see one on the road and to spot the 10-car fleet operated by the megalux Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai (as I have) is to witness one of the automotive sights of the world. It’s big, it’s brash, and it shrieks of serious money. This is not a car for someone wanting to keep a low profile when they’re out and about. There are four Phantoms – the majestic saloon, a long wheelbase version of this model, the elegant coupe, and a magnificent convertible (drop-head coupé in Rolls-talk) which must surely provide the most opulent wind-in-your-face motoring on the planet. All these models use 6.7-litre V-12 engines of BMW origin. As always, these cars offer an uncanny level of refinement and luxury and very much retain the lofty standards set all those years ago by Rolls and Royce. For those lusting after a Rolls and wanting something a little smaller – though no less opulent – the new Ghost is one the way for 2011.

Rolls RoyceEffortless Poise

Hyundai is not a name that springs quickly to mind when luxury sedans are under discussion, but only for those who haven’t tried the Korean automaker’s new Genesis. There was no particular effort to create a head-turner here, nor any serious attempt to imitate rivals. It’s simply a very handsome luxury car with cleverly understated lines – the sort of product buyers will like in these ‘economically challenged’ times where displays of obvious wealth can have the worst possible effect on colleagues and employees. The car is so quiet, so silky (even on rough roads), that it feels more like one of the upscale hybrids than anything else. How Hyundai pulled this off with its limited experience of luxury cars is a mystery, though the company has sold its flagship Grandeur for years in Korea. The 32-valve V-8 under the hood of the Genesis is a 4.6-litre unit that puts out 375-horsepower and uses a six-speed automatic transmission. It certainly lays down the power with effortless poise and you can be way over the speed limit in a few near-noiseless moments if you don’t keep an eye on the elegant instrument panel.

As with any segment of the automotive world, there are lots of other vehicles worth considering for people shopping this market in all kinds of price brackets. Many of them may offer little that’s new for 2010, but there are one or two ‘worthwhile mentions’ among them. Falling into this category are products like the Acura RL, Audi A8, Cadillac STS, Lexus LS, Lincoln MKS, Infiniti M, Saab 9-5, VW Passat CC, and Volvo S80.

Last year may have seen a downturn in the business world generally, but luxury car buyers have never had a wider range of choices and so far, there’s no sign that this is going to change any time soon.

Tony Whitney is a journalist and broadcaster specializing in the upscale automobile sector. He appeared on the network TV show ‘Driver’s Seat’ for more than 20 years.

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