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A Maybach around the Nürburgring – evo Retro

The Maybach was Mercedes’ ultimate limo for the new millennium, so what the hell were we thinking in 2003 when we took one to the Nürburgring?

One minute the inner lobby of Stuttgart’s Imperial Hotel is bathed in early morning summer sunshine; the next minute it’s as if God has accidentally knocked the sun’s dimmer switch. Something very large has come to a halt just outside the hotel, throwing the lobby into shade. I believe the Maybach has arrived.

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If you’ve never seen a Maybach in the metal, I can promise you this: it’s at least twice as big as you thought it was. Honestly, nothing else comes close. If you parked one next to a tacky American stretchy, it would be like comparing a giant Sun Seeker with a British narrow boat. They come in two sizes too: extra large (I’m really quite well-off) and jumbo (I’m seriously rich). Ours is a jumbo – the 6.17-metre-long Maybach 62 – and it’s arrived with a besuited driver called Hanns, so I’ll be able to enjoy both driving and passengering. All I have to do is explain to Hanns where we want to go…

> 231mph Ultima GTR640 on the Isle of Man – evo Retro

The Maybach’s styling has always been contentious, but something it has never lacked is presence. As we fill the boot/loading bay outside the hotel, a growing crowd of seriously impressed ‘suits’ give photographer David Shepherd and me a rare taste of celebrity status. If only they knew.

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As we leave the urban crawl of Stuttgart, Hanns is struggling to get his head round the idea that we want to take this near-three-ton monster to the Nürburgring. Hanns would much rather show us to some nice old buildings he knows, park the Maybach next to them, take some nice photos. Instead we want to take it to the most challenging racing circuit in the world and drive it round as fast as it will go. Thinking about it, he may have a point. 

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But hey, at its launch in 2002 this was the most powerful road car this side of a Ferrari Enzo. Residing somewhere up front is a 5.5-litre twin-turbo V12 pumping out a ridiculous 542bhp and a seriously useful 664lb ft of torque at a very leisurely 2300rpm. Even in something the size of small bungalow, that should make for some fairly exciting laps. As we head for the Eifel mountains, we’ll find out soon enough.

I do feel a bit of a fraud lounging around in the back of the Maybach. Normally I’d head straight for the driver’s perch, but the thought of guiding well over 20ft of Maybach through Germany’s morning rush-hour isn’t particularly appealing, so I snuggle down into one of the most cossetting passenger seats ever produced; there isn’t a corporate backside yet created that won’t get comfy in here. 

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I’ve never felt this pampered in a car before. My colleague Mr Shepherd isn’t such a fan of the extending footrest that telescopes out of the seat, though he is rather taken with the down-filled, super-soft suede pillows attached to the headrests. A hundred miles just slide past.

Hanns snaps us out of our slumbers by giving the accelerator an extra squeeze as we pass a delimited autobahn sign. In a flash the roof-mounted speedo (perfect for spying on what your driver’s getting up to) is showing 200kph (124mph). Where did that come from? There wasn’t a hint of protest from the engine room, no growling exhaust, no wheezing as twelve overworked pistons rushed for the red line, just seamless thrust. This is a very, very quick car and, after this stunning demonstration of horsepower, I decide it’s time to pull rank on Hanns. I want a go.

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As I settle into the captain’s chair, I’m a little underwhelmed by the cockpit. The surroundings seem a little too familiar. Maybe the wood is a few notches up on the shiny scale, and there are a few extra buttons beside the auto selector, but otherwise it’s standard-issue Mercedes S-class

It’s a two-hour drive to the Ring, so says the Dynamic Navigation system, which has the ability to display traffic jams on its map and calculate the quickest journey time taking this information into consideration. Cutting-edge stuff in the early noughties. We soon fall into a near-silent cruise, close-ish to the prevailing 130kph (80mph) limit. This is a bit weird, though: take your foot off the accelerator and you’re still doing 130kph, the car seemingly unfussed by the 90mph headwind. Something to do with the near-three-ton kerb weight and relatively slippery shape I reckon, as we continue to blast through central Germany.

Hanns reminds us that parts of the German autobahn system are now continuously limited to 130kph thanks to the rise of the Green party, these days a powerful political force in Germany. Fortunately they don’t control the whole motorway system and soon another derestriction sign looms into view. 

