The arrival this fall of the technology-laden 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 will set off a new debate about who is at the peak of the premium luxury pecking order. Mercedes will have a strong argument. The $100,000 sedan is festooned with more gadgets and gizmos than a Christmas tree has ornaments, all in an effort to keep M-B ahead of top-shelf rivals BMW, Audi, and Lexus. One ranking will not be in dispute, however: As it has since 1972, the S-class sedan will remain the flagship of the Mercedes car line: the grandest, lushest, and most prestigious car coming out of Stuttgart. Flagship cars represent the pinnacle of achievement for a particular brand. They set the tone for an entire line. They are not to be confused with halo cars -- attention-getting though often impractical designs intended to draw customers into a showroom but that few people are expected to buy. The Mercedes SLR is a halo car; the S-class is the flagship. As sales accelerate in the U.S, and particularly in China, more attention is being paid to flagships as an attraction for upscale customers. A look at recent developments:
Mercedes S550: Reigning flagship
As the reviewer from Car & Driver pointed out, the new S-class has features you never knew you needed, like two gear ratios for reverse, a hot stone massage setting for the rear seats, and high-strength air conditioning specially for North American customers. The price of leadership is steep -- just short of six figures. But then thinking ahead for its customers is what keeps Mercedes at the head of the prestige pack: Sales of the outgoing model were actually higher during the past six months than they were in 2012.
Cadillac: Promising flagship
The aspiration brand from General Motors (GM) has been sending out conflicting signals. First came word that Cadillac would not be putting out a flagship based on the Ciel, a drop-top four-door show car. At some $100,000 a copy, the proposed vehicle was deemed economically unfeasible. But then came reports that Cadillac is still developing a top-of-the line four-door to put up against the Germans and Japanese. Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson confirmed its existence in an interview with USA Today in July. The car will be based on the 2014 Cadillac CTS (above), be available in an all-wheel drive configuration, and will be positioned above Cadillac's current flagship, the XTS. Look for it in late 2016.
Volkswagen Phaeton: Tarnished flagship
Less a sales success in the U.S. during its run from 2004 to 2006, the Phaeton nevertheless has remained in production since then and now will be returning to America. Industry scuttlebutt has VW unveiling a 2015 model making a debut in January at the Detroit auto show -- at the insistence of Chairman Martin Winterkorn, who has declared that a brand as popular as VW needs a flagship vehicle. The Phaeton was well-reviewed in its debut appearance and was viewed as a value play. How the new car will bridge the still-yawning price gap with the rest of VW's product line -- a major stumbling block the first time around -- is yet to be determined.
Acura RLX: Wannabe flagship
Long an underachiever in the luxury car wars, Acura tried shock treatment earlier this year when it launched the all-new RLX sedan, replete with such features as all-wheel steering and a slew of control-seizing safety devices But having sold just a few more than 1,500 units since the beginning of the year, the RLX is proving sadly inadequate at flying Acura's brand flag. Blame it on an anonymous profile that commands no attention, along with an absence of a V-8 engine or rear-drive platform. Honda's (HMC) Acura brand will likely command more attention with the halo from the $100,000 NSX supercar due next year.
Range Rover: All-weather flagship
The stately Range Rover, with its unmistakable profile, immense girth, and royal associations, practically screams flagship. While the product range that it tops is comparatively slight (Evoque, LR2, LR4, Sport), the Range Rover's distinguished history (dating from 1948) and unmatched brand identity make it exemplary. With a base price of $83,000 and more off-road capability than anyone really needs, the Range Rover is nobody's idea of practicality -- which makes this fourth-generation model, the first produced by India's Tata, all the more appealing.
Infiniti Q80: Future flagship
Infiniti hasn't produced a true flagship since the late, lamented Q45 went out of production in 2006. Now Johan de Nysschen, who was poached from Audi, has announced that it will be developing a vehicle for the 2018 model year that will sit above the current M56 (above) in the Infiniti product line. There's no word on whether it will be adopt the V-8 power and rear-drive of the old Q, but chances are it will not be saddled with the belt-buckle front emblem and rocks-and-trees advertising campaign of the car, either.
Hyundai Equus: Economical flagship
Hyundai upgraded its top-shelf contender with underdog credentials for 2014 with a restyled grille and headlamps, a refined suspension, and a redecorated interior. With its V-8 powered rear-drive platform, an array of luxury features and fittings, and superior fit and finish, Equus flaunts everything except a prestige nameplate and premium price (it starts at $61,000). Exclusivity is guaranteed however: Sales are running at 200 a month.
Lincoln: Invisible flagship
In its search for seams in its competitors' defenses, Lincoln has declined to fight the flagship wars. It wants to go after younger buyers who don't yearn for a big, expensive sedan, and due to its decision to stick with Ford's (F) One World product plan, it lacks a proper rear-drive or V-8 engine anyway. Too bad. Whether under a Lincoln or Continental badge, it has produced memorable designs both under Edsel Ford (1939) and his son, William Clay Ford (1955).
Lexus LS 460: Quiet flagship
Even though it claimed half of its 6,000 parts were new, Toyota's (TM) Lexus unit failed to set the world on fire when it updated its flagship LS 460 for the 2013 model year. Most of the enthusiast attention was focused on the F Sport performance variant and the outgoing LFA supercar. But then Lexus was never one to raise its voice, even when its sales-rate these days is well short of a thousand LS cars a month -- a quarter of the number it sold during the early '90s.
Maserati Quattroporte: Fashion flagship
Maserati rolled out a new range-topper for the 2014 model year that seemed to shave some of the spikier points from its Italian personality in favor of a more generalized appeal. It's bigger, with more width and wheelbase, but blander. Reviewers were especially critical of interior bits that seemed to come straight from Chrysler's parts bin. But how can you not love a car that flaunts its fashionability by offering 13 color choices for stitching, 11 for the seat piping, and 10 for the steering wheel?
Audi A-8: Senior flagship I
Though it was introduced as long ago as 2009, the A8 seems as modern as today, with its aluminum frame and all-wheel drive, while affordable with a price that starts at $75,100. The next-gen model isn't due until 2016.
BMW 7-series: Senior flagship II
BMW's 7-series is equally aged as the Audi and also gets a redo in 2016 when the application of large doses of carbon fiber squeeze as much as 500 pounds off its weight. In the meantime, $73,600 can get you into a 2013 model.