Limo ready for takeoff

It's the beginning of the Thanksgiving holiday. For those about to fly, I salute you.

I've logged about 2 million air miles in my career, bathed in the cabin-borne aromatics and aerosols of my fellow travelers. Not unlike Prufrock have I measured out my life with plastic coffee spoons, waiting for the pretzels to arrive.

Flying was miserable before 9/11. Now the entire flying public has to be frisked to ensure they aren't carrying anything more threatening than sharply worded memos.

If Angelenos absolutely, positively have to be in New York or Tokyo, well, flying is their lot. But what if they have to be in Las Vegas, San Francisco or Phoenix? Destinations within a 400-mile perimeter constitute a kind of zone of exasperation, in which it might actually be faster to drive than to fly. For example, from the downtown offices of the Los Angeles Times, it can take an hour to get to LAX. Another hour to check in and get to the plane. Plus, an hour-and-a-quarter gate to gate. And -- in this example, which you will see is not so theoretical -- another hour from SFO to the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Or 4 hours and 15 minutes of scrambling, bag-lugging misery in the company of icky and odiferous strangers. Present company excepted, of course.

Enter the Maybach 62, DaimlerChrysler's $358,000 super-limousine.

This car, 20 feet long, 3 tons, 550 turbocharged horsepower, is designed for high-speed, low-altitude, intra-nodal transit. It is essentially a four-wheeled corporate jet.

To appreciate how the Maybach compares with air travel, I arranged for the car to transport me and a passenger -- my sweetheart, Tina Larsen, in the role of the inappropriately affectionate secretary -- from the Times offices to San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. Starting time: 9:15 a.m. on a recent Monday. Our chauffeur was Geno Effler, a DaimlerChrysler executive based in Costa Mesa. For our experiment, Effler consented to be called "James" -- as in, "Home, James," or, "Damn you, James, we're out of Cristal!"

9:15 a.m. Like most car geeks, I always drive -- if I could take over for cab drivers I would. So it takes awhile for me to settle into the passivity of being chauffeured.

And yet as Effler expertly fillets slower traffic on the I-5 with the mighty Maybach, and I watch idly from behind the enormous, acoustically silenced, infrared-shielded side windows, a silly happiness overtakes me: This is fun. Don't spare the horses!

First, Tina and I play with the gadgets. We deploy the folding tables, fiddle with the 600-watt stereo system with its cordless Bose headphones, run through the TV channels, watching on the seatback-mounted LCD screens. As usual, Tina is better at figuring out the complexities of the remote control.

One of the most fascinating devices onboard is the panoramic roof that switches from transparent to a kind of milky opaque at the touch of a button. Also, the panoramic roof has a kind of inner eyelid that, once closed, glows with electro-luminescent ambient light.

But I am disappointed. The car's sterling silver champagne flutes engraved with the "MM" (Maybach Motoren) are missing. It crosses my mind to have Effler flogged.

Tina asks me what "Maybach" means. The name belongs to Wilhelm Maybach and his son Karl. The former was the partner of Gottlieb Daimler, with whom he essentially invented the modern automobile in the form of the famous Jellinek Mercedes, circa 1900. Karl built high-output engines for the Graf Zeppelin airship company, which was a splendid business until the end of World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles banned Germany from the aviation business.

In response, Karl, with his father advising, threw his efforts into autos. The Maybach company became the Rolls-Royce of Germany, famed for its precision, unsurpassed quality and technical achievement. Based on the shores of beautiful Lake Constance, the firm also built high-output diesel engines for trains and tracked vehicles and was a key supplier to the Nazi war machine.

After the war, Maybach Motoren staggered on, building heavy-duty engines for international customers. In 1960, Daimler-Benz acquired a majority stake in Maybach Motoren. In 1969, the firm's name was changed to MTU (Motoren und Turbinen-Union). MTU continues to build world-class power plants for industrial and nautical applications. Meanwhile, Daimler-Benz put the Maybach name in its vest pocket.

In the late 1990s when the DaimlerChrysler board decided to build a super-luxury saloon car, it resurrected the name. According to the company, a small percentage of elite Mercedes customers wanted something more exclusive than the three-pointed star, found on everything from industrial trucks to European minicars. Few marques could be more exclusive than Maybach. Or obscure.

Conjuring the old Maybach marque was a gamble. Whereas the names Rolls-Royce and Bentley have almost universal brand awareness -- hence German giants BMW's and VW Group's purchase of the decrepit old British firms -- virtually no one outside Pebble Beach knew who Maybach was.

The marque remains something of a mystery in America, despite the car's spectacular coming-out party in July 2002, when it was flown by helicopter from the deck of the Queen Elizabeth II to Wall Street. Last year, DaimlerChrysler board member Jurgen Hubbert confidently predicted worldwide sales of the built-to-order super saloon to be 1,000 per year. DaimlerChrysler won't release sales figures, but it's clear sales are well off the expected pace.

10:15 a.m. We pass the green iridescence of Pyramid Lake, deep in the vaulting highlands of Los Padres National Forest. The Maybach 62 (the designation refers to its length of 6.17 meters) is an enormous car, with an official curb weight of 6,281 pounds, one supermodel away from the scale-busting Hummer H2's 6,400 pounds.

