Mercedes to push luxury sedan at Detroit Auto Show

Paul Eisenstein
Special to The Detroit News

It may be one of the world's most exclusive vehicles, but Mercedes-Benz isn't entirely satisfied with its big S-Class, convinced the lavish lineup of premium sedans and coupes doesn't reach far enough upmarket.

At the North American International Auto Show, people will get a first look at the new Mercedes-Maybach S600, the super-premium sedan that will move the German brand even more upscale, with a starting price of $167,000. Heavily customized versions are expected to tip the $1 million mark.

"There is that customer who wants the next step up, and if we don't provide it we might lose them," said Steve Cannon, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA.

With luxury car sales steadily growing in traditional markets like the U.S. and Europe — and booming in emerging markets such as China — manufacturers are asking, "How high is up?" The answer appears to be quite a bit.

Mercedes actually tried once before to push into the upper reaches of the automotive stratosphere, but Maybach failed when it was offered as a standalone brand, so it will now become a sub-brand within the broader Mercedes lineup.

That will once again put it up against the classic benchmarks of super-premium automobiles, Britain's Bentley and Rolls-Royce. The latter brand set its fifth consecutive annual sales record in 2014, delivering 4.063 vehicles, a 12 percent increase. Bentley set its own record, volume up 9 percent worldwide, to 11,020 cars.

Both of the British makers are looking to expand their reach even further. Bentley, for example, is readying an all-new line of luxury SUVs due to market next year.

Both Bentley and Rolls-Royce will have automobiles on the floor at Saturday night's $1,000-per-ticket Gallery of ultra-luxury vehicles at the MGM Grand Detroit, the first official event of the Auto Show.

The super-premium market is becoming far more competitive than ever.

Just weeks after confirming plans for the flagship CT6 sedan, Cadillac's new president, Johan de Nysschen, said he was considering pushing even higher, perhaps into the $150,000 range with a model that might be dubbed the CT8 or CT9.

Porsche Panamera Turbo S Executive Exclusives cost $264,885.

Already elite Porsche is pushing into Bentley territory with its limited-edition Panamera Exclusive Series, of which it will build only 100 at $264,885.

Land Rover, meanwhile, can't see to push up-market quickly enough to satisfy its most elite customers. It nudged the $100,000 barrier with its Range Rover Autobiography model, nudged still higher with the Range Rover Autobiography Black, and now has come up with the tongue-tying Range Rover Autobiography Black Edition, at a starting price of $170,000.

As for Ferrari, it almost immediately sold out of its $1.2 million La Ferrari and has a long waiting list for the rest of its models. In fact, a debate over whether to expand annual production last year led to the departure of long-time CEO Luca di Montezemolo, who wanted to cap capacity at an annual 5,000 vehicles.

Demand for these ultra-exclusive vehicles has mirrored the revival of the economy in the U.S. — typically the largest market for luxury products.

But demand is growing at an even faster pace in China, noted analyst Stephanie Brinley of IHS Automotive, who said increasingly affluent consumers in the booming Asian nation "show no end to their interest in pushing higher in the luxury car market."

That said, luxury makers are stretching in both directions. Mercedes, for example, scored a huge hit with the launch of the $29,900 CLA line two years ago. And most of its key competitors are also moving down-market, into compact and even subcompact segments, aiming to win over the first-time luxury buyers who may eventually move up to more exclusive product lines.

Sales of vehicles over $150,000 are relatively modest, collectively measuring fewer than 30,000 units annually, but profits can be significant — and there's also the prestige factor to consider. So, while low-end products may be where the volume is going, luxury manufacturers know that high-line models like the new Mercedes-Maybach S600 help define their brands.

Record year

Germany's luxury carmakers had a record year in 2014, thanks to expanding sales in the United States and China.

Munich-based BMW AG kept hold of first place, selling 1.81 million vehicles worldwide in 2014. That was an increase of 9.5 percent over 2013.

That put it ahead of Volkswagen AG's Audi brand, which increased sales by 10.5 percent to 1.74 million. Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz came in third with 1.65 million, up 12.9 percent.

BMW marketing chief Ian Robertson said Friday the company was able to increase sales in all important regions because of strong demand for new models such as the X4, the 2-Series Active Tourer and the electric i3, which uses advanced carbon-fiber materials to save weight.