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‘CLIMATE CHANGE’ FAILS TO COOL LUXURY AUTO SALES

By: Tony Whitney
October 2008

Luxury AutoAlthough the media is overflowing with talk about the way ‘climate change’ is forcing people into smaller and more economical vehicles, upscale automakers apparently haven’t heard about it yet. Big names in the luxury vehicle business have been reporting sales records almost by the month and recent financial statements by luminaries such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW indicate that we still live in a world in which successful people like to indulge themselves when it comes to their transportation needs. However, it’s not all good news in the realm of large luxury SUVs. Upperend sedan sales are stronger right now than those of their sport utility equivalents, and that’s the segment we’ll be concentrating on for this feature.

UPSCALE MARKET

Often overlooked by the upscale market, Audi’s A8 is the German automaker’s flagship sedan, but a very special variant takes the whole concept a stage further. It’s the awesome S8 and it has nothing less than a 450-horsepower V-10 under its elegant hood. I’ve always considered Audi’s big sedan to be underrated by the market it serves. Full-size Mercedes and BMW rivals get lots of attention, but the outstanding A8 is often passed by. In fact, it offers technological features to rival or better anything on the market and it’s more than a match for its classy rivals.

Audi says its flagship “redefines the notion of sports appeal in the luxury segment” and this aim has certainly been achieved, because the car handles like something much smaller – especially in ‘S’ guise. On the road, the Audi feels more like a mid-range A6 than a big A8/S8. The S8 comes with Audi’s well-tried Quattro permanent four-wheel drive system, so even in bad weather, this car could be driven very quickly with no safety sacrifices. The cabin of the S8 is just about as good as it gets, with an abundance of real wood veneers and fine leather. Our tester had a special interior package which included some great-looking carbon fibre trim, though this adds to the basic $129,700 price.

Luxury AutoSUPERBLY STYLED

Very much representative of the direction in which fabled UK automaker Bentley is headed is the Continental Flying Spur, a superbly styled four-door sedan that carries on Bentley’s decades of tradition.

The dramatically beautiful car is being touted as one of the fastest sedans in the world with its 6-litre, 550 horsepower, W-12 twinturbo engine, 6-speed transmission and fourwheel drive.

Okay, it has some Audi innards, but who’s going to complain about that? Very few automobiles will get you to 100 km/h in under five seconds with as little fuss as a Flying Spur.

Also, the all-wheel drive ensures that all that power is safely transmitted to the road. The cockpit is so elegantly trimmed with fine woods and leather, it was great to just sit there and enjoy the visual feast. The Flying Spur costs more than $227,000, but in the world of super cars, it’s fairly reasonable.

BMW’s 7-Series has long been one of the benchmarks of the luxury sedan class and even though the current model has been with us for quite a while and will probably be replaced soon, it still holds up exceptionally well against more recently introduced counterparts. This is a large, roomy, lavishly equipped sedan and, like all BMWs, it still has a sporty demeanor to it when pressed on a winding road.

RIGHT FIRST TIME

Power for the top-of-the-range 760Li comes from a 6.0-litre V-12 putting out a silky 438-horsepower. The styling was controversial at introduction – especially the rather curiously-sculpted trunk area. Now, however, everyone from Mercedes to Hyundai is copying it, proving that BMW design genius Chris Bangle was right first time.

If the V-12 is a little too big and thirsty, buyers can choose a 360-horsepower V-8. Th e car still has one of the most complex navigation and ancillary equipment interfaces in the industry, but few cars in this class can be fully enjoyed without an evening or two with the owners’ manual.

Watch for an all-new 7-Series for the 2009 model year.

There’s an old saying that getting into a Jaguar, regardless of model year, gives you the feeling you’re putting on one of those hand-tailored suits made on London’s Saville Row. If you’re a woman, perhaps it’s the equivalent of slipping into something by Chanel or Gaultier. Somehow, Jaguar has managed to hang on to its envied reputation for giving its customers a very special brand of opulence that almost no other automaker quite delivers.

