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Friday, October 31, 2008

The Five Flagships

Luxury carmakers virtually always have one vehicle—usually their biggest sedan—that they consider their flagship. It’s the car they want commanders of industry, government, and organized crime to choose as their lead vessels. They’re the cars that let people know the boss has arrived. And they’re the cars that, when you buy one, announce that you’ve arrived.

The term “flagship” derives from the idea that a “flag officer”—an admiral or other senior officer entitled to fly a flag representing his command—should have one ship from which he exercises his leadership. Flagships are vessels like the HMS Victory from whose deck Admiral Horatio Nelson led 27 ships of the British Royal Navy in 1805’s Battle of Trafalgar, ultimately defeating 33 ships from the combined French and Spanish navies.

But why did Nelson pick the Victory and not one of the fleet’s other ships, say, the Orion, Neptune, or Leviathan? Size. As one of the largest ships in Her Majesty’s navy, the Victory boasted three decks of cannons, with a total tally in excess of 100 guns. A ship like that radiates confidence, strength, and the ineffable quality of leadership. When a luxury carmaker builds a flagship today, it’s trying to capture that same essence of excellence. After all, as the five following examples prove, a great flagship sets the tone for an automaker’s entire line.

2009 Audi A8 W-12

Buy an Audi and you’ve separated yourself from the conservative luxury-car mainstream. Audi doesn’t rely on time-tested styling cues or the promise of thick, isolating layers of luxury to sell its cars, but instead mixes audacious design and leading-edge engineering to establish its claim to greatness. And there’s no better example of that than its top-of-the-line A8 W-12 flagship.

When Audi introduced the first-generation, V-8–powered A8 in 1994 it pioneered the use of an aluminum space frame in a luxury vehicle and, of course, it included the company’s signature Quattro all-wheel-drive system. When the second A8 came around in 2005, it upped the technological stakes by topping the range with a new model powered by a 450-hp, 12-cylinder engine arranged in a unique W configuration—essentially two narrow-angle V-6s with a common crank.

But 2008’s mid-cycle update of the A8 finally brought the car the slick styling its tech merits. The huge, blunt front grille announces the car’s presence as if it was a giant exclamation point and emphasizes the A8’s aggressive haunches and sleek roofline. Those themes carry on inside where the designers have applied wood veneers liberally and incorporate large center consoles front and rear. It all makes for the most avant garde luxury flagship available.

Target Customer: Germany’s best-dressed CEO.

2009 BMW 7-Series

For decades, BMW has sold itself as the maker of “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” So, obviously, the company’s flagship 7-series must deliver precise and engaging road manners along with all the substance and presence of a dreadnought-class luxury sedan.

Despite the 7’s size, it’s designed pretty much like any other BMW sedan. That means the overall unibody structure is similar to its little brothers, and so is the speed-sensitive variable rack-and-pinion steering. The 7-series may be bigger than other BMW sedans, but it’s still a BMW sedan. The 400-hp, 4.4-liter, twin-turbocharged V-8 under the 750i’s and 750Li’s hood is the same engine used in the beefy X6.

Except for issues of scale, the 7-series does in fact drive like a BMW. The steering is beautifully weighted, the suspension expertly mixes dignity and athleticism, the V-8 enthusiastically dispenses torque at any engine speed, and the six-speed automatic transmission works perfectly. The 7-series always delivers an authentic BMW driving experience.

Target Customer: The Belgian delegation to the World Bank.

2009 Jaguar XJ

At first glance, it would seem that Jaguar has been building the same large sedan for the last 40 years. Despite such high-tech elements as an all-aluminum monocoque chassis and body shell and a 4.2-liter V-8 making 300 hp when naturally aspirated or 400 when supercharged, the current Jaguar XJ looks pretty much like the original XJ6 introduced way back in 1968. And, well, it’s not like the old XJ6 didn’t itself look like some even older Jags.

Old-world as the XJ looks on the outside, it’s the old-world sensations on the inside that make the XJ compelling. Open any door and its tough not to be floored by aroma of leather so supple and creamy you want to spread it on toast. Then there are the utterly gorgeous wood veneers on the dash and doors from the world’s most-burled walnut forest. Finally, the floors are covered by carpets so velvety they feel like your favorite bath towel. The XJ in all expressions is a sensualist’s delight; it’s the sort of car that should be driven to feasts and orgies.

Target Customer: Caligula

2009 Lexus LS

Lexus’s LS-series sedans have long been highly regarded for their effortless ease, brilliant silence, and impregnable build quality. They’ve also been disparaged for being somewhat soulless. Technology lies at the core of both that praise and criticism.

The LS460, for instance, backs its direct-injection, 380-hp, 4.6-liter V-8 with the world’s first eight-speed automatic transmission and uses an advanced “Adaptive Variable Suspension” to smother any road divots that might intrude into the cabin. But topping that is the LS600hL, the first gas-electric hybrid flagship sedan.

In place of the LS460’s powerplant, the LS600hL gets a 5.0-liter version of the same V-8 and a supplementary electric motor to up the total pony count to 438. All that power is channeled through a continuously variable transmission and then out to an all-wheel-drive system. And while the LS460 is merely an “Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle,” the LS600hL is a “Super Ultra Low Emissions” machine. Additionally, if selected, either LS can park itself (or try, anyway).

Granted, the LS600hL’s fuel-economy advantage over the plain old LS460 is debatable—the hybrid is rated at 20 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway, while the conventional LS460 runs 16 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway. And, if anything, the LS600hL’s driving experience is even more remote and isolating than the “lesser” LS models. But it’s the only flagship around with the word “hybrid” glued to the bottom edge of its rear doors.

Target Customer: A world leader who wants to announce his virtue without compromising his appetites. You know, Al Gore.

2009 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

From the three-pointed star topping its grille through its fluted taillights, the Mercedes-Benz S-class sedan is uncompromisingly iconic, as is the decadence inside. When it comes to coddling passengers, this is the car all others are aiming for, and in every dazzling detail, it’s obvious that Mercedes is aware of that.

Every conceivable indulgence is available on the S-class, and many of those now included on competitors debuted on Mercedes’s flagship. The glass reflects infrared rays and is double thick to reduce noise. There are window shades aboard for the rear and rear side windows. The 14-way power adjustable front thrones can be heated and ventilated and, beyond that, equipped with “drive dynamic” bolstering that actually moves to hold occupants in the seats. And those occupants want to be held there since the seats are also available with four-stage massage functionality. There’s an available night-view system and the “Distronic” cruise control not only adjusts your speed to keep pace with the car in front of you, but will slow the Mercedes all the way to a stop. Of course, all the usual stuff is standard: power everything, a navigation system that knows all the quick routes from the world’s Ritz-Carltons to the world’s financial centers, and a stereo system that sounds better than six of the world’s top ten philharmonic orchestras.

Diesel and six-cylinder engines are available in the S-class in Europe, but here in North America the choices are limited to two V-8s (the 382-hp, 5.5-liter in the S550 and snarling 518-hp, 6.2-liter from the S63 AMG) and two twin-turbocharged V-12s (making 510 hp in the S600 and an epic 604 hp in the S65 AMG). Power, after all, is the ultimate luxury, and no luxury sedan on earth provides it more abundantly than the S-class.

Target Customer: The three guys on Wall Street who dodged the real-estate derivatives crash.