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As the accelerator is firmly mashed into the thick Wilton, the big V12 sighs, then huffs, and the Maybach sculpture attached to the end of the bonnet bounces into the air as if it was attached to a springy diving board as the speedo needle does a quick-step round the outer reaches of the dial. In a trice 140 becomes 200, and 200 becomes 240 – that’s 150mph – before traffic brings us back down to 220. This is silly – there’s no noise, just a slight ruffling of airflow around the C-pillars together with a feeling of complete and utter effortlessness – but then I’ve never driven a three-ton hot-rod before. Lord knows what it would run to if the 250kph limiter wasn’t there. A reputable German magazine has timed the Maybach 62 at 13sec dead to 100mph, with 80-100mph in 4.2sec, which puts it in the same territory as the contemporary (E46) M3.

It does feel a bit remote, though, the steering wheel purely a guiding device, but then the whole car has been designed to cosset the passengers rather than pamper the driver; feelsome steering  wasn’t exactly a priority during the design process. 

As we peel off the autobahn towards the Nürburgring on a gently curving slip road, the car gives me a sudden reality check: I’ve only driven this beast in a straight line so far and this cornering stance doesn’t feel very nice. True, I’ve got the suspension on full Comfort mode, but the roll angle is approaching 2CV proportions (I’ve been there and I wouldn’t recommend it). Right now it’s like being in one of those comedy custom cars that leap about on their adjustable suspension legs, and the two on the port side are fully extended. Right now I can’t quite believe we’re about to lap the Nordschleife either. The Maybach appears to be not only excessively overweight but allergic to corners, too. It occurs to me that this could all end in tears.

To calm the nerves we go off and check the action from one of the viewing areas scattered around the track, but a few minutes of watching camouflaged cars burst through the trees, pro drivers hurling them from apex to apex, only makes me feel worse. There’s even a Carrera GT lapping here today – the sound of its V10 alone has made the trip worthwhile – along with a thunderous AMG C55. No-one’s going to notice the Maybach going round with this lot out there, are they?

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We’re on in 30 minutes so it’s time to pop the brave pills and buy a ticket. How many laps shall we have? Two, perhaps? We should get further than that before something expires. On the other hand, ten might be pushing it too far. I settle for six, which should give us about an hour on track.

When I get back to the paddock, there’s a crowd around the Maybach. Judging by the knowing smirks on their faces, I get the feeling that they think I’m on day release from the asylum. Hanns is doing an excellent job of keeping them entertained with some fascinating Maybach facts: 600 watts of music power with surround sound for every seat in the house; rear lights that house a total of 528 LEDs; a 0.5 square-metre solar panel above the driver to power part of the ventilation system, so air can be circulated even when the car’s parked; seven separate electric motors in every seat; aluminium rear doors that can be power closed via a switch in the roof… The list just goes on.

And now there’s nothing else for it. It’s time to don the helmet and venture out of the now-crowded paddock. Oh God this is embarrassing – I can’t get out. The paddock was empty when we arrived, but we’ve since been hemmed in by various 911s and the like. Good old Hanns gets them to shuffle out of the way and at last I escape the throng and line up at the barrier. I choose position three on the damper control (Comfort, Normal and Ring, perhaps?), poke the ticket into the machine, and the barrier rises to let me through. Next obstacle – they’ve laid out some cones to stop you racing away, but they’re arranged for cars somewhat smaller than the Maybach. One final wriggle and I’m finally on my way, hoofing down the straight to the sound of David giggling in the back. 

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There’s no danger of getting lost on the 13 miles or so of twisting, swooping tarmac – the satnav has the Ring fully mapped, so I even have a crib sheet in the middle of the dash to work from. After just a few corners my concern that we may have bitten off more than the Maybach can chew starts to melt away. The leviathan pulls itself together and settles into a rhythm that’s considerably faster than I was expecting, the initial lurch as we pitch for the apex much calmer now that the dampers are stiffer, while the distant rear seems happy to take its lead from where the front is heading, which is excellent news. 

