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Rolls-Royce vs. Maybach

We test two top luxury cruisers to see which you'd want to buy. Almost as if you could afford it.

April 4, 2006; Posted: 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT)

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer
Rolls_Royce Phantom
Rolls_Royce Phantom
Maybach 57S
Maybach 57S

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MONTVALE, NJ (CNNMoney.com) - You may never have the opportunity to peel out and smoke the rear tires on a $350,000 Rolls Royce Phantom, but if you ever get the chance, here's how.

First, you open the center console. Inside, there are a lot of switches, one of which you can use to turn off the car's electronic traction control. Then you press a round silver button on the steering wheel, the button with the letter "L" on it. That sets the Phantom's six-speed transmission so that it will start in first gear rather than second.

Now stomp on it.

There it is! The back end drifting to the side, noise, the smell of burning rubber, the whole deal.

OK, that was fun. But it's a bit like belching in a cathedral so you can hear the echo, isn't it? Kind of funny but... please.

The Rolls-Royce Phantom does invite that sort of treatment, though, because it is an icon of tradition, wealth and prestige. And who doesn't want to mock that?

That very iconic status creates a marketing opportunity for Rolls-Royce's major competitor, DaimlerChrysler's Maybach. After all, not everyone with a morbidly large bank account wants to rub it in the faces of the plebes. The Maybach offers an understated alternative that lacks the well-known history, but also the baggage, of Rolls-Royce.

I recently had the opportunity to travel right into the middle of this polite but nasty little war. I spent several hours driving a top-notch example of each company's product. I took the wheel of a Rolls-Royce Phantom in the morning, then a Maybach 57S after lunch.

These are the sorts of difficult decisions that extremely wealthy people have to pay other people to make for them every day. I've been there and I feel for them.

Rolls-Royce Phantom

Rolls-Royce hasn't always made truly great cars. For long periods in its history, the company made merely expensive ones. Upon taking over the brand in 1998, BMW wanted to reach back -- quite far back, actually -- and make the sort of car that made Rolls-Royce famous.

It seems to me like they pretty much nailed it. The Phantom does that thing that a Rolls-Royce has to do. It's a unique skill and no other car even comes close. The term Rolls-Royce engineers have used since the 1930s is "waftability." You do not drive the Phantom. You control it and it carries you, as if gliding over the ground, around turns, in and out of traffic.

The most remarkable thing about the Phantom, in fact, is the complete lack of any excitement whatsoever in driving it. Short of the maneuver described above or, perhaps, hitting something with it, the Phantom produces no thrills.

Ordinarily, that would sound like a bad thing. But if one chooses to drive the Phantom, one is not looking for excitement. Any car, driven fast enough, can at least scare you. The Phantom soothes even at speed. The big car simply responds to your requests, entered through the appropriately wide and spindly steering wheel. Curvy roads can be taken at a chase scene pace and the big car handles it with aplomb.

Even when the gas pedal is mashed full to the floor, the Phantom never loses its cool. In fact, the Phantom hurries up rather nicely. Under its very long hood, there's a 6.75-liter V-12 engine that can provide 453 horsepower, should you ever wish it to.

In a car like this, that sort of power helps maintain the sense of calm inside the 5,500-pound vehicle's immense cabin. The engine is strong enough that it rarely needs to tax itself, thereby creating motor noises you might actually be able to hear.

There are a few features the Phantom lacks and which one might expect on a vehicle at this price. (Well, what doesn't one expect at this price?) There is no automatic climate control, for example. I had to fiddle with knobs for the fan and temperature.

Also, the car did not have dynamic cruise control, a system that uses radar to maintain an even following distance from cars ahead on the highway. Again, that feature is available on cars costing a fraction of the Phantom's price.

Gentlemen, please, what's up with that?

Maybach 57S

The last I spent any real time in a Maybach was at the 2003 New York Auto Show. The Maybach 62 was parked at the show and I borrowed its back seat to use as my office for a couple of hours. Each of that car's back seats cost $15,000 and I think I'd pay that much just to do that again. Those were some nice seats.

While the 57 is Maybach's shorter model, it's still a very big car. Back seat passengers can stretch their legs quite nicely. And there's that electric wine cooler and a pair of silver champagne flutes. And there are special cupholders to hold the champagne flutes.

Now, this is all very nice for the passenger, but the new 57S model adds something for the driver. For just $35,000 more than the regular Maybach 57 -- a total of about $370,000 -- the 57S provides significantly increased horsepower and adjustable sports suspension.

Its 6-liter turbocharged V-12 engine produces up to 604 horsepower. That's enough to take the three-ton car to 60 miles per hour in under five seconds.

Unlike the Phantom, the Maybach 57S offers no design allusions to a bygone era of luxury. The Phantom's dash evokes a 1930s sedan. Inside, the 57S has a kind of "art-techo" look with lots of carbon fiber trim, but the cockpit is all business. The steering wheel is thick and beefy. There are lots of switches and knobs in plain view.

There is no "waftability" in the 57S. You are driving this car and you know it. Through the steering wheel, road feel is not unpleasant, but it is distinct. Charging through some of the same sections of mountain road I'd plied earlier in the Phantom, the 57S offered a very different experience.

In all, the 57S's performance is striking for a vehicle that's almost 19 feet long. But this is still a car one would buy primarily for the benefit of one's passengers. The electric wine cooler and separate entertainment systems for the back seats do nothing to help performance. But if you want the whole enchilada with extra hot sauce, this is your car. (Frankly, if it were me, I'd get the regular 57 and save my performance driving time for my Ferrari.)

Ultimately, the Maybach's charms, its size, its performance, its seemingly endless list of amenities, are measurable on the same scales used to measure other vehicles. It has more of them and bigger and faster.

The Rolls-Royce Phantom, on the other hand, plays a different game. It offers something of its very own and it may not be your cup of Earl Gray. You will definitely get looks.

But what if you do want the Rolls-Royce experience but you can't afford a real Rolls-Royce?

Sorry. It just doesn't come any cheaper.

Gallery:

Phantom and 57S inside and out

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