TOKYO - The Mercedes-Benz Maybach only hints at the super-luxury model that Daimler-Benz will likely introduce in 2001.
A production version would keep the Maybach's dimensions and layout. But sources say it would have a more familiar Mercedes look than the audacious Tokyo concept car, with its soft, un-German lines.
It might not even be called 'Maybach,' which celebrates German automotive pioneer Wilhelm Maybach.
'There is no final decision on whether the Maybach name would be used,' said Dieter Zetsche, management board member for sales and marketing. 'But it has to be a Mercedes-Benz.'
The Maybach was unveiled days before Vickers plc raised the stakes in the super-luxury class by putting Rolls-Royce Motor Cars up for sale. Daimler wants a Rolls competitor to boost its top-class image at a time when it is expanding downward with the A-class and Smart.
The new car would also counter Volkswagen's lofty S-class ambitions by giving Daimler something even higher.
'We want to define the ultimate peak, so that no one else could make this claim,' said Zetsche.
Daimler will decide within three or four months whether to produce the car.
'This is more than just a show car,' said Juergen Hubbert, head of passenger cars at Daimler. 'It is a viable and realistic concept study.'
A small subsidiary would probably be formed made up of craftsmen who would build the car by hand.
There is no doubt about where the car would be manufactured. 'It has to be in Germany,' Zetsche said.
The Maybach's 'basic shape and concept could be a very good solution,' he said. 'But I'm open for discussion on whether the Maybach is the best and final realization of the car.'
The prototype is fitted with a lightweight V-12 displacing just under 6.0 liters. The engine, which powers the next-generation S-class, uses magnesium and aluminum extensively.
The Maybach is 5770mm long, 560mm longer than the stretch version of the Mercedes-Benz S600. The 3540mm wheelbase is 400mm more than the S600L. The Maybach is 1550mm tall and 1950mm wide, compared to the S-class' 1490mm height and 1890mm width.
The glass-covered passenger compartment is meant to replicate the first-class cabin of an airplane, with reclining seats and footrests. A box on the floor has space for a pair of shoes and serves as a footrest for the left-side passenger.
Hot and cold drinks can be served from an on-board bar. A cool box under a foldaway armrest in the rear is large enough for a bottle of champagne. A portable computer in the glove compartment can be used at any seat.
The Maybach has three on-board phone lines. An extensive entertainment system includes TV receiver, digital video, video CD players and computer games. A movable, 500mm liquid crystal display screen is integrated below the glass roof between the driver and front-seat passenger.
Daimler designers in Stuttgart would design the production car, using the Maybach as the basis. The concept is the work of Daimler's three-year-old studio in Shin-Yokohama, Japan, headed by Frenchman Olivier Boulay. The Japanese studio won an internal design competition against the company's German and Californian studios.
Zetsche said Daimler began to consider building a model above the S-class after it was shut out of a deal to supply engines to Rolls-Royce three years ago.
BMW was chosen to supply V-8s and V-12s for a new generation of Rolls and Bentley four-door sedans due next year. Vickers was set to choose Daimler as the supplier, but BMW won with a dramatic late bid.
'When the contract was ready to be signed Rolls decided to buy its engines from BMW,' he said. 'So we decided that it would be a good idea to go after this niche on our own.'
The Mercedes project was on hold for a while, but the move into new segments revived the need for a new range-topper.
'The character of the company has changed a lot,' said Zetsche. 'We've launched the A-class. We've opened the brand.'
A super-luxury model would redefine the top of the Mercedes line.
'We have to make sure this would be an addition, not a replacement of what we've done in the past,' he said. 'With the Maybach we wanted to show that there is nothing that could go beyond the Mercedes-Benz brand, not even a Rolls-Royce.'
With Rolls for sale, the world's most prestigious automotive marque will probably soon be controlled by another automaker.
'Theoretically, someone else could buy Rolls-Royce and say this is the peak,' said Zetsche before Vickers formally put the company up for sale. 'It would give them status if they could say 1/8we are there.''
Daimler's two biggest rivals, BMW and Volkswagen, are considered front-runners to buy Rolls. Volkswagen already plans an S-class competitor and showed a new W12 engine at Tokyo.
'We don't think that the challenge to the brand will come from Volkswagen in the next five or 10 years,' said Zetsche. 'When we do image research we see that our brand has developed very positively in recent years. The next highest is BMW and we are increasing the gap when measuring over 40 different prestige elements. After BMW there is a big gap and then there is Audi.'
Daimler reckons that the world market for chauffeur-driven cars like the Maybach is about 2,000 per year. But that matters little.
'We wouldn't do it to lose money,' said Zetsche, 'but my only aspiration is to defend our premium brand in all segments. I want to further strengthen the star.'