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Rolls-Royce, Maybach Have Fingers Crossed for a Rebound

It takes a lot of optimism these days to build some of the world's most expensive luxury cars, but old rivals Mercedes-Benz and BMW keep turning them out, expecting an inevitable economic recovery.

"The global car markets and the demand for premium vehicles will rebound. This is in all the forecasts. And this is what we expect," said BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer, in a speech earlier this month to BMW shareholders.

BMW owns Rolls-Royce, which is small, of course, but so far riding out the recession better than could be expected. In the first quarter of 2009, Rolls-Royce sales of 174 units were only 4.9 percent lower than the year-ago quarter, according to BMW's first-quarter report. In the same period, unit sales for the BMW brand fell 20.5 percent to 233,498. BMW's Mini brand also fell 24.9 percent to 43,592.

Within the Rolls-Royce total, the brand's model mix has shifted away from the flagship Rolls-Royce Phantom, a four-door sedan, and towards the convertible Phantom Drophead Coupe and the hardtop Phantom Coupe. The two-door models are newer, while the sedan has been around since 2003.

Rolls-Royce also plans to add a less-expensive model about a year from now, codenamed the 200EX. "Less expensive" means an estimated $250,000 to $280,000, versus $380,000 to $434,000 for different versions of the Rolls-Royce Phantom.

Meanwhile, rival Mercedes-Benz is adding to its Maybach lineup, on the high end of the high end. The new Maybach Zeppelin gets every conceivable extra feature, a two-tone exterior paint job and a twin-turbo V-12 that generates 640 hp.

Mercedes-Benz USA expects to start taking orders for the car this summer, for delivery in early 2010. Pricing will probably be around $50,000 above the next-nearest "standard" Maybach model. That means the Maybach Zeppelin 57 model will be around $450,000.

Most Americans probably associate the word "Zeppelin" with either Led Zeppelin or the Hindenburg disaster, but it was also the name of a Maybach model in the 1930s.

At BMW, Reithofer said luxury brands must adjust for the fact that even high-end consumers are demanding greater fuel efficiency and more environmentally friendly products. He predicted that when demand rebounds, BMW's strategy of providing "premium individual mobility" will pay off in the long run. He told shareholders, "Your company has a future! It is as simple as that."

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