Luxury AutoLUXURY AMBIANCE

The current XJ8 sedan continues the tradition and then some – cradling its occupants in the highest quality leathers and exotic woods imaginable.

However, it’s not just that luxury ambiance Jaguar can brag about these days. Th e XJ is the most technically advanced Jag ever built in all kinds of ways from its complex aluminum body shell to a roster of safety equipment that’s very much state-of-the-art.

The sleek sedan, which could never be mistaken for anything but a Jaguar, is powered by 4.2-litre V-8 delivering 300-horsepower – or if you opt for the sports-oriented XJR, 100 horses on top of that. There’s also an XJ8 L with stretched wheelbase to give even more rear seat legroom when it’s time to ferry valued clients from the airport. XJ8s cost from around $90,000 up.

Although the XJ8 continues as Jaguar’s top sedan, much attention right now is focused on the XF model, which has replaced the old S-Type for 2009. Th e XF is a very different kind of Jaguar than what we’ve become used to, but it still lives up to Jaguar’s decades-old (and no longer used) ‘Grace, Space and Pace’ catchphrase.

The highly-respected Lexus LS range of large luxury saloons was boosted quite recently by the addition of a hybrid model – the LS 600h L. The addition of this vehicle makes Lexus home to by far the largest range of hybrid products in the luxury segment with everything from SUVs to sports sedans.

This opulent new Lexus boasts all kinds of groundbreaking features (even including an electronic ‘self-parking’ system) and is clearly meant to be a step ahead of competitors. Power for the big car comes from a 5.0-litre V-8 with electric assist technology similar to that used in other Lexus – and Toyota – products. It’s one of the most advanced power systems ever shoehorned into any vehicle and develops 438 bhp (combined).

Luxury AutoLike other Lexus and Toyota hybrids, the vehicle can run on electric power or gasoline power – independently, or in unison, depending on conditions and speeds. As far as environmental responsibility goes, this car is out there on its own in this class and has just about every electronic and engineering benefit Lexus could pack in.

ULTIMATE IN ROOMINESS

For people who want the ultimate in roominess and comfort with the added benefit of showing a ‘green’ flag to the world, it’s truly hard to upstage. As with all previous Lexus LS models, the price point is competitive for the technology and opulence you get at around $132,000.

There’s nothing quite like an Italian nameplate to set a car lover’s heart beating faster. Legendary makes such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Alfa Romeo, and, of course, Maserati, have always been cars of elegance and passion, Italian car makers never did lean too heavily on practicality and performance for its own sake. The emphasis was always on a combination of emotion and style that rival auto manufacturing nations try hard to duplicate.

Luxury Auto

The latest Quattroporte is an exceptionally handsome automobile from any angle. Power comes from a V-8 of just over 4.2-litres and it develops a very healthy 400 horsepower at 7,000 rpm. Transmission is a fascinating Maserati DuoSelect mechanical ‘transaxle architecture’ gearbox with electronically controlled electro-hydraulic operation. What this means is that the car can be driven in full automatic mode or the driver can select gears using a couple of Formula One style paddles located on the steering column.

Luxury AutoRIGHT IN THE HUNT

A base Quattroporte – if ‘base’ is a word that can be applied to a car like this – is $139,300, so it’s right in the hunt with Mercedes- Benz, BMW, Audi, and Jaguar rivals.

Last year, Mercedes-Benz added a 4MATIC version of its still very new S-Class flagship sedan. 4MATIC is Mercedes’ nomenclature for its all-wheel drive system, which is now available on several models. This is a 4th generation 4MATIC and was developed in-house by Mercedes-Benz. With its 45 per cent front and 55 per cent rear torque bias, it combines the comfort and feel of AWD with the traction of 4WD. It’s very light so it does not add too much weight to the standard SClass. Fuel consumption is only marginally above that of the 2WD car – a great improvement over the last 4MATIC S-Class model.

