KINGFIELD, Maine - It's not as lonely at the top as it used to be. In fact, in a few years, the market for cars priced $100,000 and up will be downright crowded.
Four 2001 models based on the S class are the latest entries in the segment from Mercedes-Benz: two V-12s and two souped-up V-8s. The V-12s are the CL600 coupe at $117,845 and the flagship S600 sedan at $114,645. The V-8s are the high-performance CL55 AMG coupe, $100,145; and the S55 AMG sedan, $98,645. All prices include transportation.
The V-12s went on sale in September in the United States, and the AMG-modified V-8s will be available next month.
The CL600 and the S600 are priced considerably lower than the cars they replace - $20,100 less for the coupe, and $20,200 for the sedan. That's because the new S class is less complicated, and therefore less expensive to build - despite such gee-whiz standard features as Active Body Control, a hydraulic suspension that keeps the body flat around curves.
The new V-12 engine is a single-overhead-cam powerplant with three valves per cylinder, instead of the dual-overhead-cam engine with four valves per cylinder in the previous generation.
Mercedes also held down the sticker price, relatively speaking, by making a couple of over-the-top features optional, such as a power trunk closer that closes the lid from the fully open position, and intelligent cruise control. Mercedes also deleted power rear seats, which were a feature on the old S class.
Despite their rarified stickers, the cars essentially are sold out. The U.S. sales and marketing subsidiary has more than 1,000 orders on hand for each of the four new models, equal to their allocation.
'The order bank is there, but the question is whether we can get the cars out of (the factory in) Sindelfingen,' said Brendan Harrington, S-class product specialist, in an interview at the cars' press introduction here.
Although an annual volume of 1,000 sounds small, it represents a big increase over 1998, the last full calendar year in which the old S600 and CL600 were available in the United States. The company sold 334 S600s and only 242 CL600s that year.
The strong demand explains why Mercedes, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Porsche, Ferrari and even Volkswagen are developing new cars to sell at the extreme high end of the market, where sticker prices can easily surpass $350,000. All of the new cars are programmed to hit the market in about three years.
BOOST FOR THE SEGMENT
'There is a new orientation to the high end,' said Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, managing director of BMW's Rolls-Royce project, in an interview at the Paris auto show in September. He also is responsible for BMW's brand and product strategy.
'This segment will move out a little bit, from the exotic brands you are accustomed to seeing, like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Now you will see (the Mercedes) Maybach, BMW with Rolls-Royce, Volkswagen with Bentley, Porsche and maybe Daimler from Jaguar, if they decide to do something with this (brand). The entire segment gets a boost.'
All of the players are betting that demand still will be there when the cars hit the market, Harrington said.
'When you get to this high level of customer, there just isn't much (market research) data,' he said.
'But we do know our S-class customers, and we do know what they like. What we're hearing is, `Where can I get better leather? A better stereo system? What about more colors?' These people want the best available.'