Dr. Bob Deutsch, a 60-year-old cognitive anthropologist, first experienced the Maserati Quattroporte when he and a friend cruised the Cannes coastline on their way to lunch, 40 years ago. Today, he still can’t walk past a Maserati showroom without going inside to reminisce–and consider buying one.
“First of all, the leather is unlike anything I’ve ever been in contact with. And I’ve been in contact with leather before–even good leather. But not like this,” Deutsch says. “The connotation of Mercedes is, I think, engineering. The connotation of a Maserati Quattroporte is, ‘Oh god, I feel like a chocolate cone melting.’ “
In Depth: World’s Top Luxury Cars
Deutsch isn’t alone in his passion for the best luxury cars. Last month, makers of luxury vehicles suffered a relatively benign 13% decline in sales compared to September 2008, and while super-luxury automakers (Bentley, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce , Maybach) were down 31%, Rolls-Royce pulled in 37% more sales in September of this year than in ’08. Porsche (up 8%) and Ferrari (up 52%) each came in with positive numbers last month as well.
This comes as no surprise to Deutsch: People who buy these cars are simply not letting a little recession get in the way of their self-expression and “self-expansion,” he says.
But these days, mindless accumulation is being replaced by a quest for authenticity. And wealthy consumers can get it–as well as power, prestige and poise–from more automakers than they ever could have in the past.
To showcase the uniqueness and appeal of some of the world’s top luxury cars, we highlighted models that will be sold in 2010 and cost more than $100,000. They also had to be produced by a widely recognized, high-end carmaker in a quantity of at least 50. To keep the focus on luxury, we left out high-performance vehicles often associated with racetrack driving, such as Aston Martin, Bugatti and Lamborghini (Ferrari was not excluded because the cars are more common in the U.S. than the aforementioned brands). But the list still encompasses many of the segment’s more well-known and (for most consumers) unattainable cars.
They all offer exclusivity and individuality. Take the Rolls-Royce Ghost, for instance. The silent sedan offers Teflon-coated umbrellas in the front doors, a panorama sunroof, massaging seats, an illuminated cool box with integrated champagne glasses and folding tables in the rear. Each car is built to order.
Wayne Kung, a spokesman for Rolls-Royce, says the company’s Bespoke Service will add in everything from gun racks and trunk modifications to any design embroidered on the headrests. Even the celestial pattern on the interior ceiling of the Phantom coupe can be customized.
“We can really create anything the customer wants–we can make the night sky look the same as it did the day your lover was born,” he says with a laugh.
The $245,000 Ghost will be available for sale in April 2010. Production numbers for the Ghost haven’t been confirmed, but only 500 Rolls-Royces were sold in the U.S. last year, and less than 1,200 were sold globally.
The prices aren’t just about good looks. The $275,000 Bentley Continental Supersports, for example, is the fastest and most powerful Bentley ever made.
Engineers used a specialized transmission that cuts shift times in half and enables double downshifts (good for easing transitions between gears), and they added a specially balanced torque split that reduces under-steering around corners. The aluminum front suspension (lowered by a half an inch over the Continental GT) gives a highly focused, highly grounded drive. And the 243-pound weight reduction compared to the GT helps the Supersports get to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds.
“The car is calm, composed, quiet,” says Stuart McCullough, Bentley’s board member for sales and marketing.
Porsche’s $145,000 911 Turbo Cabriolet is less plush than the Bentley, but it’s faster. It gets to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds and has a top speed of 194 miles per hour. Deutsch describes driving it as an experience that creates “an everlasting longing” in those who feel it.
“The condition that I’m talking about, with both the relaxation and the arousal heightened together all at once, I know of only one context in which that appears and has been studied, and that is under trance,” Deutsch says. “It’s those experiences, seemingly contradictory, at the same time. That’s very attractive.”
Jaguar’s $115,000 XJL Supersport isn’t as iconic as the 911, but the beleaguered brand has high hopes for the XJ line, which is being marketed as a return to Jaguar’s heritage.
The longish but understated car has a V8, 510-horsepower engine and comes with a panoramic sunroof, 20″ alloy wheels, rear-seat entertainment screens and a leather-clapped interior. The front end has a shiny grill, while the rest of the car slopes to a bare–except for an enlarged Jaguar logo–rear end. It’s an effort to appeal to younger drivers and, simultaneously, impress so-called conquest buyers who may switch their loyalty from Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Giles Taylor, the chief exterior designer of the XJ, says he designed the car to balance elegance and power: “This car is about grace, space and pace. Those are the values to which we aspire.”
Apparently, wealthy consumers aspire to those values as well. Fifty of them placed holds on the 2010 Jaguar XJL Supercharged Neiman Marcus Edition when it went on sale Oct. 16. The $105,000 car sold out in four hours.
-Hannah Elliot, Forbes Staff