We’re taking up an awful lot of track, though, as we power on towards the far side of the circuit. Fortunately there doesn’t seem to be much other traffic about. As we arrive at the famous Karussell and dive into the concrete ditch, the car judders as the power seemingly disappears. Turns out I’ve left the ESP on and the Maybach can’t work out what’s going on. Understandable really. You don’t often fling a car into a ditch on purpose. I decide that since the Maybach actually appears to handle, we can do without the safety net of ESP from now on. 

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After all the twists that make up a lap of the Nordschleife, it’s almost a shock to arrive at the long start/finish straight. The car slips into a higher gear and simply devours the space between us and the pull-in that leads back to the barrier. We swing round and find an excitable Hanns, who’s been timing us with his watch. ‘You’ve only been gone eight minutes!’ he shouts. Maybe a tad optimistic, but it was a whole lot quicker than I’d have thought possible.

David jumps out to take some shots from trackside and I line up for another go. I blast off down the first straight, quicker this time, and into the first fiddly section. The Maybach could understeer for Germany, especially on the downhill sections, but it picks up so much speed on the straights that corner entry speed requires serious concentration. 

I can’t quite believe I’ve still got brakes either. I’m desperately trying to give them an easy time, but three tons takes a lot of stopping. Fortunately the Maybach has monster stoppers: 376mm discs up front, fitted with two four-pot calipers each side. They give you amazing confidence, though it helps to scrub off speed by unsettling the car through trail-braking into the corner. Tyre squeal is available in any variety you like, from a polite squeak from the run-flat Michelins to full-on, tortured howling as chunks of rubber try to break loose from the overworked carcasses.

It’s difficult to avoid clipping the kerbs with a wheelbase of 12ft, but the suspension copes so well with the sudden compression that I start to do it more and more. A few bikers catch me up and pull terrific wheelies as they go past, yet the Maybach holds them briefly through the corners. This is too much fun! I make myself more comfortable by switching the seat coolers on before activating the pulse function on the driver’s seat to get a gentle massage throughout the lap.

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As I line up for the barrier for my fifth lap, an early Bentley Continental GT is going through the gate. Now this could be fun – but the Maybach has other ideas, its dash pinging up a warning of overheating brakes. No! Not now! The pedal feels fine but I have to take it easy, using more engine braking than before and pitching the car even harder into the corners. I catch the Bentley just as the brake warning disappears from the dash; it’s as though the car knows what’s going on. I pull out to overtake as we plunge through the Flugplatz section: 542bhp, 2780kg and a downhill slope are a powerful combination, too much for the Bentley as we power past through the compression and up the other side. God knows what the driver’s thinking as he flaps around in the Maybach’s wake, but we disappear and pull out the length of the final straight by the finish. 

One lap to go. Do I pootle round to cool the brakes, or go for one more hot lap? Well, what would you do? Once again the brake warning light is on (it’s the hauling down from 140mph on the final straight that does it), once again it disappears a few minutes in, yet the power never fades so I conclude the warning is a bit premature. Once again I’m amazed at the car’s ability. It really is quite a tidy handler, nicely balanced, if a little hard to read through the lifeless steering. Far from being a nightmare, it’s been a privilege to bring a Maybach to the Ring. 

Hanns takes the wheel for the drive to the airport – we’re on a tight schedule to make the return flight, but our chauffeur knows the way and isn’t scared to use the horses. David and I discover a bottle of champagne in the fridge, and set about demolishing it before we reach the airport. 

Confession. Before today I thought the Maybach was one of the most hateful cars there’s ever been: ugly, crass and pointless. As we spear down the autobahn at 230-250kph, sipping the cooled fizz, I’m not so sure. This is a truly amazing way to travel. The ride has reverted to Comfort now and there isn’t a ripple to be felt. The big reclining seats may be a bit naff, but they’re a damn sight more comfortable than a Rolls’s rear bench over long distances. I’ve even become used to the car’s looks. It may not be to British tastes, but think of its more natural markets and it starts to make sense. 

And then there’s the surprising turn of speed. Maybach conquers the Green Hell. Can I make a nomination for evo’s next Trackday Car of the Year test?

Maybach 62 specs

EngineV12, 5513cc, twin turbo
Power542bhp @ 5250rpm
Torque664lb ft @ 2300-3000rpm
Weight2780kg
Power-to-weight198bhp/ton
0-62mph5.4sec
Top speed155mph
Price new£281,380 (2003)
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