The old Maybachs were similarly imposing. In the lobby of the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, Germany, is a Maybach Zeppelin DS8, a 12-cylinder leviathan with waist-high wheels and a hood the size of a conference table.

As big as it is, the new Maybach takes no notice of the long, steep freeway inclines that leave the big rigs gasping. Under the hood is a 5.5-liter, twin-turbocharged V-12 engine producing 550 horsepower and a globe-turning 664 pound-feet of torque from 2,300 to 3,000 rpm. This is an unholy amount of force; creating the sensation of sheer, effortless propulsion, a kind of x-axis weightlessness. Effler has the car locked on 85 mph, and the Maybach doesn't even seem to take a breath as it ascends a hill.

11 a.m. We are on the floor of the San Joaquin Valley. The endless rows of crops fan by. I study the bizarre ingenuity of the region's water-management system: The California Aqueduct appears out of nowhere, a lazy river with concrete banks, with the feed pipes plunging through the mountain rock like a roller coaster. I see migrant pickers gathered in clumps around orange groves or far out into fields of Brussels sprouts. I think about Frank Norris' "The Octopus" and John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."

I ponder the mysteries of class. Born poor and almost certain to die that way, I consider myself a class loyalist, proudly proletariat. In any dispute between management and labor, I'm on labor's side. Yet with such blandishments as the Maybach, the ruling classes could have me if they really wanted. Even though I'm not cruising at 30,000 feet, the little people don't look any bigger from here.

Tina is napping.

11:45: Lunch at the Kettleman's Ranch. Huevos rancheros. A quick time-distance calculation: 176.5 miles in 2.5 hours, for an average speed of 70 mph.

The truth is much of the Maybach is wasted in the speed-limited U.S. With its deep drawn transaxle, semiactive air suspension, Z-rated tires, 40-gallon fuel tank and mighty power plant, this car can glide at 155 mph, its governed top speed, for as long as the fuel holds out. Think Munich to Berlin, or Cairo to Mecca. At such speeds its logistical benefits multiply. It does not seem much of a stretch to imagine some wealthy Swiss banker ditching his private plane in favor of the Maybach.

12:45 p.m. Back on the road. The Maybach 62's signature feature is the two first-class airline seats in the rear cabin. The seats themselves are kinematic wonders, reclining to 47 degrees and equipped with thigh and foot support, multiadjustable headrests, seat heating, ventilation through the perforated leather upholstery and lumbar massage, and all of it wrapped in grand nappa leather softer than a rabbit's nose.

But for all its size and cost, the Maybach 62 is a two-passenger car -- well, two passengers who count. If I were in a position of power and authority -- and I think we can breathe easier knowing I'm not -- the thing that would most attract me to the Maybach is something you won't find in its multivolume owner's manual. Privacy.

Where else can you get hours alone with a business partner, or rival, to hash out differences? From its teleconference-capable AV system and dual phones to its boardroom quiet, the Maybach is about business, or more specifically, the art of the deal.

Turn off the phones. Close the rear window curtain. Raise the optional partition's retractable window. It's mano a mano, executive style.

Our test car does not have the optional partition. Tina and I behave ourselves.

1:45 p.m. Effler wheels the big car onto West 152, passing along the timbered north shore of the San Luis Reservoir and onto the tawny grasslands. We pass through Gilroy, garlic capital of the world, and Effler switches the climate filtration system to vent so we can smell the air.

2:15 p.m. Tina and I watch "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" on the car's DVD system. The car's vibe soaks into my skin. The French cherry woodwork, as fine as Chippendale marquetry. The piano-black switches. The quiet like cotton in the ears. Overhead, three aircraft-style gauges keep the passengers informed of speed, time and temperature. And thus in this gondola of privilege we cruise. Effler, tending to his company's $350,000 hardware, is soldier straight and eyes forward.

2:45 p.m. God, I'm comfortable. Must sleep.

3:30 p.m. We pass within sight of San Francisco's airport.

3:55 p.m. We arrive at the Fairmont Hotel on Mason Street. Elapsed time: 6 hours, 40 minutes, with an hour for lunch. Distance: 383.7 miles, for an average speed of 58 mph.

In conclusion: To say the Maybach 62 is a special piece of machinery is like saying Rita Hayworth was somewhat photogenic. There is no car like it. Had we flown commercially, we probably would have saved two hours, but in my opinion those two hours were much better spent in the Maybach.

Life is too short to be in such a hurry.

Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

*

2004 Maybach 62

Wheelbase: 150.7 inches

Length: 242.7 inches

Curb weight: 6,281 pounds

Powertrain: Twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter, 36-valve V-12, five-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 550 at 5,250 rpm

Torque: 664 pound-feet at 2,300 to 3,000 rpm

Acceleration: Zero to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds

EPA rating: 12 miles per gallon city, 17 highway

Price, base: $358,000

Price, as tested: $358,000

Competitor: Learjet 35

Final thoughts: Low-orbit boardroom

Source: DaimlerChrysler

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