Backseat Driving in Style

With the fastest luxury sedans, drivers get the best of both worlds: luxurious interiors and world-class performance

Most people visualize sedans such as Rolls-Royce, Maybach, and Bentley as automotive behemoths, as light on their feet as a 300-lb. nose tackle. Except that they're nose tackles that can run a 40-yard dash in under five seconds.

Surprisingly, many of the biggest, heaviest, top-of-the-line luxury sedans are among the fastest cars in the world, both in terms of speed and even from a standing start. "They are impressively large and surprisingly quick," says Bob Austin, communications manager for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., of both Rolls and many of its top competitors.

Big cars like the extended-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Phantom and the three-ton-plus Maybach 62 S can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds. To put that in context, it takes the base-model Porsche Boxster 5.8 seconds, even though it weighs only 2,877 pounds—or less than half as much as the Maybach.

"At this level, it's all about torque," said Rob Allan, a product manager for Mercedes-Benz USA in Montvale, N.J. Torque is the twisting force that launches a car from a standing start, overcoming inertia. Twelve-cylinder engines, like those in several top-of-the-line sedans, deliver lots of torque at low engine speeds. The V-12 Maybach 62 S, for instance, has 738 ft.-lbs. of torque, which is even more impressive than its 604 horsepower.

What Price Luxury and Performance

It is important to mention up front that there is a considerable difference between a luxury car and a performance car. While a luxury car can attain adrenaline-pumping speeds, and a performance car can be upholstered in the richest leathers, the two are very different animals. The most important difference, really, is comfort. A Ferrari or a Porsche, two performance vehicles that are very expensive and beautifully appointed, are mainly about driving. The passenger is an adjunct, a useless appendage that looks glamorous and occasionally tunes the radio. In a luxury car the passenger is the point. There's oceans of legroom, all the latest gadgets, rich paneling, soft calfskin, and even such amenities as cold boxes, champagne glasses, and built-in umbrellas.

Assuming money is no object and gas mileage is not a concern, big, powerful luxury sedans like these offer more versatility than high-performance coupes. From the driver's seat, they can be almost as fast and nearly as nimble as the quickest sports cars. And while many of their owners might be tempted to shove their chauffeurs aside and take the wheel themselves, just remember it's a bad idea to check your BlackBerry while driving 80 mph.

Taking the Backseat

Even if they don't always get used as a rolling office, long-wheelbase cars like the Phantom LWB, the Maybach 62 S, the Audi A8 L W12, and others are oriented toward the backseat VIP who's in a hurry.

The Maybach 62 S has fully reclining rear seats with footrests, like those in first-class airline seats. The 62 badge refers to the fact that it is 6.2 meters long. The standard-wheelbase Maybach 57 is 5.7 meters long. Allan said the Maybach 62 and 62 S account for about 30% of Maybach sales.

The bad news for Mercedes is that the Maybach is not selling to expectations. Automotive News estimates that including all models, Maybach sold only about 90 cars in the U.S. this year through September, down from only 99 in the year-ago period. When Mercedes launched the brand in the U.S. in 2002, the company forecast sales of 500 a year.

Rolling in Sales

The long-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Phantom, on the other hand, has sold better than expected, according to Ian Robertson, the company's chief executive. He says that before Rolls-Royce launched the longer car in 2005, the company estimated it would account for about 10% of Phantom production worldwide. In fact, he says it accounts for about 25%.

"In China, it is 75% of our build," he said, including Hong Kong and mainland China. Rolls-Royce sells an average of about 800 Phantoms a year worldwide, including about 350 in the U.S. in 2006.

Have Cake, Eat It Too

Wes Brown, a principal at Los Angeles-based consulting and research firm Iceology, says that as automotive technology gets better, and the number of wealthy households grows larger, there are fewer reasons for the wealthiest consumers to compromise.

"These people want to make a styling statement. They want features and comfort that often rival what you would expect to find in a premium home. And whether they are being driven or are driving themselves, a required part of the mix is a strong sense of performance," Brown said. Also keep in mind that the consumers who buy these top-of-the-line sedans probably have an entire "stable" of premium cars, he added.

"Other vehicles in their collection are going to include a number of fast sports cars," he said. "As they move into a Phantom or a Maybach, they want those cars to have some of what their other vehicles have."

Check out the BusinessWeek slide show to see a roundup of the world's fastest luxury cars.

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