In a stunning new chapter of Mercedes-Benz's expansion in North America, the automaker plans to build an ultraluxe Maybach model exclusively at its plant in Alabama, where the rarefied sedan nameplate will be applied to an SUV.
The new Maybach, based on the all-new third-generation GLS platform, would be the most expensive passenger vehicle made in America. The model is expected to be priced at about $200,000, sources said.
The unibody Mercedes-Maybach GLS would be powered by a 560-plus hp V-8 engine and likely debut in China this year and go on sale early next year.
Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Dietmar Exler described the Maybach GLS as a "halo car."
The Maybach brand "stands for luxury," Exler told Automotive News. "It will help build the Mercedes brand, no question."
Mercedes hopes to introduce the Maybach brand across different models, just as it has done with its AMG performance brand.
"We'll logically extend it where it makes sense," Exler said. "I cannot imagine you will have a Maybach A class. But on the top luxury cars, to have the luxury edition makes a whole lot of sense for us."
Mercedes' strategic move comes as the auto industry's flashiest brands roll out SUVs for the price of starter homes, lured by beefy margins and the prospect of younger buyers. With Aston Martin and Ferrari joining Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini, the global market for ultraluxury SUVs should grow from around 7,500 last year to above 20,000 by 2023, according to AutoForecast Solutions. About 75 percent of these vehicles will be sold in the U.S. and China.
A Maybach GLS is well-timed, as consumers around the world shift to the SUV body style as their preferred vehicle and as high-net-worth populations surge, said Tim Urquhart, an analyst in London with IHS Markit.
"Luxury SUVs are taking off," Urquhart said. "It's what a big section of the market wants."
An SUV also could help freshen Maybach's brand. The Mercedes-Maybach S sedan is associated with older demographics of the high-end market.
Sedans are perceived by many consumers to be old-fashioned, said Ed Kim, automotive analyst at AutoPacific.
"The ultra-high-net-worth kids want something different, and these ultraluxury SUVs certainly fit that," he said.
IHS' Urquhart sees strong demand from America's Instagram-obsessed celebrities and sports stars.
"The U.S. market pretty much revived the G class, the G wagon and the AMG variants of that," Urquhart said. The Maybach GLS will "appeal to the Kardashians and hip-hoppers, if they want something slightly different to the G wagon."
Ultraluxury SUVs, which often share platforms with much less expensive vehicles, are cash cows for automakers. The $165,000 Bentley Bentayga, for instance, shares a platform with the $53,550 Audi Q7.
SUVs generate the revenue that funds the r&d of the flagship sports cars that premium automakers have built their brands on, Kim said. "Without Cayenne, Porsche would not have the kind of money available to make 911s," he said.