Luxury AutoThe S-Class competes in that rarefied segment of sedans populated by such luminaries as the aforementioned BMW 7-Series, Audi A-8, Jaguar XJ-8, and Maserati Quattroporte, not to mention solid rivals built by Cadillac and Lincoln. Soon, Porsche will join the luxury sedan stakes with its upcoming Panamera 4-door.

ALL YOU COULD ASK

Overall, the new “S” is powerful, agile for its size, handsome, exceptionally luxurious, and roomy – all you could ask from a luxury car in this prestigious class. In the engine department, some models of the car use a new 5.5-litre V-8 which provides a 26 per cent increase in horsepower, yet offers the same fuel consumption level of the earlier model. There are two V-8s and a V-12 in the lineup. Prices start at something over $108,000.

Luxury Auto

People seem to have strong opinions when it comes to the current version of the half-million-dollar Rolls-Royce Phantom with its huge bulk (close to six metres long) and ‘in your face’ interpretation of the legendary R-R grille and ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ hood ornament. It’s a serious statement, there’s no doubting that, but it’s the most advanced car the famed British company (now owned by BMW) has even constructed.

The Phantom engine is, expectedly, related to a BMW design, but few will complain about that. It’s a 6.7-litre V-12 boasting 453-horsepower. Interestingly, in years gone by, Rolls-Royce never revealed horsepower figures, always saying rather charmingly that power for a specific model was ‘adequate.’ In today’s climate of ‘horsepower wars,’ this attitude wouldn’t do at all.

However opulent and expensive luxury sedans get, none are likely to eclipse the magnificent Maybach 62 S, which is a rare sight even in the most prosperous of Canadian cities. Only the Phantom comes close at the very pinnacle of automotive luxury.

Maybach has a lengthy and fascinating history (which even includes Panzer tank engines) and was producing some of the finest automobiles in the world between the wars. In more recent times, the brand all but disappeared – until Daimler (parent group of Mercedes- Benz) revived the vaunted nameplate with a car to put even its top-end S-Class in the shade.

Developed to be an automobile that offered every imaginable technological advancement in the most luxurious package possible – and regardless of cost – the mighty Maybach has certainly fulfilled its promise. And at a list price approaching $500,000, you won’t be encountering many other owners, even if you hang onto it for years. Exclusivity is certainly yours for that kind of money.

Luxury Auto

Maybach is experimenting with a ‘Landaulet’ (open rear seating area) version of this car, which would really take us back to the 1930s.

DOOM AND GLOOM

With all the doom and gloom being dispensed by the Al Gores of this world, does the high-end luxury car have a future at all? Just about everyone with an opinion worth listening to on the subject believes it does. Each new model is more fuel effi cient and cleaner than the last, despite power hikes, and, after all, there’s no consumer product that’s more intensively recycled than the automobile. With hybrids like the Lexus LS600h L on the market and others coming on stream, there seems no reason for buyers to downsize right now if they need the room, the comfort, the refinement, and the prestige that so often accompanies financial success.

Tony Whitney is a television personality and writer on luxury automobiles.

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Luxury Auto

BMW COUNTING ON HYDROGEN

The first hydrogen-powered car to hit the roads may well be a BMW. While Honda is developing the FCX Clarity and the GM plant in Oshawa, ON, is working on the Chevrolet Equinox, the Hydrogen BMW 7 Series is now being tested. BMW is one automaker which is counting on hydrogen as the fuel of the future. Its 7 Series are dual-mode models (hydrogen and gas) which get around 200 kilometres in hydrogen-only and 500 kilometres with the gas mode. Drivers can switch fuels between gas and hydrogen by pressing a button on the steering wheel. It uses liquid hydrogen injected directly into a tank in the trunk. In the future, cars which operate on hydrogen alone would have the tank integrated into the chassis to limit the loss of trunk space. Regardless the fuel type, they produce the same torque and horsepower – 267 hp in hydrogen mode, compared to the traditional 400 hp of the 760. Hydrogen cars also need an additional safety system. A fl ashing light in the door alerts occupants to the presence of gas inside the car.

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